Te Papa Museum defines the term ‘bunga’ as a ‘racist expression for a person of colour, especially a Pacific Islander.’
The term has heavy racist connotations and was commonly used during the 70s and 90s. Now the term has become more of an urban myth, with many younger Pacific peoples in New Zealand unable to recount a time when they were called a ‘bunga’ – which is a very good thing. As it becomes a less and less popular term to use, the definitions of such a word are contested, though as Tagata Pasifika puts it, ‘bunga’ was created with intent to ‘emotionally harm and demean Pacific people.’ The term carries an all-consuming and painful weight; a weight that I am all too familiar with.
Growing up, I have always been called a ‘bunga’ by my palagi family members. The earliest instance I can remember being when I was three years old, the most recent being just a few months ago. Despite it probably coming from a place of love and genuine ignorance, being called a ‘bunga’ elicits a palpable emotional response. The word sits in the air, it hangs over my head like a grey cloud, heavy and confronting. Five letters that pack a punch, tasting bitter and sour, creating a lump in my throat. Despite any achievements I may attain, this is how I will always exist: I will always be a bunga.
My ethnicity enters the room before I do. My Samoan-ness is my most important identity marker, I carry my cultural pride and ancestors with me wherever I go. However, this has also meant that I have been at the center of uncomfortable, racially motivated situations, where my ethnic identity has come under fire. Carrying your culture with dignity and reverence does not make you immune from negative stereotypes, which can often result in you being excluded from certain opportunities or treatment. Wider social discourse may counter this, telling you that it is important to not care what other people think, but what happens when those thoughts are racist and wrong? What happens when those thoughts have ultimately hinder access to certain spaces? How does one even rise above such stereotypes and painful pictures of our people? How does one ditch the gifted ‘bunga’ label, in exchange for something better suited?
Being a ‘bunga’ means a lot of things, all bad. It unfairly passes judgement based on ethnicity and encompasses negative stereotypes of Pacific people. For those who use the term, it creates a severance between them and you, intended to remind you that Pacific people are inherently less than. The term indicates that in the eyes of the ignorant, being a ‘bunga’ is what we have always been destined to be.
While it won’t solve every inequity or resolve negative projections pushed onto us, I believe reclamation may be the answer. My personal ‘bunga’ reclamation story started when SWIDT released visual piece Bunga in October 2019. The piece itself reconciles with every oppressive narrative pinned on our people: that we are all gamblers, abusers, addicts, criminals, etc. and only of interest to the general New Zealand population when we utilise our natural athleticism. In my mind, SWIDT’s Bunga is an act of reclamation, speaking to the Pacific experience in New Zealand, while retorting back against such ideas, subliminally highlighting the inaccuracies and falsities of these fabrications about Pacific peoples. Conclusively, Bunga helped jumpstart my journey of dismantling how I reckon with being labelled a ‘bunga’.
To point out the obvious, Pacific people are complex. We know we are more than ‘bungas’ and we should not have to spend our precious time proving to ignorant people that we are. Only existing as a ‘bunga’ tramples on the mana of our ancestors, our communities and ourselves. Through the act of reclamation, we take the power away from the word, allowing us to decide what we want ‘bunga’ to mean. Thus, I am trying to make more of a considered effort to let the word float away on the breeze, rather than sitting thick in the air. Allowing it to roll right past me, rather than cut like daggers. A word so redundant in my mind that it can’t phase me anymore, so loose that I get to pick whatever it means. “Oh, I am a bunga – and what?”
I’m not there yet, but I am getting there. I hope that one day the word ‘bunga’ will cease to exist, with the generations that follow mine able to live a life free from subversive and poisonous labels like ‘bunga’. I hope their Pacific-ness is seen as the treasure it is, rather than a hinderance.
Until then, in the words of SWIDT, ‘We the minority, who should be government funding priority, but they perplexed about a flag, only to raise it sky high on stolen land. I’m speechless, they really be calling us leeches. The audacity, but I guess it is warranted, until they need us, bungas.’
Allyssa Verner-Pula (Samoa, Lepea)