Sorryboutit, but Pākeha MIGHT just mean what you fear it means.

Ok so let’s say from the outset – I’m pākeha, myself. That doesn’t negate me also being Māori, because I don’t view my heritage as being mutually exclusive. I’m not a walking pie-chart, I don’t believe in fractions of people, I am Māori at the same time as I am Pākeha and neither are threatened by the other.

I wish I could say the same for our people. If you’ve lived in Aotearoa or New Zealand (which I consider two completely different worlds) for very long, you’ll have come across the term for white New Zealanders – “Pākeha/Pākehā” – and the debate about what it really means. Mākereti contested it meant “buggerya”, and just like the term “white” it can be applied to describe a system, or to refer to the Crown, or it might just be a descriptor of someone’s apparent ethnicity. Some refer to the idea that it descends down from the term “Pakehakeha” – referring to mythical pale skinned beings.

From certain sectors of Pākeha society, some pretty strange notions arose about it’s meaning including: “white pig” (no idea where that came from), “white flea”, “dirty flea, or that it’s a general insult – likened to the word “nigger” (sorry Mā) but for white people.

And more recently – another term has arisen – that it means “those of a different breath” or “those that changed the essence of what they touched”. This refers to the words “pā” (Touch or affect), kē (rather, instead, or an indication of reversal), hā (essence or breath). Problem is nobody spells it “Pākēhā”. Still – it’s caught on and more than a few times I’ve heard this translation offered to assauge a belligerant Pākeha who doesn’t like being called that. In fact it’s fast becoming the default interpretation of the word and admittedly there was a time, at first, when I thought well that’s nice isn’t it. Let’s run with that.

If we’re being completely honest – I’m pretty sure it’s not that though.

Why? Well it’s a very recent development. As I mentioned we never say “Pākēhā” and even if we did – the words would not lay in that order to express such a concept. I think it’s taken off because 1. It’s a nice romantic notion that refers to mystical life essence and Pākeha love that stuff. And 2. It provides a sanitised version for Pākeha and plays down any negativity about initial encounters and what that might have meant to our Māori ancestors.

Essentially – it’s what we call “patipati Pākeha” – it’s there to make Pākeha feel better.

It may well be rooted in the term “Pakehakeha” – but this wouldn’t be the only time Pākeha explorers have been cast, or cast themselves, as mystical supernatural beings, and sometimes Gods, in the eyes of Natives. It’s a thing – and it’s got a lot more to do with ego than history.

(Watch all of that if you can, it’s mint)

What we shouldn’t automatically ignore though is that it may well also be rooted in the parasites and venereal diseases being carried by sailors, whalers and sealers of these times, after being at sea for months. There are considerable Indigenous sources that refer to the fact that these crew carried “kehā” – crabs, lice, and viruses. Furthermore, it’s an accepted fact that they infected Pacific peoples with these diseases and drove populations down in their wake.

Thing is, I don’t see why it should be interpreted that way now. Gay originally referred to prostitution. Then it meant happy, and nowadays it means samesex attraction. Doesn’t mean all gay people are prostitutes, or necessarily joyous. Words shift in their application over time, and meaning is applied in that social context. I don’t have a problem with being Pākeha and having that word be rooted in a history that may relate to the diseases and parasites some, of the same heritage, brought over with them. In fact I think it’s important to remember that part of our history. I especially don’t consider it appropriate to erase and replace that option simply because it might help Pākeha feel better about the term, and feel better about how history played out (particularly when it is related to current systems of privilege). Nobody needs to feel bad, but it’s important that we are honest in what we do, and not just pandering to fragility.
Most importantly, I will not, ever, change my Reo to apply a word like “European” because someone has decided to inject a perjorative intention where there is none. I will not be forced to use anyone else’s language in lieu of a kupu Māori simply to make them feel better. My Reo has been subjected to more than enough force across history.

So I will continue to utilise the word Pākeha – and it may well be rooted in the unfortunate, harsh truth of our history but that does not mean it needs to be that, today. Unless you want it to be. But that is your journey, cuzzy, not mine.

Tēnā kotou aku cuzzies Pākeha!

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5 thoughts on “Sorryboutit, but Pākeha MIGHT just mean what you fear it means.”

  1. Tēnā koe, Tina,
    Two things I love have come together: your blog and John Green! Thanks for this week’s Scholarship English lesson plan (where we have been discussing ‘the dangers of a single story’ – Adichie, and the polyphony of voices Tina Makereti’s ‘Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings’, and the whole point of Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville’s cool poem, ‘Kupu rere kē’. Your blog is such a great companion piece! Feel great that you are (further) opening up some young minds on the Kāpiti Coast.
    Ngā mihi!
    Pākehā and dealing with it, head & heart on.

    1. Tēnā koe e hoa! Oh that’s wonderful to know and I’m flattered to sit alongside these peeps that I admire greatly. John Green is mean! 😀 Have a wonderful class and thanks for sharing your reflection. xo

  2. People should rejoice in the word Pākehā.

    If they were overseas, it is the one word that distinguishes them from other caucasians and europeans lets say in London. When overseas, no one but someone from here can be called Pākehā otherwise you’d be a Pom or Scot or French etc.

    It is also a Māori word which gives them an even greater connection to Aotearoa NZ and their relationship to the iwi taketake, the indigenous people of this land.

    The sooner the history of this country is taught in schools in this country, the better off we will all be. The sooner Te reo Māori is taught in all schools so it becomes normalised will enhance and enrich relationships between Māori and Pākehā.

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