Historians and language experts agree that the original meaning of the word Pākehā is most likely to be ‘pale, imaginary beings resembling men’, referring to a sea-dwelling, godlike people in Māori mythology. It has been used to describe Europeans, and then New Zealanders of European descent since before 1815. So why do some people object to it so much? Branko Marcetic looks at the history of outrage.
As a high-profile Reddit thread reminded us some weeks back, the word ‘Pākehā’ has always had a somewhat tumultuous history, asking, as it does, the coloniser to refer to themselves by the language of the colonised. Backlash to it is often based on persistent urban myths about what the word means or translates to, probably the silliest of these being that it’s a transliteration of “bugger ya.”
Pākehā is not the only te reo word out there to refer to non-Māori – Tauiwi and Tangata Tiriti (literally, “people of the Treaty” which includes all cultural backgrounds, not just European) are also acceptable, though they can invite outrage of their own. Still, Pākehā is used most widely, and has received the lion’s share of this outrage, with the Human Rights Commission recording in 2001 that being labelled Pākehā was one of the most frequent complaints received by the former Race Relations Office. Let’s take a tour through some recent flashpoints where ‘Pākehā’ has decidedly not been embraced by Pākehā.
It wasn’t acceptable in the 80s
The late 1980s saw several attempts to ban the word. In 1988, a Jaycees Club – a type of male-only fraternal club that hit the peak of its New Zealand popularity in the 1970s – lobbied to end its use on the basis that it was derogatory and came from the words for flea or pig in te reo. A year later, National members from the Bay of Islands pushed to ban it in the coming round of National Party conferences. They were backed by John Carter, their local MP at the time and the current mayor of the Far North District, who said that his Māori friends were worried it was “being used as part of the lever” towards “separatism and apartheid” in New Zealand, though he admitted none of the party members pushing for the ban were Māori. In a piece titled ‘Don’t try to call me pakeha’, Dominion Sunday Times columnist Frank Haden supported the measure because “a significant number of white people object to being called Pakehas, and that’s really all that matters.”
The 1996 Census
1996 saw a couple of high-profile eruptions of outrage, the first of which was the decision to list ‘NZ European or Pakeha’ as an option on the 1996 Census. An embattled Statistics NZ removed the option from the 2001 Census to quell resulting outrage, after many crossed the word out or complained about its inclusion (one person was “ecstatic” it was gone, wondering, “is the politically correct worm turning?”) only to then face counter-outrage for doing so. A Statistics NZ employee protested that its removal had been for the sake of accuracy, but in 2006 the agency bowed to pressure and added a new ethnic category, ‘New Zealander’, that Massey University’s Paul Spoonley said made its results impossible to compare with previous Censuses. People continue to write ‘Pākehā’ in the ‘Other’ category to pressure the agency to reinstate the word.
This is your brain on Pākehā
The second 1996 controversy came when the Race Relations Office was inundated with more than 100 calls and letters complaining about an anti-racism ad campaign transplanted here from the UK. The ads, which showed three brains of identical size labelled Māori, Pākehā and Asian, and a fourth, smaller one labelled racist, were objected to chiefly by older British immigrants who thought Pākehā meant something offensive. But, a spokesperson said, people continued to object even when it was explained this wasn’t true, “because they say it is a Maori word and they are not Maori.” The Advertising Standards Complaints Authority also received a complaint that charged the use of Pākehā – a word of “extreme contempt” – “aggravated racism.” The complaint also protested that there were plenty of people with full-size brains who thought there were racial differences between people.
Don Brash drops “the P word”
While hardly the most offensive thing Brash did during his time as leader of National – or during his entire career, for that matter – Brash announced in 2004 that he was giving up on ‘Pākehā’. “I’ve been told that in recent years a lot of New Zealanders of European descent find the term offensive so I’ve started using the term non-Maori,” he explained in 2004. The writing had been on the wall a year earlier, when a 150-strong crowd of senior citizens greeted Bill English in Waikanae, complaining that the word meant rat or originally referred to gay whalers and sailors.
To capitalise or not to capitalise
While capitalising ‘Pākehā’ is standard now, most newspapers avoided it until relatively recently. The Otago Daily Times resisted until 1999, before then stubbornly removing contributors’ every capitalisation of the word, while the Waikato Times received numerous angry letters – from Pākehā, interestingly – well into the 2000s calling the lack of capitalisation racist or simply incorrect. The paper’s editors contended it was a style issue, because it “does not describe a race or tribe, but is instead an all- encompassing term meaning non-Maori.” One of the more curious episodes came in 1996, when a member of Kiwis Against Further Immigration asked the Complaints Review Tribunal to rule if the Sunday Star-Times breached the Human Rights Act by using the small p, because it undermined the Pākehā ethnic identity. The tribunal dismissed it as a “nutter complaint,” and pointed to other literary authorities that did the same. Meanwhile, the use of the macron still remains elusive.
A survey reveals lingering attitudes
Even as late as 2013, some ambivalence remained about the word. After surveying 1,500 people about words or phrases they thought unacceptable in broadcasting, the Broadcasting Standards Authority released the resulting list of 150 words, which ‘Pakeha’ sneaked into, alongside words like ‘ding-dong’, ‘chick’, ‘peckie’, ‘yoos fellas’, ‘doodoohead’, and even ‘sex’.
We shouldn’t entirely dwell on the negatives, however. While the number of New Zealanders identifying themselves as Pākehā is relatively low at 14 percent, the last few decades have seen an increasing mainstream acceptability of the word. Objections that the word is racist or derogatory, rife during the 1990s and the 2000s, are also few and far between, at least in public, helped along by education and greater acceptance of te reo in daily life. And while Pākehā continues to be kept oft the Census, around 15,000 people wrote the word in as their ethnic group in 2007, and it’s regularly used in official reports and documents. While it’s got a way to go yet, it’s fair to say ‘Pākehā’s’ worst days are probably behind it.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.