Colonialism and Pregnancy Intersect in "White Lies"

by Christy Yao Pelliccioni



Warning: Spoilers.


One thing that has always fascinated me about issues relating to pregnancy is that everything is intersectional. People do not get pregnant in a vacuum, and when one faces a pregnancy they doubt they can carry to term, there are always different circumstances leading to their fears. The 2016 New Zealand film White Lies gives a nuanced yet powerful view of culture, colonialism, domestic violence, race, pregnancy, and abortion.


Although we are not given the exact year in which White Lies takes place, it appears to be sometime in the first half of the 20th century. Paraiti is a Māori medicine woman who lost her whole family at the hands of white soldiers who raided her village when she was very young. Now she helps every Māori person she can by using her knowledge of traditional healing arts. Eventually a young pregnant woman comes to her; she likes Paraiti’s care so much that she asks the medicine woman if she can be with her at the birth. Paraiti says the “white man’s laws” forbid it. When the woman starts bleeding heavily, Paraiti goes to meet her at the hospital in town with herbs that will stop the bleeding. The nurses refuse to let Paraiti in and both the woman and her child end up dying. Paraiti asks the nurse for the placenta, explaining that she needs to bury it so the woman and her child can rest in peace. The nurse, showing great cultural insensitivity, looks disgusted and tells Paraiti she can look through the trash.


This experience leads Paraiti to go back to a white woman named Rebecca who had before asked her to help her end her pregnancy. The woman, despite being very rude to her, trusts Paraiti to keep her dilemma a secret. She is afraid the doctors in town would gossip about her and that the news would get back to her husband, who has been away for some time, that she is pregnant. Paraiti implies that she will perform an abortion on the woman, but describes it in very pro-life terms. The last step, Paraiti says, is to ask the child to leave the mother.


Paraiti later reveals to Rebecca's servant, Maraea, another older Māori woman, that she has no intention of ending the child’s life, but is trying to save it. Maraea tells Rebecca of Paraiti’s intentions, and Rebecca goes into labor a short while later. Paraiti is there to help Rebecca deliver the baby, who turns out to be a girl. The baby has dark skin, despite Rebecca and her husband both having very light skin. It turns out that Rebecca is actually Maraea’s daughter, and Maraea has been bleaching Rebecca’s skin for as long as she can remember so that she could marry a white man and have a better life. Although the viewer is led to believe earlier in the movie that Rebecca wants an abortion because the baby is not her husband’s, it is revealed that the baby is in fact her husband’s, who does not know Rebecca isn’t white. Rebecca tells Paraiti that her husband “does not like savages” and suggests he would hurt her if she gave birth to a child with darker skin.


Rebecca is reluctant to accept her baby at first, but she eventually begins to bond with her. Paraiti suggests that she start a new life with her daughter when Rebecca’s husband is about to come home. Rebecca does not take Paraiti’s advice and instead has Paraiti take her daughter. While Paraiti takes the little girl, Maraea prepares Rebecca’s skin bleaching. Rebecca, while waiting in the tub, starts to bleed. The viewer is left in the dark about whether she lives or dies. The last scene is of Paraiti with a young red-headed girl, presumably Rebecca’s mixed-race daughter.


The intersectionality in White Lies is profound. To avoid having her daughter treated like a second-class citizen, Maraea causes her great pain by bleaching her skin. The two have a strange relationship, as Rebecca bosses Maraea around and is unbelievably rude to her. Maraea seems to take pride in this because it means she has succeeded in giving her daughter a better life. She is even willing to sacrifice her grandchild for the sake of keeping up her ruse.


I found this dynamic quite fascinating because I come from a diverse family myself. My grandfather was from China, and my grandmother is mostly Irish and Hispanic. They got married and had children not long after this movie likely takes place, when interracial marriage was still not legal in all of the United States. My grandparents got married in DC, a few miles north of Virginia, where their marriage would have been illegal for another eight years. In addition to this, my mother-in-law’s family is Ashkenazi Jewish, so my son will have a very diverse and wonderful ancestry. Although I certainly benefit — and I am almost certain my son will benefit — from white privilege, there is a long history of oppression in his ancestry that must not be forgotten. Hopefully my little boy will look at where he comes from, and, like Paraiti in Whtie Lies, decide to help the marginalized.


I really love Paraiti’s treatment of the unborn and how much dignity she gives them. Paraiti makes it very clear to Rebecca that she has no right to take away her daughter’s life, and as a woman of medicine, she has to do everything in her power to help the innocent child. Even when Rebecca treats Paraiti as if she is sub-human, Paraiti never gives up on saving Rebecca’s unborn child. In the end, Paraiti makes the most selfless sacrifice of all by taking the child and raising her.


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