10 Indicators of Tokenism. (Don’t be the token Maori)

Not really “getting” the jokes in the meeting room?

Finding the expectation to know EVERYTHING about Maori a bit much?

Having to explain some pretty basic cultural concepts?


Chances are YOUretro-pointing-finger are a token Maori.


So let me just get this clear in the beginning:

In New Zealand, Non-Maori need Maori more than Maori need Non-Maori.

And so it should be – because Maori is the INDIGENOUS story of the land. If you are a New Zealander in the fullest sense of the word, you will know and appreciate the complete history of your country. You will be Maori or a Maori ally, and you will be quite familiar with, and supportive of, the right for self-determination that belongs to all people, but most especially those who are living a colonized reality.

The world has come some way in relation to indigenous rights, and it’s generally understood that “best practice” in not-being-an-oppressive-paternalistic-colonial-wank is to defer to indigenous peoples in the definition of what is best for them.

And so it is that for most, if not all, publicly funded projects in Aotearoa can benefit from the presence of Maori. And as far as we’ve come, we haven’t yet gotten to the point where it’s accepted that actually – Maori should be leading, and at the center, of most NZ public projects.

Why? Well my uncle, Dr. Pat Ngata, used to say “Get it right for Maori and you get it right for everyone”. That wasn’t about being self-centered. It was about the simple fact that we feature across every aspect of the social spectrum. We are an incredibly diverse people, and so cater to the Maori experience, and you have a far better chance of catering for everyone, than any other ethnicity. That much, most funders are aware of.

So…. with that said, it should probably not be so surprising, that in this day and age, in spite of a good few decades of calling it out, we still find a lot of tokenism on committees, and in project teams. It’s such an ingrained behavior now, that many of our own are probably in that role right now, and likely in denial of it. If you’re in that role and quite happily aware of it, please click here.

For the rest of you, here are 10 indicators to help you figure it out…

1. You’re one of a small few, if not the only, Maori there

If you look around your team and realise you’re strongly outnumbered, guess what… you’re probs the Dr. Ropata.


2. The concept did not come from Maori

We don’t come up with EVERY good idea – but we are pretty damn smart, and resourceful. We’re also the only ones that can tell if it will work for us or not. So if the genesis of the idea was not located in Te Ao Maori, centered in Te Ao Maori or developed with a Maori ethos, from the outset, chances are it won’t look after our needs, and you’re just there for looks.

3. Nobody else in your group appreciates or understands tikanga, reo or Te Tiriti

If they don’t (want to) understand tikanga sure as shit they won’t (want to) understand the nuance of structural racism. Let me make this patently clear:

This. Is. Indigenous. Land.

Colonised indigenous land is STILL indigenous land. New Zealand is still indigenous land, albeit under colonial political control. Being a New Zealander, in it’s fullest sense, means understanding the indigenous story of Aotearoa. There are plenty of opportunities out there now to educate yourself on protocol and tiriti expectations – if your teammates don’t know it now, that’s a conscious choice of theirs and they most likely don’t WANT to know.

4. Whenever you open your mouth, it’s assumed you speak “for your people” not just yourself

If you are there for your own interests, or mandated to speak on behalf of your trust, or whanau, or even hapu – but are more often described as representing iwi or “Maori” interests – then you’re being used, Hori.

5. The impact of the committee/project/proposal is much farther than you, or the group you actually represent

You should only really be working within the boundaries of the group you belong to and mandated by. Making significant calls on behalf of others makes you no better than the paternalistic colonizers that have sat in your chair before you. Don’t colonize your own.

6. You find yourself internally rolling your eyes, or biting your tongue


If you’re finding yourself silently making a list of things that you need to “educate” the group about, when the truth of the matter is that they should have come to the table with a level of cultural education in the first place, there are two things happening: i) You’re not in a culturally safe, and culturally mature space to comfortably speak to the reality of indigenous experiences and ii) They don’t have the goods to work a meaningful relationship (see point 3).

Everyone in NZ, and in fact the world, should at this point be able to talk about issues such as institutional racism, or colonization, without being made to feel uncomfortable.

7. The entire group looks at you when they have questions about Maori as a whole

NOT you.

As mentioned earlier – there are plenty of opportunities for people to up their own baseline of knowledge, you DON’T need to be the authority on all things Maori. In any case – if it is something with Maori interests in mind, then this is a moot point, as it should be mainly Maori around the table.

8. You’re the “go to” person for karakia (prayer), and that is considered ‘involvement’

If you find the majority of your input is during the opening/closing karakia – and the eyes that look at you for the “Maori” opinion look elsewhere for the more technical issues… you’re probs the token Maori, bro.


9. They only ever want to meet, or celebrate, where they feel comfortable

If there are no actual meetings in marae, or in Maori communities, or other Maori meeting spaces, then chances are they’re simply not comfortable there, and don’t have strong relationships with the local Maori that are impacted by their activity. Might want to ask yourself why that is aye….

10. You’re expected to provide the Maori network

So if they have done their groundwork, valued their relationships with the tangata whenua, and especially if they have a good history of working with local Maori – you really SHOULDN’T be in the minority there from the outset. You should be in good company, and you shouldn’t be lumped with bringing other Maori into the space, or “working your community” to increase Maori participation.

So there you have it. If you can tick more than a few of these boxes… more than likely, someone’s ticking their box with you.

Yeah bro, you.



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15 thoughts on “10 Indicators of Tokenism. (Don’t be the token Maori)”

    1. Tena rawa atu koe Chrissy – our allies are SO important in making sure tokenism is avoided, and that indigenous histories and realities are understood in an integrated way. Nga mihi nunui ki a koe e hoa. xx

  1. Seriously the only place you will find this bollocks is in government own quango. In the real world we all simply get on based on our merits and ability to communicate well in Te English

  2. Maoridom should be leading themselves at least we are prepared to work in dual relationship…. To do this we need what lands we have left returned all parks reserves schools any public places illegals business properties and whatever the muppets can lease them off us yes we can take care of ourselves gone is the day when our peeps are dictated too we need to stop pretending we have a say…..like you say we don’t need them….we have sovereignty the United Tribes flag….we have laws TOW and The Declaration of Independence….what is our strongest weapon why the spoken word and kotahitanga…..how…one of our best resources the voice of MWWL…why….they represent the welfare of the people…don’t particularly like dissing our own obviously living in ignorance…educate e hoa some of our most decorated Maori are that plastic…we all guilty of this till we come out from under…yah probs hate my guts or stand but there it is and our way is not to get rich but to share so to be more radical than ever free education free health equal pay from the rubbish man to the politician yup sums it up for me

  3. bahahahahaha i just clicked the “f you’re in that role and quite happily aware of it, please click here.” link just to see where it went…. almost fell off my seat laughing. Simba picture. classic. lol

  4. Kia ora e hoa, Ngā mihi maioha mō ēnei kupu rangatira. Mohio ana ahau: ko au tēnā – the token Māori. Kua mānukanukatia taku wairua e te tuhituhi nei, engari he mea pai tērā. Mā te mānukanuka o te ngākau, ka puta mai he huarahi pai ake. Pēhea ōu whakaaro – me noho tonu ahau, whakapono ai ka pai haere tōku mahi? For people in this position, would you recommend getting out and finding a place where people are ready to listen, or do you think there is a time and place to stay and believe that seeds planted will eventually grow?

    1. Tēnā koe e hoa. Aroha mai i te whakahoki tōmuri nei – āe marika, ehara tēnei he mea whakaiti noaiho ki ngā tāngata i te taha o te pākeha e mahi ana, engari he wero kia āta wetewete ō tātau wawata i wēnei wāhi. There is particular emphasis on the term “happily” in front of awareness in this piece… and I say that because there are those who pretty much make a career out of being token Maori, and are aware that they are being used to validate processes that have no intention whatsoever of acknowledging Maori rights – and they happily go along with this for the paycheque. Those people need serious challenging (and I doubt they would respond as you have).

      I absolutely acknowledge that there are spaces where we must be in the minority in order to hold a space while moving towards more just models of involvement (and even though there is an element of tongue in cheek for this post, if the majority of the above issues apply then I would seriously consider whether it is worth my time to be there).

      You sound earnest and respectful of integrity – and in that case you’re a great asset for us all, and I would bet probably over-subscribed as well? I often get asked to sit on boards or committees where frankly I don’t trust the majority there – and the justification is usually that someone would like me to “keep those other ones honest” – and I guess maybe to plant some of the seeds you refer to.

      I personally decline those offers. Like you no doubt, I am over-subscribed, time-wise. There are waterways to save, our rangatahi need our attention, our pakeke need our attention, our whenua needs our attention and energy. I don’t consider it wise to sacrifice that attention, time and energy for others who I don’t trust – you usually get very little return for your investment anyway.

      Sometimes it takes me a little while to get to the realisation I can’t trust them anymore – like anything you decide invest in, you give it a chance to show returns and growth – but once I realise that’s not going to happen… I’m out.

  5. Kia ora, I have been the token Maori in roles as parent representative on my tamariki school boards and I feel there is nothing wrong with continuing on in the roles as I did, even though I was aware of it. It never stopped me from speaking life’s truth from my own personal experiences, which has never failed me when it comes to discussion time. If no one wants to listen (of which that has never happened) they can excuse themselves. In most situations I have found people very receptive to my conversations and a willingness to learn and understand more. You can not argue with the truth of life’s experience there is an honesty that no one can deny because it resonates with most, if not all people. In fact I did not see myself as a token Maori as others may have, I made the role work for me and my whanau and for all the children at school I represented. My tamariki knew their Mum was on the school board and so did their teachers. There is an unseen dynamic when taking on these roles as parents in kura that non-Maori also know exists, it allows for fairness to prevail in school for all Maori students. My children loved seeing me in their school and one of the many positive outcomes for me and my husband was they all chose to to do well in their studies with my eldest already graduated from university and my second child attending second year of university and my third in year 12.

    1. Kia Ora and thanks for stopping in and offering your reflections… sounds like you’re doing awesome work!

      As I’ve mentioned quite a few times now – none of these points are meant to be regarded singularly (and in fact all of it is rather tongue in cheek)… and if you ARE actually forging change then that, by definition, does not make your presence tokenistic.

      What I’m referring to are the many, MANY other instances where no change is being forged, the role is simply cosmetic, and more importantly there are those who make a living from filling tokenistic cosmetic roles without ever making change but allowing non-maori serving groups to attract Maori funding.

      This is clearly not the case with you and the very worthwhile work you do. Nga mihi.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to post a well written and interesting article in regards to indicators of tokenism don’t be the token Maori to which I nearly believed I was a victim of tokenism, until, I read number 3:

    Colonised indigenous land is STILL indigenous land. New Zealand is still indigenous land, albeit under colonial political control. Being a New Zealander, in it’s fullest sense, means understanding the indigenous story of Aotearoa. There are plenty of opportunities out there now to educate yourself on protocol and tiriti expectations – if your teammates don’t know it now, that’s a conscious choice of theirs and they most likely don’t WANT to know.

    Te Tiriti o Waitangi refers to New Zealand as Nu Tirani not Aotearoa – at the end of the day being Maori we are all one, in fact being human we are all one. Unity to protect all lands, oceans and air is of utmost importance.

    Some early Maori people had good relations with European settlers and Christian missionaries – does this make them token Maori too, or, does it make some of these early European settlers and Christian missionaries token European.

    Nga Mihi Kind Regards
    Barbara Dysart

  7. Love love love this piece. The humour you bring to this serious subject is beautiful. I’m going to share for sure! Now … how to start getting the government bodies to start sharing ….! The tide will turn and for sure we will become a true bicultural society with te ao Maaori taking pride of place to help get our country out of the poo!

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