Friday, March 8, 2019

Checking Boxes

The older you get the more forms you have to fill out. And they frequently have these "race" boxes on them—check the one that most applies. I hate those boxes. I am most grateful when the directions read "check all that apply." It's interesting how the first format forces us to only claim one thing, and the other acknowledges that we can be many.

Over my life, I have filled out all these forms in different ways. Sometimes I've marked "Asian/Pacific Islander." Sometimes I've marked "White." I am happy when I get to mark both, but it's still complicated. And there was a moment in my life when these darn boxes became a huge stressor in my life.

College applications.

Me and my dad's parents at my high school graduation.
I will be talking about them soon:)
I was a great student who wasn't the greatest test taker. Now, I wasn't terrible, but my ACT score of 24 wasn't "up to snuff" for schools with tough competition in applicants. I was bemoaning this to a friend, and her reply was quite surprising.

"Oh, don't worry! You can just check the Polynesian box and you'll get in."

This statement was jarring for me. I didn't really understand why at the time, but I would hear it repeatedly from other people who knew my background. Just check the box! Free admission! It was strange, since these same people didn't even believe me when I first told them. Now they were so certain I was that I could use it on my college applications.

I spent months trying to decide if I should really check that box or not.

On the one hand, yes, I had Maori heritage. On the other, I looked white. There are a lot of other complicated things that I felt but didn't have words for at the time. I think many view diversity in college as "taking spots of more qualified just to fill a quotient." But I didn't see it that way—I didn't want to take the spot of a Pacific Islander who might have needed it? It's still hard to explain, but I think I felt like I had already been set up for success. But then that sounds like I'm judging others who might "need that spot."

Ultimately, I chose not to check the box.

I don't know what the right choice was to this day. But that was the choice I made. I didn't feel like I "deserved" to check that box for whatever reason. I wasn't allowed, not when it came to something so big. Because I didn't really belong, did I? All throughout my life to that point, people hardly believed when I spoke about my heritage. How was I supposed to explain it all through college, too? It was time to just accept that white box.

It turns out I got into that competitive school anyway. No scholarship or anything, but I got in to Brigham Young University (the LDS school of LDS schools). My parents agreed to pay for my first year. I would live at home, get a job, and save up for the next year.

So we went to campus to have lunch with Uncle Vernon, who worked in the Dean of Students office at the time. It was nice to catch up with him and we talked of my grandmother and how things were when Vernon first started school in the states. It was nice, and it helped me feel a bit less nervous to start the big adventure of university and being a baby adult.

My parents brought up the question of where to find a job on campus, and this was where things got weird for me.

"I have just the thing," Vernon said. "We'll go right after this."

I expected Vernon to take me to the job listings, but instead he marched me and my parents down to the Multicultural Student Services office. My eyes grew wide as we walked in, because I had always been told I didn't belong there (until it came time for college applications...).

Everyone greeted Vernon with smiles and hellos, as he had once worked in that office. My heart raced as people looked at me. Surely they wondered why he would bring me there. Surely they thought this was as wrong as I did. Vernon sat me and my parents down in an office with a woman named Lynette. He told her I was his cousin and that I liked to write—I might be a good fit for the magazine.

Then he left us there to go back to work.

Lynette was intimidating, but also I could tell she was someone who might teach me a lot about work and life. She told us about Eagle's Eye magazine, the student-run publication they sent out for Multicultural alumni. It was a program funded by grant money, to give multicultural students real world skills in publishing. We would write articles, interview alumni, go to multicultural events to report on them, edit and design the publication, and all that jazz.

It legit sounded like the best job I could ever dream of having in college. Up until then I pictured working in retail or being an early morning janitor on campus.

"I rarely take on freshman," Lynette said. "But this is how you apply. There are still two weeks before applications close."

"Okay." I took the application, and we left.

My parents were thrilled and thought I should apply right away. They went on and on about how it was a great opportunity and so perfect for me and all I wanted to do. I nodded though a pit was forming in my stomach. I couldn't apply for this. I shouldn't. I didn't belong in an office like that when I looked the way I did.

I dragged my feet over putting together an application and portfolio. Finally, my parents noticed, and I had to come clean about how I felt. I wanted that job. But I felt like I could not apply.

My mother looked sad, but she said the exact thing I needed her to say, "How would your grandmother feel hearing you say that you don't belong there?"

I knew what Grandma Dorothy would say, even though it had been 10 years since her death at that point. She would have done precisely what Uncle Vernon did—she would have marched me down there, and worse, would have declared my whakapapa to everyone there who was skeptical. She would have told me I was Maori because it was in my blood, and I shouldn't turn away from that part of me.

So I filled out the application for my grandmother.

I was so extra on my portfolio, sending my writing, art, and photography I'd done in high school. I nervously delivered the package to Multicultural Student Services for Lynette to look over. I figured that would be the end of it, because she rarely hired freshmen.

But I got the job, and that job shaped my college career and gave me friends and colleagues that would teach me and love me and help me grow into a better person. I still often felt like I didn't belong or was taking advantage, but in those times I remembered my grandmother and how proud she would be of me.

Me and my brother in Raglan, NZ.
That job brought many good things into my life, and ultimately connected my family back to New Zealand even more. My brother came to work at Eagle's Eye after I had graduated, and he met his wife there. She was half American, half Kiwi with dual citizenship. They moved back to Aotearoa and my brother got into med school at the university of Auckland. The full circle back to our roots began, my sister eventually moving there permanently after her Master's degree to live with her wonderful husband. They have just started med school, too.

So I took a job I was terrified to take, but that one choice brought about a series of events I'm so grateful for. My family has gone to New Zealand more than ever now that we have immediate family there. We have connected back to our heritage in a greater way than ever, and my sister-in-law has taught us so much more about our shared Maori culture.

One thing I quite love, and that is different from America, is that New Zealand doesn't do "percentages." There's no 1/16th or 1/2 or anything else. There is not a "percentage" that means you can qualify for things or not. There, it is whakapapa (genealogy) and tipuna (ancestors), it is knowing your legacy. This brings people in.

In America, it feels as if we are trying to push people out. We want them to check one box, though a growing number of people are from many backgrounds. While all of these lovely things were happening in my life, there were still not-great things happening as well.

A guy in my church group was studying agriculture, and he announced he was going to New Zealand on a work study trip.

"My grandma's from there! I'm part Maori!" I said, too excitedly. I had gotten comfortable around my diverse work environment, and I forgot momentarily that I wasn't there.

This guy literally laughed in my face. "No you're not!"

Like, not just a short scoff. A full on burst of extended laughter. Even after how far I'd come, that moment cut deep. But instead of sadness, this one garnered anger. "I am. There are a lot of Maori that look like me."

"No they don't."

"You'll see," I said. "And you'll realize what a total jerk you're being right now."

Me and my parents at my college graduation. The ones
that gave me such an interesting blend of heritage. (Maori,
Scottish, Polish, German to name a few.)
"Sure..." The guy went off on his trip, and I went on living my life. I got engaged during that time and was about one year away from finishing my degree.

The guy came back, and I planned not to talk to him at all. Soon I would be moving and I wouldn't have to see him again. But one Sunday, he came up to me. "I'm sorry, you were right. I was a total jerk. Now that I've been down there, I can see it in you."

I was stunned. This was the first time anyone had apologized for their doubt in my heritage. And it meant something that he could "see it in me" now. I choked out a "thank you."

He had seen the New Zealand view versus the American one. Allowing for all facets of one's identity, in comparison to only allowing one part to be dominant.

Another small moment comes to mind. It was about two years ago, when my husband and I were looking for an axe at a Lowe's. Yes, for real. We were planning to cut down the apple tree in our yard.  My husband wanted to use an axe because he's always had a love for dwarves. I was happy to go along. The older man helping us pick one had a familiar accent and an extensive knowledge of axes. I couldn't help but ask him, "Are you from New Zealand by chance?"

"Yeah," he said. "Glad you didn't say I was Aussie."

I laughed, well familiar with the rivalry between the two. "My grandmother was from there."

"Maori?" he asked.


"What tribe?"

"Ngapuhi," I replied. 

He smiled. "Me too. We're family."

This was said with warmth and welcome. He likely didn't know how much his simple acceptance mean to me—it was a rare thing in my life. But he knew. He understood what our shared history was.

"I just married in," my husband said jokingly. 

The man patted my husband on the shoulder, and in all sincerity said, "That means you're Maori now. Welcome to the family."

I had to hold back my tears in Lowe's. This was such a small and unexpected moment, but one of great revelation. I've spent my whole life worrying over what box to check, but the more I've learned the more I realize that the boxes don't matter to those who are part of you. I spent a lot of time self-conscious about what outsiders thought, forgetting that those who truly matter welcome me (and now my very blond and very pale husband and children) with no judgment. I don't need to worry about anyone else.

This is the fifth post in my series on being a white passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from. 


  1. This post--this whole series-- has been so good, Natalie. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Fav post yet! Aunty Peti's son is who you met in lowes remember :) I relate to this soooooooo much..obviously as I'm in it. :)

    Thanks for applying for the job ;)

    Vern marched me down to the office too. haha

    I have always believed that your nan has a hand in this all from above. Well nudging. :)

  3. 1. This post made me tear up, and 2. it also made me reflect on how American my view of race can be at times, even as a biracial person who also hates those goddamn boxes, particularly when you're not allowed to pick more than one.

  4. I have been loving these posts. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. You are awesome.

    One thing I'm wondering about (and hope might be a future post) is how you teach your children, who are now in your same situation. Are things the same for them as for you? Is there anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable, or is all the discomfort inevitable because of the culture?

    1. I have taught my kids more about our heritage (both Maori and Polish) than my family knew when I was little. We have books my sister-in-law have sent about NZ and Maori things, and we have gone over some language. I tell them about my grandma's history and the Maori history I know and am learning. The internet and family history sites are so helpful in this! I'm not sure how much discomfort they have (a lot of this I didn't talk about when I was little and didn't really even know how to articulate), but I'm also not sure how much they go around sharing their background.

      But after going to New Zealand, I am much more determined than ever to take my children there before they are old like me. I didn't get to go until I was 33. Being there and with family there was what ultimately helped me bring it all into perspective, and I want to give that to my kids. It'll be expensive to fly all six of us down there, but I have hope I can make it happen;)

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  6. And after a long time of absence I return to your blog and read this, only to be reminded why I loved this little log of yours in the first place. Thank you for sharing your beautiful stories with us.
    P.S. the moment you started the story of the rude guy in college I was like "O! O! I know this one!"