Catherine Delahunty: “The refusal to look at our collective identity as Pākehā, and the collective benefits we accrue from colonisation, holds us in a position of dominance. But under that, I sense growing discomfort from those who’ve never reckoned with what it means to be Pākehā in this land.”

We’re in the midst of another Pākehā backlash, writes Catherine Delahunty — and it’s up to Pākehā of goodwill, the well-informed and open-hearted, to step up and challenge it.


So many times lately, I’ve been told that talking about racism by Pākehā against Māori is itself racist.

“I’m not a Pākehā, I’m a Kiwi,” I’m told by people who also lament that “we never used to notice race.”

Now, though, the media is full of what happened on the anti-co-governance tour and what the mayor of Invercargill said about it, and unhappiness about equity measures in the health system. Then we had two wāhine Māori politicians on the front page for nothing — the Wellington mayor who forgot to pay for dinner until the next day, and the Minister of Justice who took leave to be a parent in the holidays.

Why is there such a soft landing for racism right now? Is it the election? Or is it just the persistent underlying intolerance that has always been simmering below the surface of our communities and our politics? One step forward — and then backlash, on repeat.

I’ve noticed that doing anything to stand up to breaches of Te Tiriti and racism against Maōri is immediately labelled as racist against white people. Doing these things is seen as destroying “unity”.

The more subtle commentary says thing like “I love Māori culture but . . .” and “We must help Māori be successful”.

But we hardly ever talk about ourselves as Pākehā. Even naming Pākehā as the dominant group among many other cultures living here seems taboo.

The national narrative I was raised on was benign invasion. Other Indigenous peoples around the world had it far worse under their colonisers, this narrative goes, so what have Māori got to moan about? Instead of colonisers, we had brave founding settlers.

I think of the waterfront memorial in Nelson, where one of my ancestral names is listed among the “pioneering families”. Another is also described in the library archives as a “pioneer” family.

Pioneer is a wonderful neutraliser of coloniser. It evokes courageous adventurers risking all to start a life in an empty wilderness where they gallantly work to build a new world. The word is used to invoke our gratitude for their sacrifice.

At primary school, I was in Wakefield House and to mark this we wore a blue ribbon. We knew nothing about the person the ribbon signified, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, except he was some kind of founding hero, particularly of Wellington where we lived.

Every sports day, we sat in the prickly grass of Magpie Lawn in the Botanical Gardens in bright summer heat and waited in lines to run races. I remember the starter pistol bangs and the sudden gasping race in which I was always slower than when running in the street at home. I was proud to be in Wakefield as the blue ribbon was beautiful.

I’ve since learned that Wakefield was a speculator and a liar. His company — the New Zealand Companyled by himself, his brothers and his son, acquired land cheaply or illegally from tangata whenua and sold it on to potential migrants.

If you read Jerningham Wakefield’s books Adventure in New Zealand Vol 1 and Vol 2, you’d think the Wakefields were doing tangata whenua a massive favour and all was lovely until the ungrateful hapū fought back and stopped agreeing to land deals.

We recently visited the site of what is known as the Wairau “affray” where Arthur Wakefield and others attempted to arrest Te Rauparaha and others, to appropriate the rich rolling lands of the Wairau Valley. The signage there still says that the New Zealand Company “needed” this land for British settlers, although someone has written “wanted” above that.

No wonder we’re still unable to accept positive change to rectify past wrongs, when our official history is so sanitised and inaccurate. No wonder we want “unity” as a blanketing word to cover up how harm was done.

The contradictions in our present are multiple. As Pākehā, we see ourselves as a fair people who nonetheless took a country via a rip-off. We are courageous fighters overseas who have benefited from a dirty war at home. We are proud of our Treaty but we accept its daily dishonouring. For individuals, there is a plaintive confusion: “I’m a good person and I’ve never stolen anything.”

The refusal to look at our collective identity as Pākehā, and the collective benefits we accrue from colonisation, holds us in a position of dominance. But under that, I sense growing discomfort from those who’ve never reckoned with what it means to be Pākehā in this land.

At the same time as ingrained racist attitudes are being publicised and perpetuated, these things are also being named and the attitudes behind them challenged like never before in the colony.

What are our shared values as Pākehā, and how do they manifest in what we actually do, not just in what the media claims we do?

There are now so many Pākehā of goodwill, who are better informed and more open-hearted, that we must be able to answer that question — and we must be able to step up to the challenge.

Right now, there’s an atmosphere that validates direct and damaging racist behaviour. The roots are deep and the attitudes bloom whenever social conditions allow.

But the values we admire as Pākehā, of tenacity and courage, can be reframed to suit where we are now — the tenacity to unpack the past, the courage to embrace a different future.

It’s up to us Pākehā who’ve benefited from Tiriti education to share what we know with our own and to continually challenge ourselves in the work for Tiriti justice.

We can move past the backlash. It’s on us Pākehā to make sure that happens.


Catherine Delahunty is a Pākehā activist in environmental, social justice, and Te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. She is a writer and a tutor on social change issues, and a grandmother. Catherine was a Green MP for nine years and lives in Hauraki.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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