The feeling of being unworthy in one’s culture is prevalent among young Māori and Pasifika. Sela Jane Hopgood meets a group of design students whose work explores the reasons why.
When Jordan Tane was a year 10 high school student, her teacher gave out a worksheet titled “Who are you?” It had a list of questions, including “What’s your culture?” 
Tane wrote down Pākehā/Māori. “My teacher came up to me and said, ‘You’re not Māori’ and crossed it out,” she remembers. “I have pale skin and am currently learning more about my whakapapa, but at the time of this incident, I was too timid to speak up.”
Gloria Falaniko describes her high school self as quiet and not as out there with her Sāmoan culture, despite being raised by her grandparents and living in an intergenerational household where she was well immersed in her culture. “When I got my malu [traditional tattoo for females] done, a lot of students and even some teachers made comments that I’m a plastic Sāmoan. They assumed I didn’t know the language because they had never heard me speak it and they assumed I wasn’t passionate about my culture because I wasn’t in the Sāmoan language class,” Falaniko says. 
When her experience of getting her malu was shared on social media, many comments surfaced saying they had never heard Falaniko speak Sāmoan. “Those comments immediately categorised me into a group without getting to know me and my background.” 
Tane and Falaniko, along with their peers Kyani Utia and Sisi Panikoula, are in their third and final year of the Bachelor of Design in Communication Design programme at AUT School of Art and Design and part of their coursework was to create a project using the theme “Design for Change”. The team’s campaign “What makes me plastic” was inspired by the shared experience of feeling unworthy of their own cultures. 
“The negative term ‘plastic’ has come about mostly from young Māori and Pasifika who don’t feel worthy, therefore, making them reluctant to identify with their culture,” the students explained in the blurb of the project.
What the four students didn’t see coming was a huge response to a Google survey they put out to their peers regarding being plastic. The survey had questions such as “Have you heard of the term plastic?”, “Do you consider yourself plastic?”, “What do you think of the word plastic?” The students sent it to their peers and received over 200 responses as the survey was shared online. It included detailed answers from the public about their lived experiences. “The results showed that around 70% of Māori and Pasifika consider themselves to be plastic and it confirmed for us that this was an issue worth delving into,” Tane says.
“We were shocked by the amount of responses and in some ways we weren’t mentally prepared for the stories we received because there were so many layers to it and it was sad to read,” Panikoula says. “But it motivated us to create a unique project where we can change attitudes and empower our community to not feel isolated in this journey. This is why I love design, because we can raise awareness about a cultural issue and use our voice through a creative lens.”
Panikoula shares that she wasn’t brought up the traditional Tongan way and that she would use the term plastic to protect her from getting slammed for not knowing the culture. 
For Utia (Cook Island and Sāmoan), her parents didn’t force their cultures on her and she says she feels plastic because she avoids partaking in cultural activities. In doing this project, Utia has been motivated to learn more about her cultures.
The responses from the public were similar to Utia and her teammates, which varied from not speaking the reo and not understanding tikanga to not knowing song and dance from their culture. “There were a lot of people saying the term was degrading especially when they were trying to learn the culture and speak the language,” Tane says. “There were also a lot of people using the line ‘sorry I’m plastic’ apologetically to excuse themselves from answering a cultural question or when someone would ask what a certain word means in their language,” Utia adds.
The students generated a second questionnaire going into depth about peoples experience with the term plastic, but found that the participants struggled to put into words how they identified with their culture. This then led to the idea that instead of Tane, Falaniko, Utia and Panikoula writing up the stories of others and filtering down their messages, they wanted to get the actual target audience to do it themselves. 
It was difficult for the students to articulate the project in a way where others were able to understand it. The lack of understanding was a pivotal part of the development of their project, which fundamentally led them to change from an educational tool to a confronting campaign. “What makes me plastic” is bold and self-reflective. “It acts as both a question and a statement,” the students say.
The students organised a photographic portrait to be taken of themselves and the participants and then using an iPad, wrote down words and phrases on the portraits, describing what they saw when they viewed themselves, creating a series of confronting images that sit at the heart of the visual campaign, which was recently named a finalist at the New Zealand Designers Institute Best Awards in the student toitanga category.
There was no right or wrong answer. No one had the opportunity to view other peoples’ work to avoid having their descriptions influenced by others. 
“It was such an amazing experience to see what people wrote on their photos,” Utia says. “We hope the campaign will let other people who are going through this know they’re not alone.” On the other hand, Utia was saddened by some of the words that were written, whether it was about their culture, their experiences feeling plastic or how the word plastic made them feel. “After this activity we had many people come up to us and share their stories and it was great to connect with each other on a shared experience. By sharing, they felt less intimidated for not knowing the culture fully,” Falaniko says.
“Being plastic is a colonised term,” Tane adds. “And so we hope people who see this work of ours and relate to it know that having Māori or Tokelau or Indian blood, that that’s enough to be from that culture and everyone is at a different stage of their cultural journey. We’re reclaiming our narrative and giving us back our power to be like, hey, we are enough.” 
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
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