Brief, subjective reflections on the Tino Rangatiratanga flag

In January and February 2008 my wife and I did a road trip the length of the country, twice — from Wellington to Bluff, back to Wellington, up to Cape Reinga, and back to Wellington again. For most of the trip, we flew a small Tino Rangatiratanga flag, one of those small ones which clip onto a car window. It was partly a matter of literally “flying the flag” of my political views at this time of year — I must note, with some misgivings on her part — and partly an experiment to see what response it would get.

Photo by Adrienne Rewi.
(Photo by Adrienne Rewi — because its surprisingly hard to take a shot of your own car-flag while driving and we didn’t take one. Used without permission but with thanks — I’ll take it down on request.)

Most obviously, traffic seemed to treat us somewhat differently, though this might be down to regional and seasonal driving variations. Some cars honked, some flashed their lights or waved; others rode closer behind or seemed to overtake more aggressively. Many times I saw drivers staring or otherwise reacting with surprise at seeing a couple of Pākehā in a white station wagon flying such a flag. Truck drivers were particularly well-represented in all these reactions; the road is their territory, and visual vehicular statements of identity or loyalty mean a lot to them.

This was especially true when driving around Otago and Southland with my ZZ Top-bearded and bemulleted uncle in the car. Mostly in the South, though, people were cool but not hostile, and too polite to mention anything they might have thought. The response, both positive and negative, was strongest in the central North Island, Northland and the Bay of Plenty. In Taumarunui we got into town late and a group of local Māori were drinking and singing karaoke at the hotel where we stopped. They were intrigued and after a few friendly waves and “kia ora bro”s a couple of kuia came over to suss us out — asking us who we were, where we were from, and so on. Learning that we were from Whanganui, and that I have family connections to Jerusalem put it in context and they treated us with easy amiability. Their only mention of the flag was to remark that it was probably a pretty good guard against theft; said with warmth and irony and humour. There were several of these sort of encounters. Later, stopping for side-of-the-road hāngi on the road between Wellsford and Whangarei, the young guy gave us $2 off and claimed it was because it was the last, though I could see there was plenty left and it was only just lunch time. Especially in the Far North, and through the Bay of Plenty from Te Puke through Whakatane down to about Rotorua, Māori pedestrians and kids playing near the street would shout and point and wave. Usually, this was in run-down areas, and the people waving and shouting “chur bro!” often wore gang colours.

The “anti-theft device” line was replayed unbidden in Tauranga while visiting some in-laws, though this time in all seriousness, with none of the warmth of the Māori in Taumarunui. This was combined with a rather heated debate as to the relative merits of the Clark government, Foreshore and Seabed Act and general state of the bicultural nation. The two events were on consecutive days, and the contrast could not have been more stark.

In a couple of cases — once in Lyttelton in the carpark of the Wunderbar, and again outside a petrol station in Whitianga — we were asked by random strangers if we were Māori, and if not, why were we flying the flag. In Lyttelton this was good-natured and curious; in the other case, the question was asked with gruff suspicion, and the answer — an explanation of what the flag means and its origin — didn’t cut any ice with the chap who looked and seemed rather like Garth George. I’ve encountered that sort of reaction before — once a guy called me a “race traitor” in Molly Malone’s because I was wearing a Tino Rangatiratanga hoodie — and that one didn’t even have the flag, just the words.

But on a trip of 7,500km on the busiest roads in the country, passing through all the main population centres at the time of our national holiday, in an election year, not long after the Urewera Terra arrests and with issues of racial separatism and colonialism very squarely on the agenda, the thing which was most obvious was how little such a statement changed anything. It reiterated to me that New Zealand is a pretty tolerant and easy society, as long as that tolerance is not stretched too far. Another example of this was this evening’s “Great Debate” on Māori TV between celebrities and comedians and such folks on the moot “now is the time for Aotearoa to close the immigration gates”. I won’t spoil the result, because it really is worth watching (and I assume Māori TV will put up a video), but while the moot was robustly (and often very personally) contested, it was all done in wonderful good humour. The same good humour as of a Māori joking ruefully about Māori crime — and the opposing siege mentality the following day. Happily, I think the former predominates in this country, and provides a sound basis for the ongoing development of a bicultural — and eventually multicultural — society.


5 thoughts on “Brief, subjective reflections on the Tino Rangatiratanga flag

  1. It reiterated to me that New Zealand is a pretty tolerant and easy society, as long as that tolerance is not stretched too far.

    I think this statement applies to every society on the face of the earth, although local definitions of ‘too far’ vary.

  2. What other political experiments have you got planned for your poor wife – dressing her up as Anne Tolley and sending her to the Principals Federation Conference?

  3. Har! What a hoot Lew, goodonya. Reminds me of a book I read eons ago (“Black like me”) where a white american “coloured up” and reported on his experience (1950’s I think, you can imagine…)

    It often strikes me as ironic that pakeha see more overt racism than maori – that nervous “bigot’s glance” around the room preceding the “joke”: the tentative “have you got some maori blood?” worked-in early in an acquaintance – happily, strangely enough, becoming more common as societal acceptance for this filth wanes with every passing year (sad, but the worst racists I know are over 70 – seems to diminish with age).

    I share your optimism. The reaction to Brash’s Orewa One pointed to a putrid national reservoir of race-hate just waiting to be lanced anytime by any random opportunist – but consequent similar attempts have fallen flat, and like yourself I detect a more widespread change.

    In hindsight, I feel (and fervently hope) that Brash’s “success” was a one-off. To whit, I heard a near-identical speech from English at a conference not long before which was openly derided and ignored: and I distinctly recall several provincial editorials and widespread coverage even before Orewa One.

    At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, the above – and comments from Brownlee in “The Hollow Men” (among others), indicate that Orewa One’s “special privilege” was the first strike from NACT’s capture of the key media opinion-makers – and endless mainstream repetition of similar devious inanities such as “nanny state”, “anti-smacking” “death of democracy” and “corrupt! corrupt!” rounded out the blitzkreig to devastating electoral effect.

    Anyhoo, getting back to optimism, the kids seem alright on the whole: they don’t read the paper or listen to talkback, and maori role models nowadays are exemplary and ubiquitous. With the languid demise of the Tauranga relic set and their good ole truckin southern boys, Godzone can’t help but come right.
    I mean Left, of course.

    (anyway, well done Lew, might get one of those flags myself, nice colours and it could catch on as a symbol of hope and progression; catchphrase “new national standard” or “optimism is flagging” mmmmm…might need work on those…)

  4. ak, I’ve read Griffin’s book, but I hadn’t made the connection. As you know, the thing about this was that I wasn’t pretending to be anyone who I wasn’t — only representing it a little more overtly than usual. Another in a similar vein to Black Like Me is I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan by the mighty Stetson Kennedy.

    One of the things which worldwide responses to Obama’s run for the presidency has made clear (and in part, this was preceded by the W Bush Administration’s appointments of Powell and Rice to Secretary of State) is that civil society will, in general, no longer condone outright racism. That is to say, mainstream political actors on both sides of the ideological spectrum cleave closely to doctrines of colourblindness (at least in public) because failing to do so makes them politically vulnerable. This translates imperfectly, if at all, into policy, but that’s another matter — the point I’m trying to make is that, by and large, people think of themselves as not being racist, and respond with distaste to outright racism.

    Once it is socially and politically unacceptable to be overtly racist, much racism goes underground — such as the “Kenyan” dog-whistles and more subtle coded attacks against racial minorities. But covert racism has a harder time promulgating itself as a social norm. That’s positive.


  5. i find the red and black of the tino flag too harsh. it’s got that hardline swastika feel to it. love the polynesian wave though.

    good on ya for road testing it:) i need to do a road trip again soon. the far north and east coast (gisborne) of the nth island is about the only place i havent been.

    as for racism, i found more than ususal its cultural elitism. like if you’re in the money, it doesnt matter what “race” you are, you’re repping for the elite culture and hold bias against others based on privilege and wealth.

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