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

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A pair of Jordan trainers worn by Te Paati Māori 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 Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi gave his maiden speech in the House in December 2020, he warned that he would act like a pebble in the shoe of Parliament – ​​an unabashed Maori voice in the corridors of power.

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

This Thursday afternoon, a point of order was presented to the speaker by a gray-suited law enforcement leader, David Seymour, who sits next to Waititi in the house.

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

Speaker Trevor Mallard replied, “I would say it would depend on what business you are in.” He followed jovially: “The company that Air Jordans are normally associated with in my interpretation is not quite the company that we expect to be part of in these forums.” Mallard decided not to make any official ruling on whether or not sneakers were acceptable attire around the house.

Waititi says subsequent conversations with Mallard outside the home and on 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 coming out of the Chamber, the President said to me ‘Jordans are usually worn by drug dealers and the mobsters!'”

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

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

Mallard also expressed discomfort with 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 to me 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 upbringing,” he says.

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

“We don’t represent all regions or electorates in suits and ties,” he says. “We represent real people on the court 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 held cultural significance, signifying ideas about national identity, status, race, class, gender, and criminality. While almost everything we wear is political in one way or another, when it comes to sneakers, the complexity of the associations sets them apart from other types of footwear.

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

University of Auckland ethnomusicologist Kirsten Zemke says that because shoes like this are tied to the hip hop community, “we have this association with race and racism.”

Despite their high price tag, Jordans in particular have been positioned against authority since they hit stores in 1985. In 1984, when Nike signed basketball player Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal, he wore his signature Air Jordans in NBA games, in defiance. league rules. Nike continually paid its $5,000 per game fine, while running ads stating, “The NBA can’t stop you from wearing them.

A degree of moral panic around certain types of sneakers held sway throughout the 80s and beyond, as stark white Air Force 1s were associated with drug smugglers and colloquially known as “criminal shoes” . In 1990, Nike’s Spike Lee-led sneaker ads were blamed by the media for a chain of “Sneaker Murders”and in Run-DMC’s 1986 track “My Adidas,” the 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 originated in America and are weaponized against black and brown communities there, the same negative assumptions have developed here as well, Zemke says.

As hip hop culture has been embraced 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 turn away those wearing pristine $300 sneakers (while happily 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 isn’t Waititi’s first sartorial controversy. He is before comes under scrutiny for wearing a hat and was expelled from parliament for wearing a hei tiki instead of a tie, which eventually led to a change in parliament’s dress code. Now these are his shoes.

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

Waititi grew up on an East Coast dairy farm. 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 tupuna who fought in World War II. Their company within the Māori battalion was known as the Ngā Kaupoi (cowboys), as horses were a common mode of transport along the east coast. He wears the hei tiki instead of a tie just because “Well, that’s me,” he says. “I have always worn the taonga.”

Maori party co-leader Rawiri Waititi 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 certain customs that really don’t reflect our society in Aotearoa.” For him, and 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 says, “should reflect the communities and constituents you represent”.

The taken-for-granted Pākehā corporate usury of Parliament is in itself a statement about what power and authority should look like. Zemke says the discomfort Waititi’s sneakers have caused among a few MPs raises important questions about respectability. “When we think about 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 appearance standards, these types of shoes, while no less appropriate, disrupt that.

Visually displacing the dark couture we’re used to seeing in the Beehive, Waititi’s bold trainers stand out in this environment because they dismantle “this very formal Eurocentric view of what respect is,” he adds. -she. These days, you’re likely to see kicks in spaces deemed respectable by Western standards: corporate boardrooms, red carpets, or haute couture fashion shows. But at the same time, there’s nothing to say that shoes worn by black, brown, Maori or Pacific people in any other setting should denote anything less, or that the people who wear them deserve less respect. . “They’re not inherently disrespectful unless you find hip hop disrespectful,” says Zemke.

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

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

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