I should start by stating the obvious. As someone with pale skin, who speaks English and had a very Pākehā upbringing, I benefit from a fair amount of white privilege. The term white privilege makes many people – especially Pākehā people – feel uncomfortable, but it is a prickly reality that I think it is vital to acknowledge.

I’m aware that I’m likely preaching to the choir here, but for anyone unfamiliar with the term, white privilege refers to the arbitrary advantages society grants to those with fair skin. It manifests in stereotypes, unconscious bias, all-out racism and everything in between. It is as powerful as it is invisible to many of those who possess it. 

But for me, my white privilege is only half of the story. I grew up in Rotorua, and until the age of about 8-years-old, I had no idea that I was of Māori descent.  

It’s a story that is sadly quite common: my mother had lost touch with her Māori heritage and wider whānau when she moved away from the pa at Ohinemutu as a child. It wasn’t until I complained to her after school one day that I’d been teased in the playground for being a Pākehā that she explained to me I was Māori too 

From that moment I experienced the slow dawning of realisation and ever since I’ve been on a journey to discover my whakapapa and learn about Te Ao Māori. 

Throughout my teens I became increasingly aware of racial intolerance in Aotearoa. I was incredibly lucky to grow up in Rotorua, where biculturalism is as much in the air as is the smell of sulphur. Tatou tatou” is the motto of my tūrangawaewae, meaning, “we together”. It was the best possible place for a young Kiwi girl to learn about culture and diversity through the lens of partnership.  

You can imagine, then, my shock at being uprooted from Rotorua Girls’ High School at age 16 to go to the private King’s College in Auckland on a scholarship. In the decade since I started at King’s in 2006, much has changed, but when I was there, I found myself listening in dumb horror as teachers and students alike openly made racist jokes. Now, in 2016, te reo Māori is a compulsory subject in years 9 and 10 – such a thing would’ve been unimaginable when I was there.  

Which gives me hope. During my career as a singer, I’ve often run into people who’ve said things like “why can’t more Māori be like you?” Which really means, “why can’t more Māori act in a Pākehā way?” Comments like that remind me of how far we still have to go. Comments like those I’ve received on social media after writing New Zealand Herald columns about Māori rights – you can imagine, I’m sure – make me even more passionate about speaking out against racial intolerance in New Zealand. 

We are a multi-cultural society, enriched exponentially by the vast array of cultures interwoven in the tapestry of our nation. Whether our people arrived on the seven great waka, on a ship from Great Britain, a small boat battling treacherous seas or a plane, we are all blessed to be able to call Aotearoa New Zealand home. We are not one people. We are many. But we are many people working together for a brighter Kiwi future.

This article was delivered as a speech by Lizzie Marvelly at the NZ Diversity Forum in September 2016.