What’s in a name?
“Call me what you like, but don’t call me late for dinner,” my father used to say.
That wasn’t true of course. He cared deeply about what you called him, and though he grew up in a Māori community and worked there all his life, he never called himself a Pakeha.
Not many did back then. Before the 1970s when race relations were given political teeth, being Māori or non-Māori carried a very different cultural weighting. But recognising The Treaty of Waitangi, the Waitangi Tribunal and the Treaty settlements, and the recognition of te reo as an official state language has all meant that both partners have to be clear about who they were and what they want to be called.
We know who we are, Māori are saying, through their cultural renaissance and their advance toward self-determination. So who are you?
And Pakeha, every time they watched a haka danced or a waiata sung, had to find something to say, even to sing. We never got around to dancing.
A lot of energy was invested in the 80’s and 90’s in defining Pakeha culture, separate and distinct from Māori. The Dominion and Evening Post published a photo kit for schools with defining images of Pakeha-ness: keeping time, shaking hands, wearing war medals and living in cities.
It all looks a little silly in retrospect, but we were scrambling back then to answer the largely unspoken but increasingly clear question from Māori – who do you think you are? Sometimes the question had a nastier edge, as in Donna Awatere-Huata’s cry “Pakeha go home."
No wonder as late as 2012, a survey showed 66% of New Zealanders thought Pakeha was a term of insult. On the 2001 census Pakeha was bracketed with New Zealand European but by 2005 it had been removed altogether, just when the debate was heating up.
When Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres described the colonisation of New Zealand as a “sorry litany of cultural vandalism” comparable to the Taliban, Michael King dismissed the remarks as ridiculous and stupid and Bill English called them “cringing guilt.” Tariana Turia drew even more violent reaction when she called the colonising of her people another Holocaust.
When the debate reaches that sort of heat, both sides are careful about what they call themselves. It was hot enough even 20 years before these remarks.
Back then I was invited to make an after-dinner speech on a topic of my choice to well-fed and watered members of the Canterbury Club in Christchurch, and naively thought the topic of Pakeha Male Identity would be timely. Stupid me. I was laughed out of the room.
For Māori, the naming issue is straightforward. Māori meant normal, usual, ordinary as opposed to the European settlers who were different. To name that difference, Māori called us Pakeha, the fair-skinned people, who came from the sea, or perhaps an abbreviation of Pakepakeha – mythical and mischievous creatures who live in the forest and only come out at night (which is not much of a compliment).
Captain Cook and his crew were described as tupua or goblins. There are lots of options, not all of them flattering, but by the mid-20th century the term simply meant all fair-skinned people living here regardless of ancestry or birthplace.
So why is it so offensive to some of us?
Perhaps because it pretends to describe an ethnicity so broad it becomes meaningless, encompassing everyone from English to Asian and Indian heritage. The term might have told you something once about a common culture of English and European migrants trying to build a Kiwi nationalism from rugby and mutton and No. 8 wire.
But today in a country dominated by the most multicultural city in the world, it tells you next to nothing about shared values and a common heritage. Walk down Queen St and ask the passers-by what Pakeha means. Good luck on that.
Increasingly the term Pakeha is understood as a political rather than cultural indicator. Paul Spoonley argues the term has become a political statement that accepts responsibility for our ambiguous history with Māori.
It means we examine that history from inside rather than outside the tent, as partners rather than observers, inside a relationship with Māori enshrined in the Treaty and the laws of the land.
None of this makes the term Pakeha more popular, but it gives it sound ground to stand on, rather than chasing elusive definitions of ethnicity. It’s a lot of fun to play with these distinctive Kiwi markers – clean and green (well sort of), laid-back, inventive, modest, punching above our weight in the world, buzzy bees and so on, but they can all apply as much to Māori as to Pakeha.
Perhaps the best thing about using the term is that it puts us in our place. Tamsan Hanly argues that to name Pakeha culture is to decentre it and reposition it as an other culture, not necessarily normal or needing to be dominant.
And that’s very helpful when we try to describe where we belong. Sir Paul Reeves grew up as a Pakeha but much later in life claimed his Māori ancestry and identified as Māori, playing a leading role in his Taranaki iwi.
When I asked him why, he replied that Māori have to make a choice. Pakeha can happily live only in their non-Māori world. Māori have to live in both. And that makes it all the harder to know where you belong.
Pakeha never describe themselves as part-Pakeha but we talk glibly of people who are part-Māori, as if it is an identity you can slip and off like a coat. Māori know it is a permanent garment.
Pakeha then, seems to be a term we are stuck with.
None of the alternatives seem to work any better in describing what it means to be non-Māori, and who would want to be only known by that, defining yourself by what you are not, rather than what you are.
One way ahead might be to use the term without overloading it with too much cultural weight and seriousness, adapting it where necessary by adding a hyphen like Chinese-Pakeha or Pakeha-Chinese depending which comes first for you. And wearing the term with pride because it anchors us to a history that we share.
But let’s not make the term more precise than it can be.
For example, Pakeha is often used interchangeably with The Crown, which doesn’t work, because the government has Māori as well as Pakeha members and a legal abstraction that includes all of us. Pakeha don’t wear the Crown alone.
The future is going to be about a mix of cultures, bicultural and multi-cultural, with Māori and Pakeha as the front rows of the scrum. You can present that in terms of head on opposition, as we often do, with racism rampant as Taika Waititi tells us it is, and which Helen Clark says is overstated.
But volatile though that mix may be, it’s the only game in town and we all have to learn to play it, regardless of whether we like the name of our team.