In today’s New Zealand, it’s not about being just Māori or Pākehā – everyone must belong


Show caption Many New Zealanders’ mistakenly believe the term ‘Pākehā’, a Māori word meaning NZ European, is racist. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images Opinion In today’s New Zealand, it’s not about being just Māori or Pākehā – everyone must belong Philip McKibbin While some of us are both, many of us are neither. The urge to separate us out is used to marginalise people around the world @philip_mckibbin Mon 10 Jan 2022 19.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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It took me a long time to embrace my Māori identity.

On my mother’s side, I whakapapa (relate, through ancestry) to Kāi Tahu, the largest iwi (tribe) of Te Waipounamu (the South Island of New Zealand), but I grew up believing I was only Pākehā (NZ European). I spent most of my childhood living with my Pākehā father. Even though my Māori ancestry was mentioned occasionally, I resisted the suggestion that I was Māori. I didn’t grow up on a marae (Māori village), or speak te reo – and I didn’t look like the Māori kids I knew.

It was only as an adult, with the encouragement of my Gran, on my mother’s side, that I started to explore my Māori heritage. Today, I proudly identify as both Pākehā and Māori. I’ve returned to my marae, and I’m reclaiming my Indigenous language.

I’ve been supported in this by the aroha (love) of whānau (family) and friends, as well as the writing of thinkers such as Tā Tīmoti Kāretu, who reminds us that if we have Māori ancestry, we’re Māori, and Hana O’Regan, whose work on Kāi Tahu history and identity continues to sustain me.

At one point, I had a realisation: we aren’t all “one or the other”. The urge to separate us out is a colonising one, and it has been used to marginalise and exclude people of colour around the world. Challenging binary distinctions – “either/or” – in favour of inclusion – “both … and” – underpins a lot of radical thinking, including feminism and queer theory.

“Either/or” doesn’t really work for us here in Aotearoa. For a long time, there has been a tendency to think of New Zealanders as “either Māori or Pākehā” – but many of us are both, and some of us are neither. For example, there are Chinese families who have been here a lot longer than some Pākehā families; and many Chinese New Zealanders are Māori too.

Why do I tend to describe myself as “Pākehā”, rather than “NZ European”? Maybe it’s because it was only when I began learning te reo that I really started giving attention to my heritage – including my English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry. Also, the word “Pākehā”, being a Māori word, captures a connection to this place that “NZ European” doesn’t.

Some people mistakenly believe the word “Pākehā” is an insult, but I think it has mana (honour or prestige). When I think of Pākehā, I think about the people I know who wear the term comfortably. They are, without exception, generous, reflective, and humble.

Still, a lot of white New Zealanders reject the term in favour of “NZ European”. I’m not sure why they feel we have to choose. Eschewing the “either/or” mindset allows those of us with European ancestry to embrace both – explicitly acknowledging our European heritage with one, and emphasising our connection to this place with the other.

There are those who believe that anyone who rejects the term “Pākehā” is racist, but that isn’t the case. Some New Zealanders who were born in Europe are reluctant to call themselves Pākehā, because it is often taken to mean people whose ancestors settled in Aotearoa. Also, I know people who have European ancestry, but who immigrated to New Zealand from non-European countries (like South Africa) and aren’t sure that the word accurately describes them.

Some NZ Europeans may simply feel that a Māori word they struggle to pronounce isn’t the best fit when describing their non-Māori heritage.

It’s helpful to remember, though, that reciprocity requires us to extend the same consideration to others. If NZ Europeans think they are being misrepresented when people call them “Pākehā”, I would encourage them to take a moment to think about the many ways Māori have been, and continue to be, “othered” on our own lands.

They might also consider the ways they relate – or resist relating – to te ao Māori (the Māori world). As New Zealanders, all of us have a responsibility to learn about, and become familiar with, our country’s Indigenous heritage – whether our ancestors have been here since the beginning, or for 250 years … or if we made the brave journey to Aotearoa ourselves.

(Learning te reo Māori – even just a bit – is a great place to start!)

It’s natural that a discussion about ethnicity should begin with personal identity – but it mustn’t end there. Attending to ethnicity will help us create a better community.

It can support us in thinking critically about how power is distributed, and who is unfairly disadvantaged in our society. Ethnicity data helps us to see that our education, health, and criminal justice systems are failing Māori and Pasifika. Recording and monitoring it can assist us in designing and evaluating initiatives that address institutional racism. Likewise, a critical understanding of ethnicity in Aotearoa can challenge the anti-Asian sentiment which has intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we continue to explore ethnicity, let’s remember that all of us belong here. We may relate to Aotearoa in diverse ways, but together we can imagine a community in which everyone thrives.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand of Pākehā (New Zealand European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent