Hightops in house: how Rawiri Waititi’s Jordans became a political issue

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A pair of Jordan sneakers worn by Te Paati’s Maori co-leader Rawiri Waititi sparked controversial comments in parliament last month. But why would a relatively mundane pair of shoes trigger such a reaction – and what does that say about our political situation?

When Te Paati’s Maori co-leader Rawiri Waititi gave his first House speech in December 2020, he warned that he would act like a pebble in parliament’s shoe – a shameless Maori voice in the corridors of power.

Eleven months later, during a curious exchange during Question Time on October 21, it was Waititi’s choice of shoes (Nike Air Jordan 1 mids in gym red) that became the stone in the skin of some of his parliamentary colleagues.

On Thursday afternoon, a point of order was presented to the speaker by a gray-costumed law leader David Seymour, who is seated next to Waititi in the house.

“I know you might not be used to being asked for clothing advice,” Seymour said. “But are the Air Jordans an example of street dress? “

Speaker Trevor Mallard responded, “I would tend to say it would depend on what company you are in. He followed jovially: “The affairs that the Air Jordans are normally associated with in my interpretation are not quite the ones we would expect to be involved in in these fora.” Mallard decided not to make any official decisions on whether or not the sneakers were an acceptable outfit in the house.

Waititi says subsequent conversations with Mallard outside the house and over the phone confirmed the type of business the speaker was referring to; that of basketball players but also drug traffickers and gang members. The day after the interaction, he tweeted: “What you didn’t see yesterday was walking out of the bedroom, the President told me,” Jordans are usually worn by drug dealers and the gangsters! “”

The tweet prompted numerous comments condemning Mallard, with many expressing concern over what they saw as the stereotypes and racism implied by his remarks.

Mallard responded to the controversy in tweets saying he “really liked” sneakers in the 1980s “when they first came out.” But, he said he “couldn’t afford them” and that “only professional basketball players, the rich, drug dealers and gangs had them then.”

Mallard also expressed his unease with the accusations of racism: “What makes me very uncomfortable with this is the racist assumption that seems to be behind some of the comments.”

Trevor Mallard’s response to Rawiri Waititi’s tweet.

Waititi remains surprised by what he describes as an “unusual interaction”.

“I’ve been wearing my Jordans for a little while now at home,” says Waititi. “But for some reason, someone took offense that I was wearing them that day.”

He attributes his passion for sneakers to the years he spent studying and living in Auckland. “Urban streetwear was part of my education,” he says.

Beyond what they mean to him personally, he sees sneakers as a way to make parliamentary politics more representative of those he represents. In other words, they are politicians who literally put themselves in the shoes of their constituents.

“We don’t represent all regions or electorates in suit and tie,” he said. “We represent real people on the pitch who don’t wear ties, who prefer to wear Air Jordans.”

The controversial shoes in question: Nike Air Jordan 1 mids in gym red

Sneakers have long had cultural significance, signifying ideas about national identity, status, race, class, gender, and crime. While almost everything we wear is somehow political, when it comes to sneakers, the complexity of the associations sets them apart from other types of shoes.

The answer to Seymour and Mallard’s Jordans did not come out of nowhere. The specific kind of sneakers that Waititi wore carries with it a cultural weight influenced by his American origins. While streetwear sneakers are of course not worn by just one group – in fact, their ambitious image is desirable across the board – they are interwoven with a complicated and politically charged mix of identities: downtown, urban, afro. -american, hip hop- influenced, countercultural and criminal.

University of Auckland ethnomusicologist Kirsten Zemke-White says that because shoes like this tie into the hip hop community, “we have this association with race and racism.”

Despite their high price tag, the Jordans in particular have positioned themselves in opposition to authority since they first hit stores in 1985. In 1984, when Nike signed a sponsorship deal with basketball player Michael Jordan, he wore his signature Air Jordans. during NBA games, by challenge. league rules. Nike has continuously paid its fine of $ 5,000 per game while running ads stating, “The NBA can’t stop you from wearing them. “

A degree of moral panic around certain types of sneakers took hold throughout the ’80s and beyond, as pristine white Air Force 1s became associated with drug dealers and colloquially known as’ criminals’ shoes “. In 1990, Nike’s advertisements for Spike Lee-led sneakers were blamed by the media for a chain of “Sneaker killings”, and in the 1986 Run-DMC track “My Adidas”, hip hop pioneers defended their Adidas superstars against their associations with crime, rapping, “I wore my sneakers, but I’m not a sneak. ”

While many of these cultural associations hail from America and are armed against the black and brown communities there, the same negative assumptions have developed here too, Zemke-White explains.

As hip hop culture has been adopted in New Zealand, particularly by Maori and Pacific Islander communities as an extension of individual and group identity, the same negative stereotypes have developed. We see it in the increasingly rare but still existing nightclubs that refuse those wearing pristine $ 300 sneakers (while cheerfully welcoming others in haggard-looking gladiator sandals or uncomfortable dress shoes. that hurt to dance), and in this case we see it in our parliament.

This is not Waititi’s first sartorial controversy. He is previously comes under scrutiny for wearing a hat and was ejected from parliament for wearing a hei tiki instead of a tie, which ultimately led to a change in the dress code of parliament. Now these are his shoes.

Despite his novelty in parliament, Waitit’s aesthetic is well established: his personal style is a distinct collage of influences from head to toe.

Waititi grew up on a dairy farm on the east coast. His recognizable cowboy hat, which he has worn since he “was a young fulla,” is a nod to his rural roots as well as his tūpuna who fought in WWII. Their company within the Maori battalion was known as Ngā Kaupoi (cowboys), as horses were a common mode of transportation along the east coast. He wears the hei tiki instead of a tie just because “Well, it’s me,” he says. “I have always worn taonga.

Rawiri Waititi, co-leader of the Maori Party in parliament (Photo by Lynn Grieveson – Newsroom / Newsroom via Getty Images)

For Waititi, the “shoe debacle” is a reflection of an outdated parliament. “I think we cling to some customs that don’t really reflect our society in Aotearoa.” For him, as for many others, wearing a pair of immaculate sneakers is no less respectful or dressy than a pair of leather brogues or shiny pumps.

Parliament, he said, “should reflect the communities and constituents you represent.”

The Pākehā corporate dress of parliament, taken for granted, is in itself a statement about what power and authority should look like. Zemke-White says the unease over Waititi’s sneakers among a few MPs raises important questions of respectability. “When we think of the formality of parliament, we know that dress codes are based on colonial ideas of what is formal,” she says. Rather than conforming to these standards of appearance, these types of footwear, while no less appropriate, disrupt it.

Visually shifting the dark cut we’re so used to seeing in the beehive, Waititi’s daring sneakers stand out in this environment as they dismantle “that very formal Eurocentric vision of what respect is,” she adds. These days, you’re likely to see kicking in spaces deemed respectable by Western standards: corporate meeting rooms, the red carpet, or haute couture fashion shows. But at the same time, nothing says that the shoes worn by Blacks, Maroons, Maori, or the Pacific in any other setting should mean anything less, or that the people who wear them deserve less respect. “They aren’t inherently disrespectful unless you find hip hop disrespectful,” says Zemke-White.

Converse, cowboy boots, Crocs, and red stripes are all regular shoe choices for Waititi. But “at this particular moment and in this space, I think the Jordans are a nice touch,” he says.

“I don’t think clothes make a man,” Waititi says, “but sometimes it’s hard to look that good.”



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