Sunday, 6 May 2007

"Native Pākehā": desire and power at work in dominant constructions of ethnicity - Will Christie

So, are Pākehā native to Aotearoa New Zealand? No, not if you’re using the word Pākehā in its most common form, first used by Māori and taken up recently by many descendents of European settlers. If Pākehā culture is indigenous for the reasons often given - because it’s specific to this place, formed in relation to original inhabitants and the landscape – then by the same logic Afrikaans is the second indigenous language in South Africa. I’m not here to debate definitions of the terms Pākehā or indigenous, although discussing what we really mean when we use words is an important part of the work we can do here at ‘Sweet As’. I’m interested in tracing the development of claims of Pākehā culture being indigenous, why this idea is used, who by, and the kinds of work it does. The idea shows up some limitations and blindspots in Pākehā identity, things that have to be addressed before the desires that motivate Pākehā claims to indigeneity can begin to be realised.

Issues of belonging, of striving to be local and settled, repeat through Pākehā history. This long-standing Pākehā desire used to be worked out in opposition to English identity – a collection of essays from the 1950s, Distance Looks our Way, is a great example. Claims to Pākehā indigeneity are relatively recent. Michael King’s later work is vital in putting forward the idea of ‘Pākehā’ as a specific, local white identity. King edited a collection of essays, in which Being Pākehā is seen as an ongoing process of decolonisation, cultural pride and a sense of social responsibility. This and other writing in the nineties went a long way to normalising Pākehā as an ethnic label. It was King’s Being Pākehā Now - Recollections of a White Native that staked a claim for Pākehā indigeneity most clearly. That was in 1999. Three years ago MP Trevor Mallard said that Pākehā are indigenous, and the Prime Minister’s response was that she, at least, was a New Zealander. MP Jerry Brownlee had a public art showdown with Tame Iti in which Brownlee claimed to be a native New Zealander. MP Nandor Tanczos took a very reasonable position, one laid out by Treaty workers – that Pākehā are not indigenous but allowed to be here under treaty which we have to then honour.

What we see here is a lot of fighting over what a couple of words, which could be fixed just by giving them strict enough definitions. I’m not interested in joining the argument. I am interested in what gives the idea of Pākehā indigeneity its currency and power and what effects the use of the idea has in the world. Discourse is the set of things that can be said about something. King’s claim to be a white native, backed up as it was by his respected position in both Māori and Pākehā worlds, became available to others to explain their personal feelings or to make political points. When MPs and writers discuss ideas, they are staging a public conversation, trying out what can and can’t be said, using phrases and ideas that will be picked up by others. Discourse is as much about what is not able to be said in certain contexts – for example people get away with saying “Māori were thought to be a dying race” in a school text book but not with saying “Māori suffered a holocaust” in a political debate. Why, and who gets to say? Attention to discourse can highlight areas of active suppression that allow the status quo to go on unchallenged.

Why is Pākehā indigeneity an idea with currency now? For Brownlee’s purposes, claiming to be cultural too uses the work done by Māori to have indigenous rights recognised, in a way that devalues the power of tangata whenua status. But most people I’ve encountered claiming to be native Pākehā have no conscious intention to disempower Māori; only a great desire to feel at home. Many Pākehā are sick of guilt and work they associate with dealing with Māori political demands and want resolution. Some, like those in King’s collection, have spent their lives working on local, and often explicitly decolonising, issues, and saw this as a vital form of self-recognition. For others, Pākehā identity needs protection from global development, and seeing Pākehā as native offers renegotiating relationships to the land, to the social world against increasing globalisation, capitalism and development. It offers a Pākehā identity that is locally focussed and no longer Eurocentric.

These claims show a desire for identity, belonging, and yet miss an analysis of historical and continuing power structures. When I was thinking what I was going to say today I met a Pākehā man I knew and told him my topic. He got excited and told me about his feelings for where he grew up, the mountain he identified with, fishing for eels, his spiritual engagement with the land, his research into his ancestry, and how that had made him feel settled and had a place here. I asked him, what is the history of the particular piece of land you grew up on? How did it come into your family’s possession?He didn’t have an answer. My question was not one that Pākehā usually ask themselves, though I’ve heard his statements many times in different forms. Pākehā may consider themselves native because “Pākehā have nowhere else to belong”, because “Pākehā culture is formed out of relationship to Māori”, and because the person speaking has “as strong an attachment to the land as any Māori”. In these statements it’s what’s missing that’s important. How did we get here, what’s the nature of the colonial project? What is the relationship of Pākehā culture to Māori, not just symbolically but in terms of power, now and historically? Who gets to say whose land it is and how was it secured? If my ancestors were often cogs in an imperial machine, this makes an understanding of the machine more important, not less.

What’s apparent in Pākehā discourse is an active amnesia about colonisation. The modern European nation state imposed itself upon Aotearoa with legal, religious, educational and economic systems intact, as a part of the British Empire. The institutional structure has developed in line with other Western states ever since. European culture as it was established here is inherently mobile, designed to replicate itself with little change. This is done by spreading and keeping control of discourse thru media, and political and religious institutions. One of the ideologies was that of European progress and Enlightenment, in which Pākehā had nothing to gain by taking on influences from Māori, which effectively prevented Māori challenges from being heard in Pākehā public sphere. The discursive suppression that propped up the empire is what has historically prevented a local post-European ethnicity forming. To be native is to be born in and formed by a place but Pākehā power structures continue to use Western ideologies to authorise themselves to control resources, to run institutions, changing not so much with local demands as in line with global developments.

The contemporary New Zealand state presents itself not as primarily Pākehā, but as an objective, acultural modern state. This is part of a general trend in Western democracies. The breakdown of traditional mode of political domination – which claims that European cultural superiority gives the right to rule – is replaced by the image of Pākehā culture as separate from the interests and structures of the state and state-backed institutions. Pākehā culture is naturalised as New Zealand or Kiwi culture. An example is the foreshore and seabed legislation, which could be described as Pākehā using Pākehā institutional structures to protect the Pākehā tradition of going to the beach (not to mention retaining the right to develop and exploit it), but was claimed as a democratically elected government protecting the rights of all New Zealanders. In this way Pākehā culture is hidden, and Pākehā interests present themselves as natural, apolitical and inevitable.

The seeming objectivity of institutions that now hides Pākehā power also motivates Pākehā desire for a visible culture or ethnicity. The old European idea that to be cultured means to be in touch with a tradition of high art and Enlightenment thought has been replaced with the idea that being cultured means possessing ideas, feelings and beliefs that have not been broken down by the nihilistic force of capitalism and scientific materialism. In this light, it’s not possible to be objective and acultural and also be fully human. Traditional European modes of subjectivity have lost their authority but Pākehā culture has not been independent enough to work out new ways of being. At the same time, the State and the Pākehā mainstream have had to become more open to the importance and validity of non-European cultures, especially that of tangata whenua.

Culture-based challenges to Pākehā institutional dominance push Pākehā to search for identity, ethnicity and belonging, but this is held back by a Pākehā public discourse that has few ideas of history, of power structures or colonisation. Claiming to be native is one of a number of ways that Pākehā attempt to get distance from the spectre of white supremacy. Articulating personal family experiences of oppression under British Empire is another common way Pākehā respond to issues of colonisation. Another is to point to other ways in which you are minoritised, on the presumption that if you can’t dominate then you are innocent. Other ways of dealing emotionally on a personal level with colonialism are cultivating a strong interconnection with Māori, or an anti-individualistic drive to identify at local level against state, European traditions and globalisation. Desire for resolution often causes a personal approach to complex political issues.

Personalising the issue through claiming to be native is dangerous because ‘Pākehā’ means the institutions, ideologies and discourse of dominating New Zealand European systems as much as it indicates a personal project of decolonisation. There is a slippery area between ‘Pākehā’ as Māori have often used the word, to mean a non-Māori person, and how it’s been taken up by Pākehā who are committed to local issues. Many people identify as ‘Pākehā’ to show that they’re taking on decolonising political responsibilities as part of being at home here, but another side of ‘Pākehā’ culture is state reaction to Māori treaty claims – well-intentioned but balking at the point of handing over power. A redefinition of Pākehā ethnicity to come to terms with colonisation and white privilege is not a widespread project. Claiming Pākehā indigeneity ends up making Pākehā institutional power seem natural, by giving us a vision of two native groups, one of which just happens to be in control of most of the resources.

Pākehā claims to indigeneity reflect a warming desire to be local, but without deeper questioning of Pākehā power and colonial history they stay limited at best. What’s needed, as Avril Bell has said, is not resolution. It’s to continue the process of saying what hasn’t been said, of changing mainstream discourse, of getting better ideas. Investigations into the cultural specificity and history of Pākehā power are necessary. It’s great that Pākehā are inspired by Māori discourse around land, family and belonging to find ways of being more responsive to the local, more social, more resistant to new global forms of imperialism, but that’s not enough. The reality of being here and being Pākehā is the need to face up to colonial history and continuing white privilege.


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