A speech by Takunda Muzondiwa went viral after being delivered at the 2019 Race Unity Speech Awards. Here we publish an edited version of the transcript, including two of her poems, as part of our Being Kiwi series on diversity and racism in New Zealand.

OPINION: At the age of 7, my family immigrates from Zimbabwe to Aotearoa. I pass through customs but my culture is made to stay behind.

In the classroom, I am afraid my tongue beats back to its African rhythm, is concussed by fear, or has all its memories obscured by amnesia.

Yesterday I was an African, today I am lost. Maybe I was blinded by the neon sign of opportunity, failed to read the fine print that read “assimilate or go back where you came from”. I have been led astray, like Eve by a snake.

I am a child of the diaspora, a common thread among my people in the fabric of what displaces us from home. Sometimes it’s by choice, most often it is not. To be a child of the diaspora is to battle two tongues and be forced to trade one for another, so much so that now my articulation of the English language tastes like the unbirthing of my country. When I return to Zimbabwe to connect with my roots I feel like a jigsaw piece in the wrong puzzle.

Zvinochikisa kuva mhunu asinga ziva nyika yangairi yake pekutanga.

It’s an emptying feeling, to become foreign to a country that was yours to begin with. I begin to forget the taste of my own language and home has become just a memory.

Home is a concept that feels somewhat elusive to me because while I’m a resident in Aotearoa coming from an immigrant family, I’m in a position that pushes outside of my social and cultural comfort zone. Like most immigrant families my parents migrated in search of quality education and success for their children. When I reflect about how race has affected me personally I realise that at some point I came to believe the only way I was going to reach those aspirations my parents desired for me was to assimilate into the culture and assume the values and behaviours of New Zealand, neglecting the qualities which were inherent to me as Zimbabwean.

Unfortunately, these same kinds of beliefs are common among ethnic minorities. I believe re-empowering those marginalised communities is in the hands of our educational institutions. I’ll provide you with an example. In Aotearoa Māori students are falling behind on every measure of educational outcome, including secondary school retention rate, school leavers achieving NCEA Level 2, and rates of youth in education or employment. However, those who attend Māori immersion schools perform much better and achieve much higher in NCEA, university and employment. It’s clear that systemic bias and the enduring legacy of colonisation is behind this ongoing disadvantage of Māori people.

It is an unfortunate recurring issue that students of minority groups tend to feel as though they don’t belong in an educational context because there are lower expectations of them. It’s time our educational institutions placed a greater emphasis on language, culture and history. If educators were informed more on these topics they would come into the profession with a different perspective – one where they are less likely to hold racist or biased views. It’s no secret that the more students feel they belong in an educational context the better they perform. I truly believe we can shift these educational inequalities if we cultivate culturally flexible minds and empower all students with the knowledge that they have both the responsibility and right to be there.

A powerful collection of essays about language, Decolonising the Mind,speaks of the writer’s time in colonial Kenya. He describes how at the time violence was the means of physical subjugation whilst language was the means of spiritual subjugation. Those who were caught speaking their mother tongues in the classroom would either be physically tortured or publicly humiliated and that was a critical aspect of the suppression process, right? That the language of those being oppressed was dissociated from them. The scary thing is that these same patterns are repeating themselves today among our Māori community as they hold the fear of “what will become of their home when it loses its language completely?”

Poet Pages Matam describes language as both a tool for communication and a vehicle for culture. I find that to be such a beautiful description. Language is saturated with history, culture and memories. Language and words are powerful tools to tell stories in order to inform people of different ethnicities to better understand one another’s worldviews and perspectives because I believe unity comes from a better understanding of one another as people, right? For me the best way I know how to share the perspective of those I represent as a black girl and an immigrant is through my writing.

I take my poetry and I send it … to the man who sat behind me on the train last week…

… who had the audacity to touch my hair without even asking. I guess the basic human concept of respecting personal space doesn’t apply to you? I didn’t actually say that, which is crazy, because I almost always have something to say but in that moment, like my split ends, my mouth was too dry to speak.

But luckily my hair, my hair speaks volumes. Tangled and twisted, there are stories in these curls. Stories of a mother, father stamped with a number, marked as objects, sold for property. Stories of my ancestors shackled in cages displayed in zoos the same way you stroke me like an exhibit in a petting zoo. It’s twisted and tangled, there are stories in these curls. A beautiful possession of my history’s oppression.

You look at me like I am Medusa’s child. Cursed. Making everyone blind to my self-worth. For years I tried to strip myself of this curse with a potion of chemicals. Despite the burn of sodium hydroxide on my scalp, the smell of burning flesh that filled the room, I was hypnotised by the prospect of having straight hair cascade around this broken body of insecurity. Hoping to put myself back together with glued-in weave tracks causing receding hairlines as I also mentally recede, to a time of my ancestors’ inferiority, a time of no authority, forever believing that I was the target minority.

You can’t tell me to tame this mane because in fact, you are the lion. And in this jungle where racism runs wild, I am your prey, you are my predator, devouring my history, leaving me so raw that my own flesh builds a grave for me to lie in. I’m buried deep in my roots. And I understand I may be dead but God, can you rehumanise the systematically dehumanised?

So that poem speaks of my experiences with internalised racism, which is a system in which minorities are unconsciously rewarded for behaving in such ways that uphold whiteness and white supremacy. In the words of Dr King “Somebody told a lie one day… they made everything black ugly and evil”. These lies have people believing that lightening their skin, constantly chemically straining their hair etc will draw them closer to success or the ideal standard of beauty. It is time to replace the lie of racial inferiority with the truth of a shared humanity. To change we need our media sources to provide a diverse representation of people, portraying people of colour as standard-bearers of beauty, professionalism and success along with their white counterparts.

So dear racism I’m rewriting the history you gave me because I know the future belongs to those who prepare for it and you have been preparing me for centuries.

Takunda Muzondiwa, 18, is a year 13 student from Mount Albert Grammar School, Auckland.

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