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April 29, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Pakeha or NZ European: The White Choice?

I once asked my mother, in a non-birds-and-bees kind of way, where I come from. I don’t know what I expected; some etchings of a Welsh hamlet perhaps, or an explanation of the vast history of our family, detailing their lives in thatch-roofed cottages in the English countryside. Instead I was told that I come from “a long line of white colonising bastards and let’s leave it at that.” But, this being the ‘Identity’ issue, let’s not. Because while I might be descended from white colonising bastards, as a white New Zealander I’ve always been Pākehā.

If you’re white, you probably put your ethnicity down as ‘New Zealand European’ in the last census. I know I did: it was the only option and I was too lazy to tick ‘other’ and then write down ‘Pākehā.’ But now I’m kind of regretting that. While 67 per cent of New Zealanders called themselves ‘New Zealand European’ in the 2006 census, I don’t think it’s necessarily the best term to use.

Although ‘New Zealand European’ is the preferred term among most white New Zealanders, its use is contentious. “I think we should be using Te Reo terms where possible,” argues self-labelled Pākehā Eve Kennedy: “the inclusion of European is stupid because it means we identify as Europeans living in New Zealand [as opposed to just New Zealanders].” While ‘New Zealand European’ has that post-colonial element of identifying that white New Zealanders aren’t originally from here, it is also less inclusive. It implies that all white New Zealanders hail directly from Europe, which is often not the case. For those who do, the distant European part of their ancestry becomes equally as important as their identity as New Zealanders, which is problematic for families who have been here for generations.

‘Pākehā,’ has its etymological basis in the British colonisation of New Zealand (and no, despite the common myth, it isn’t used derogatorily), so using this has the same post-colonial effect as using ‘New Zealand European’. But more than this, as a Te Reo term its use also indicates a general New Zealand culture and our place in it, rather than one which is segregated into Māori and Europeans. New Zealand was originally a Māori land, and in terms of honouring its history it seems fitting to identify our place in its culture by using Te Reo words.

But, really, why should we care? Surely the ideals of a post-modern, post-colonial, post-tumblr society forgo labelling altogether: is this kind of categorisation just another way to discriminate via perpetuatting “otherness”? Or maybe you really, really want everyone to know that your great-grandfather was from England but don’t have any outlet for this other than cheering for the English in the Rugby World Cup. Is promoting ‘Pākehā’ over ‘New Zealand European’ going to stop this?

It’s one thing to be proud of your heritage, but it’s another thing to abandon a more general ‘New Zealand’ heritage in favour of emphasising a European identity that few of us have. If your family’s been living in New Zealand for more than three generations and you don’t even qualify for a foreign passport, ‘New Zealand European’ is less representative of your heritage than ‘Pākehā’, because you have a stronger cultural link to New Zealand than to Europe. I also prefer Pākehā as a general term which can be applied to any non-Māori New Zealanders, even recent immigrants: my grandparents, born-and-bred Brits, use it to describe themselves.

The rationale behind choosing ‘Pākehā’ rather than ‘New Zealand European’ has to do with recognising your history as a white person. This is important worldwide, but is most pertinent in places with a colonial history. Some 170 years post Treaty of Waitangi, there’s still incredible racial inequality: calling yourself Pākehā is saying that you recognise Māori culture as integral to New Zealand culture. In a small way, this privileges Māori culture over a ‘European’ white settler mentality. It’s less about ‘otherness’ and more about ‘togetherness.’ While this can seem like tokenism, any gesture towards a more inclusive New Zealand culture matters in some way.

Which all boils down to: check yo privilege. And stop pretending to be Scandinavian.

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  1. fluffycatsdad says:

    Um, excuse me; Ms. Kennedy, Ms. Hollis? Did you ask me, or anyone else, why we might use the terms ‘New Zealander’ or ‘New Zealand European’ when we’re asked about our ethnicity? No, you didn’t, so until you have, don’t you DARE try and tell me:

    • whether I have cultural links that are closer to Britain than New Zealand
    • that I’m disrespecting tikanga Māori by not using ‘Pākehā’ as an identifying label
    • what my use – yes, MY use – of the term ‘New Zealand European’ means

  2. The Doctor says:

    I’d disagree. Any tokenistic gesture isn’t worth the time it takes to say it, paper it takes to write it, pixels it takes to display it, or physical dimensions it takes to carry it out.

    Ones reason to use Pākehā should only come from any feeling of identity and association with that, not some politically correct crusade to recognise a history you have no ken with.

    I’m not saying that Pākehā shouldn’t be a term, or perhaps THE term, to use. I’m saying that people should arrive at using it out of their own conclusions. Rather like your grandparents do, one suppose.

    On the other hand, however, the race/ethnic descriptor is meant to be descriptive. If you say that the term Pākehā can and should be used by all non-Māori persons (which I agree with), then Pākehā quickly becomes a meaningless term that isn’t descriptive of anything other than non-Māori. Imagine that in a census: there is such and such a percentage of Māori in the country, and then everybody else is not Māori.

    And let’s not talk about nationality as being the place to use the term. Everybody who calls New Zealand home has a nationality of New Zealander. I’m not sure what the appropriate term would be, but it isn’t Pākehā. (Note: this was not raised in the article, so I’m not particularly making a point against anything here — rather I’m making sure that if anybody does post a rebuttal of this nature, they don’t bother making this fallacious argument)

    There again, if we are to say that the term can apply to everybody including recent immigrants, then let’s stop with the notion that the term has anything to do with emphasising European lineage. I’m sure that the justification for that will be « but it has historically referred to Europeans, therefore what is said stands » but I don’t buy that when we’re discussing how things /should/ be.

    I’m ethnically Māori and Pākehā, so I suppose I see things from both sides of the fence. In one garden, I see that the intentions are quite noble: yes, we must look upon the biculturalism of the land, respect what the Māori have done in the influence of New Zealand’s collective culture regardless of ethnicity (which we all at a base level share, though to varying degrees of course), and embrace it whole heartedly. On the other side of the fence, however, I see poorly thought militant politically correct tokenism which makes my Māori side cringe with the thought of Te Reo and Tikanga Māori being appropriated for the benefit of … well, the Pākehā, to make themselves feel better about some of their ancestors having raped the country in earlier times.

    And the Pākehā side of me just cringed at saying that, but agreed with the Māori side that it needed to be said.

    PS: My views expressed above are not necessarily aimed at the author, but rather are written in general terms.

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