Sunday, 6 May 2007

Becoming Pākehā: Dominance and its costs - Dr Avril Bell


Pākehā have been called the 'empty centre' of New Zealand biculturalism. 'Emptiness' has both its privileges and problems. In this paper I will discuss this notion of Pākehā 'emptiness', outlining its relationship to Pākehā privilege, and discussing some of the ways in which emptiness and privilege block Pākehā becoming.

Becoming Pākehā: Dominance and its costs

I don’t know that much about my ancestors. There have really been very few stories passed down through the family. Just a few names, dates and facts. I don’t know why any of my ancestors came here, but I know when some of them arrived.

The earliest I know about is my mother’s great grandfather, who was apparently at the signing of the Treaty as one of the British Royal Engineers present at the occasion.I know he was there because I read it in a book. It’s not something I’ve ever heard mentioned in the family. I have also read in books that - quote - ‘he was a warm friend and sympathiser with the Māori race, and was opposed to the Māori war and to the policy which involved the confiscation of their land’- unquote - was apparently influential in getting Wiremu Tamihana to agree to a peace after the invasion of the Waikato, and was for a time an MP. I don’t remember hearing any of this spoken of in my family. He eventually returned to England and died there, but left behind a number of children, whose families for generations lived in the Auckland region.

On my father’s side, both his paternal grandparents landed in Christchurch from Northern Ireland in the 1860s. They met, married and farmed in Canterbury before a depression in the late 1800s drove them off the land penniless, with nine children, and they moved to Taranaki. There they ‘took up Māori leasehold land at Puniho - no capital required’ as the family history records it - not so much a family history, as an annotated family tree of the Bells in NZ.

I’m not sure if anyone in the family other than me has ever stopped to think about what that sentence says. This economic opportunity to ‘take up’ free ‘capital’ - ie land - allowed our grandfather and his brothers and sisters to grow up healthy (if not wealthy), at the direct cost of the dispossession and impoverishment of Taranaki iwi. Again - although the facts are there in this case - I have never heard anybody in the family mull this over or reflect on what this says about our family’s direct relationship to colonisation in this country.

My grandparents on both sides ultimately moved to Kaitaia, where my parents grew up, met and married and my generation were born and raised also.

So, I’m a classic Pākehā in many respects - born & grew up here, ancestors came here from England and Ireland, and have been here since the 1800s.

My parents weren’t Pākehā though. That’s something I’ve become - primarily from developing an awareness of my position here relative to Māori and from having my consciousness raised over the years - an ongoing and lifelong process of learning and unlearning that began for me in the 1980s at teachers college and then university.

I remember about 15 years or so ago, doing the dishes at home with my Dad and discussing politics - as we liked to do, since we agreed on most things. I’m not sure what the topic was, but I remember saying something about us being immigrants and my Dad being nonplussed by that idea. My Dad was a New Zealander and I was raised to consider myself a New Zealander. In defence of my Dad, he was a very politically progressive white New Zealander. I always remember him defending Māori protesters and so-called radicals against my more conservative uncles. He definitely wasn’t a redneck. But he was the product of his times, as we all are. So he was a New Zealander.

This idea of being a New Zealander - our Pākehā nationalism - allows us to forget the fact that we originally come from elsewhere. We are a migrant people and our migration took the form of colonising settlement. We are the ‘second settlers’, as Stephen Turner says. And arguably Chinese New Zealanders should be considered second settlers also, in the sense that Chinese history here goes back almost as long, but that, as well, is forgotten in the face of Pākehā dominance and Pākehā nationalism. Chinese New Zealanders have never been allowed to forget their origins. Pākehā New Zealanders have done their best to forget theirs.

[T]he pervasive effect of contemporary settler culture in New Zealand ... [is] a problem of living in the present, or living without history .... [T]he will to forget the trauma of dislocation and unsettlement has taken the form of a psychic structure.-Stephen Turner, 1999, p.21

So, in my family we don’t remember why our ancestors came. That would be to remember that they did come. And we don’t remember how their coming and being here was at the cost of the tangata whenua. We just came and made ourselves at home and did our best to raise our children to prosper in this place and to think of it as ‘ours’. In this sense, my family narrative is ‘empty’ and the collective Pākehā narrative is equally empty - I take this terminology from Malcolm MacLean (1995), who describes Pākehā as an ‘empty alterity’ and the ‘silent centre’ of biculturalism. In my family and in the Pākehā collective narrative, the tales of our becoming are very thin or non-existent - few of us remember stories of displacement and loss from the mother country, stories of the struggles of settlement, there is little in the way of narrations of profound relations to place, little recounting of formative relationships with Māori friends and neighbours. Just the pragmatic effort to survive and ‘get ahead’, the past being continually put behind us from generation to generation, the migrants’ desire to look forward, to build a better life, compounded by the colonisers’ desire to forget.

It doesn’t matter whether your family has been here as long as mine, or arrived far more recently. We all, all non-Māori that is, share what is fundamentally the same relationship to this place and to Māori as the tangata whenua. We are all tangata tiriti. We are here as the direct result of colonisation and we have the colonisers to thank for our lives here - ‘Thank you very much for the property rights, the infrastructure, the legal system’ - all of which they set up and all of which frames our lives and positions here today. The colonisers are our ‘political ancestors’, to use a phrase of Australian philosopher, Raimond Gaita - himself a first generation Australian, outlining the political connection between himself and the original colonising settlers.

This is our privilege and our burden.

However, my brief today is to concentrate on Pākehā - and by that term I mean the white New Zealanders who make up the dominant cultural group - the white settler people, the self-styled national people. And us Pākehā are, of course, the particularly privileged (and burdened) group in relation to our colonial story.

Pākehā claim for themselves the name ‘New Zealanders’ - kindly letting Māori and more recently tagata pasifika share it with us, although we’re still not too sure about the rest of you! Around half of us don’t like the term Pākehā at all and don’t use it to refer to ourselves. But when I use it here today I use it to mean all of this category of people - self-identified or not.
Over the last 100 or so years - since around the time my Dad was born - we have developed this sense of ourselves as a national people. (Back when James Cook came here and in the early 1800s, in contrast, Māori were ‘the New Zealanders’, so our becoming New Zealanders represents quite a shift over that time.)

Nationalism, here as everywhere, involves two claims - a claim to be the people of a particular place, and on the basis of that claim, a claim to sovereignty, to the right to be self-governing

The white Canadian looks at the Indian. The Indian is Other and therefore alien. But the Indian is indigenous and therefore cannot be alien. So the Canadian must be alien. But how can the Canadian be alien in Canada? - Terry Goldie, 1989, p.13

For Pākehā, the claim to be the people has always been a tricky one. Usually that’s done through the telling of histories, the celebration of language, religion, cultural traditions, and through a romantic identification with the national landscape.

The difficulties for Pākehā nationalism can be summed up as

  1. having derivative, rather than original cultural traditions - they aren’t that different from those of the other anglo-celt settler peoples in particular
  2. As I’ve already discussed - not being able to cherish and build our history, since we can’t allow ourselves to remember it
  3. And what I want to talk about a bit more - Not being the first people. There was always another people here before us, another history that predates us, another, prior relation to this place - the ultimate problem for Pākehā nationalism.Māori are both a block to Pākehā becoming and the anchor on which our becoming relies. On the one hand we want Māori difference to disappear, so we can get on with being at home and with asserting our singular status as the national people.

    ‘he iwi tahi tatou’ - we are all one people ‘Pākehā are indigenous too’ ‘Māori are migrants too’ ‘What about the Moriori? Māori are colonisers too’

    All these are ways in which Pākehā try to elide the differences between themselves and Māori to claim that we are effectively one people of equal and identical belonging and - in the case of the latter argument about the Moriori - to claim that we are of equally dubious moral standing

    On the other hand, being derivative and culturally rather ‘thin’ ourselves, we rely on notions of greater Māori cultural depth, authenticity and difference to ‘flesh out’ our national narrative, our cultural symbolism and our national imaginary - from Te Rauparaha’s haka through to the Air NZ koru and the hei tiki on the 10c coin - Māori culture is what gives ‘New Zealand’ culture.

    This contradictory position was beautifully illustrated by Don Brash’s infamous Orewa speech, in which, on the one hand, he questioned the ongoing existence of Māori people - there are no full-blooded Māori left - and denied the validity of any political recognition of Māori as a people, while, on the other, he said that Māori culture was important to NZ and would always be cherished

The classic Pākehā nationalist stance is thus to feel positive towards Māori cultural expression, but uneasy about any suggestion that our relation to Māori people should come with any accommodation of political claims for rights, recognition, redress, and uneasy about the idea that Māori might be different to us in some ways - and even more anxiety-making - that they might want to be different. ‘What’s wrong with us?’ is the anxious question that springs to mind in the Pākehā psyche.

Biculturalism it seems to me, is just the latest version of this nationalist project - one that attempts to respond to the stubborn persistence of Māori and their claims to recognition as a distinct and first people and claims to reparation for colonial injustice, but without giving too much away.

The rhetoric of biculturalism is that there are ‘two founding peoples’, Māori and Pākehā, different and equal - two cultural wholes, complete in themselves, to be celebrated, making up ‘New Zealand’.

This is a handy rhetoric for Pākehā, legitimising our right to be here as tangata tiriti - and handy too, to a degree, for Māori in providing some acknowledgment of Māori culture and existence and providing some ‘space’ for Māori-ness to be, although it’s not a very big or very autonomous space.

And in that regard it’s not surprising that Māori increasingly reject biculturalism and talk in terms of nationalism with its rhetoric of sovereignty

My family has been in New Zealand for 150 years, on both sides of the family. I have no claims to anything in Britain, and there has been no Māori blood in the family, so I have no identity.- Ewan Gilmore, in Bain, Dominion, 2000, p. 11

We argued that there was no Pākehā identity as such. Pākehā had co-opted an identity as New Zealanders … So the exhibitions became New Zealand identity from a Pākehā perspective. - Jock Phillips 1996, p.115on exhibition conceptualisation at Te Papa

But, there’s also a number of problems with biculturalism...Firstly - there is really no second culture in biculturalism. No attention is given to Pākehā cultural identity. Go to the national bicultural museum and see if you can even find the word ‘Pākehā’. I’d be interested if you can find it. I’ve never been able to - and the quote from Jock Phillips gives me some insight into why that might be.

Secondly - Biculturalism doesn’t really encourage engagement or connection between Māori and Pākehā. Mostly it’s used to encapsulate issues to do with Māori relations with the Crown. It separates rather than connects Māori and Pākehā. This has had its benefits for Māori - some space to get on with being Māori, with cultural survival and recovery. But it also lets Pākehā off the hook and allows us to continue to ignore our colonial history and what that might tell us about ourselves and our relations with the tangata whenua.

Biculturalism is effectively underpinned by the fantasy that colonisation didn’t really happen, or at least that it didn’t really do any harm - that there are two ‘whole’ and healthy cultures founding contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand, rather than two traumatised, truncated and damaged cultural groups, both intertwined and interwoven, as well as maintaining their distance and distinction from each other

There is another source of Pākehā ‘emptiness’ as well - not only our migrant origins and colonisers’ historical amnesia. In addition to those we have the privilege and problem of being of modern western origins. When James Cook came here it was as part of a scientific expedition. It was an Enlightenment expedition and Pākehā are a culture of Enlightenment ideals.
There are two problems that arise out of Enlightenment thought that I want to highlight.

Firstly, the Enlightenment was the era in which a scientific approach came to dominant western thought. It involved a very utopian orientation to the possibilities of knowledge, and the scientific was thought to offer the means to come to understand the whole world and everything in it - and the universe beyond.

Secondly, the possibilities of scientific study and knowledge accumulation was also applied to humans. This was an era in which the unity of humanity was assumed - we were thought to be one species - and our differences were the puzzle to be explained. Those differences between peoples came to be seen as a matter of lesser or greater development, of primitivism versus civilisation, with the European cultures of the Enlightenment being of course, the most developed, the bearers of the universal standards of civilisation.

Thus, that we consider ourselves ‘normal’ - if not straight-out ‘superior’ in terms of our values, beliefs and ways of life, in comparison with other (non-white) peoples - is part of our Enlightenment heritage. And this idea was solidified and hardened in the nineteenth century by the development of race theories that divided human groups even further.

This Enlightenment mindset, of course, was handy to the colonisers. It meant our ancestors could cloak their violence in the rhetoric of the ‘civilising mission’ that would ultimately improve the lot of Māori and bring them from so-called savagery to so-called civilisation by teaching them to be like ‘us’.

We still struggle with the idea of there being one universal human standard and us being it. Hence, we don’t have culture. We are just normal and right. The normality we feel at being the dominant, national culture, is reinforced by our inheritance of the white, western heritage of Enlightenment thought.

As westerners, Pākehā have over generations become so comfortable with their dominance that we generally cannot see it, and even with the best intentions relate to others and have expectations that unwittingly work to maintain and reinforce that dominance.

This isn’t news to those of you in this room who are not Pākehā/not white. But it might still be news to some of you who are.

It’s so difficult for us to see that I want to spend a bit of time discussing Alison Jones’ work that powerfully exposes some of the unconscious workings of our comfort with dominance.

Alison & her colleague, Kuni Jenkins, taught a feminist education class at the University of Auckland - one that attracted a culturally diverse set of students, and importantly about half of them were Māori and Pasifika students. They were interested (as a Māori and Pākehā teaching team) in teaching biculturally and in emancipatory pedagogy - in education for social and political change - and sought to achieve this via dialogical engagement between groups in classroom.

The students kept journals that were handed in as part of the course and, despite all their great intentions about cross-cultural dialogue, the Māori students expressed their dissatisfaction with the class. They said that the views and interests of the Pākehā students and teacher continued to dominate class discussion.

So the next year Alison and Kuni decided to try something different. They split the class by ethnicity for 3/4s of the course - Māori & Pasifika group and ‘the rest’ (dominated by Pākehā). The curriculum was identical and the teachers moved between the groups.

This time it was the Pākehā students who expressed their dissatisfaction in their journals. Alison identifies two causes of discomfort for her Pākehā students. One issue for them was that they didn’t like being separated from their Māori and Pasifika classmates. They wanted to learn about their cultures and worldviews and to learn from them - how could they do that if they weren’t together?

Such a stance seeks sympathetic and helpful attention from the other, reassurance from the comfort of being taught and learning, that the violence of colonization and privilege happens only “over there” or “back then”, or among other people - not us, not here and now, where we are all implicated, where there is mud on all our boots. - Alison Jones, 1999, p. 313

Alison argues that this desire to be with their Māori classmates represents a desire for redemption - a desire to be reassured that they/we weren’t seen as those nasty colonising types.

This might seem a bit harsh as an assessment, particularly in the context of a society that sees dialogue and understanding as the key to harmonious co-existence. However, the second kind of discomfort that Alison identified amongst her Pākehā students suggests that there is a limit to the kind of learning they wanted to do, that their expression of the desire to learn by being together is not simply a desire to learn about difference. There were some things about difference that they didn’t want to know.

A few excerpts from her students’ journals...

The introduction to the lecture was in Māori, which even though it was obviously appropriate, was disappointing as I could not understand it ... I was brought up to believe that speaking a language your guests or audience could not understand was rude [....] This is I know a cultural difference, but my reaction was that perhaps I should just leave the class now and let everyone else get on with it (Maree, cited in Jones, 2001, p.279).

It felt to me like [the Tongan lecturer] was talking to the Māori and Pacific Island students and the rest of us were just there to listen ... I know our cultures are different, but I found this really disrespectful for the rest of the class and it made me feel personally that I wasn’t part of the lecture (Karen, cited in Jones, 2001,

The activity [talking about a carving in the wharenui at the university marae] ... made me feel extremely uncomfortable and stupid. I thought it served to emphasize rather than diminish my status as an ‘outsider’. The activity assumed a prior knowledge which I did not have ... I left shortly after the end of this activity, having decided that I had been told in a subtle way I did not belong. (Barbara, cited in Jones, 2001, p.282).

Basically, these students expressed a sense of discomfort and unhappiness in the face of the rare experience (for them) of not being centred in, and central to, the learning environment and in their cross-cultural engagements. They find it so uncomfortable that they want to leave - and in one case do leave.

While they clearly expressed their interest in learning about cultural difference, they expected to do so on their own terms. They expected to be enriched - and reassured in their liberality - by this new knowledge. They weren’t prepared for the experience of being put in a context that didn’t already begin from their own knowledge and that suggested to them that there were significant bodies of knowledge that possibly they couldn’t know, or shouldn’t expect to know. This was just a completely unfamiliar and unexpected experience. Jones argues that this expectation of being able to know represents a colonising desire for mastery - ‘The (White) fantasy of absolute knowledge’ (Jones, 2001, p.284) she calls it.

Jones’ students and her analysis offer very powerful insights into Pākehā/white/western subjectivity as colonising/dominant subjects. Her work points to:

1. our absolute comfort with occupying the centre, with our own ‘normality’ and with occupying a position of power - and which we don’t even see is one of power. It is not an individual failing of these young women, or of any of us, but an orientation sedimented into our way of being in the world as the descendants of a colonising and dominant culture.

2. our ongoing Enlightenment belief that we should be able to know anything and everything, that Māori cultural knowledge should be available to us, that we can and should be able to make it ours via intellectual absorption in some way, to incorporate it within our own worldview.
But Māori don’t want that. Māori know what assimilation is like and what it does and how problematic it is to be enveloped in Pākehā understanding.

Against these desires on the part of Pākehā, Jones argues that...

Faced with the seemingly inevitable entanglement of benevolence, desire, and colonization, liberal and radical Pākehā have little choice but to engage in the hard work of learning about their own and our own histories and social privileges in relation to ethnic others, and to embrace positively a “politics of disappointment” that includes a productive acceptance of ignorance of the other.- Alison Jones, 1999, p. 315

Here she suggests something of what might be gained from working against our sedimented comfort with colonising dominance. If I were to try to express in one word what these concepts of a politics of disappointment and the productivity of ignorance are getting at, it would be ‘humility’.

We can’t help but practice politics, to have political views, but for those of us seeking progressive change, like Jones herself, she suggests a certain humility towards those political aims - a disappointed orientation, that involves a recognition that no politics is perfect and all have their costs. All involve exclusions - people left out or hurt by our agenda - and all have unintended consequences. To practice a politics of disappointment is to keep ourselves open to learning about the inevitable imperfections of our political schemes, and thus open to the possible need to modify those politics.

Similarly, the productivity of ignorance, suggests a certain humility towards our possibilities of knowing, to what we might accumulate by way of knowledge. It does not mean that we embrace ignorance, that ‘ignorance is bliss’, but refers to an orientation towards knowledge that sees it as an ongoing, never to be completed, process - a process without arrival. An orientation that has given up on the desire for clarity and finality in thought - that sees the path of knowledge as a matter of coming clear, not never being clear. This means not to give up seeking to know, but knowing that we can never come to a final set of knowledge or a final judgement about anyone, or any thing.

This is a stance of wisdom, I would argue, rather than a stance of mastery

By taking on these stances of humility and narrowing our scope down from universal ambitions, we might allow Māori to ‘be’ - to be different, to be apart, to be our neighbours, lovers & friends, but not absorbed within ourselves, our vision of ‘New Zealand’ and our ways of being.

And when I say this I am reminded of an exchange between Moana Jackson and a Pākehā audience member at a foreshore and seabed hui, when the man in the audience asked - how would tupuna title fit in with our (Pākehā) system of property rights and Moana said that it wouldn’t and that that was one of our problems, wanting everything to fit together into some kind of seamless whole, to be resolved, to be unified. That is the ultimate colonial desire, and that, I think, is what these ideas of a politics of disappointment and the productivity of ignorance can help us guard against.

When our ancestors - political or biological - came here, they were largely fixated on the land - getting it, working on it, putting it to use, prospering on it. The cost of that land acquisition remains an anxious site of forgetting. And to forget this cost we also have to deny the ongoing importance of Māori relations to place - waahi tapu, taniwha and so on.

It seems to me that the key to Pākehā becoming in any sense of moving forward from this colonising past is via a turn from concern with our relationship to the land - and Pākehā claims to indigeneity, for example, always seems to emphasize this relationship to the land - and a turn towards concern with our relationship with the tangata whenua.

There is a tension in what I am suggesting in regard to this relationship - a tension we need to live with, not to seek to resolve. One the one hand, I am saying we need to address our historical amnesia over our past relations with Māori and the costs involved. And we also need to pay attention to our relationships to Māori in the present to try to construct a different future. On the other hand, I have suggested that we need to accept a necessary distance between ourselves and Māori - a gap, a space in which Māori difference can flourish.

One way I think about this mix of engagement and distance is in terms of the notion of ethical proximity - a kind of closeness that also leaves a space for difference. A proximity in the sense that Māori concern us, Māori matter to Pākehā. But a proximity that allows for distance and difference - in forms of knowledge, in ways of being. Ethical proximity, the politics of disappointment and the productivity of ignorance, are, I think, useful guides in our ongoing process of becoming Pākehā.


Bain, H. (18/5/00) Bogans! In Dominion. p11.

Goldie, T. (1989) Fear and Temptations: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literatures. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Jones, A. (2001) Cross-Cultural Pedagogy and the Passion for Ignorance. Feminism & Psychology, 11(3):279-292.

Jones, A. (1999) The Limits of Cross-Cultural Dialogue: Pedagogy, Desire and Absolution in the Classroom. Educational Theory, 49(3):299-316.

Phillips, J. (1996) Our History, Our Selves: the Historian and National Identity. New Zealand Journal of History, 30(2):107-23.

Turner, S. (1999) Settlement As Forgetting. In Neumann, K., Thomas, N. and Ericksen, H., (Eds.) Quicksands: Foundational Histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. pp. 20-38. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.


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