Brook Turner: “I had always cringed when I heard the word Pākehā. Without consciously acknowledging it, I had associated the word with colonisation but I’d been reluctant to accept it as part of my own personal identity.” (Photo supplied)

Brook Turner has finally come to terms with what it means to be Pākehā — and it’s been an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding journey, as he writes here.


Being offered the chance by my boss to do the Pākehā Project last year completely changed my understanding of who I am as a Pākehā man, and who I’m called to be.

I had always cringed when I heard the word Pākehā. Without consciously acknowledging it, I had associated the word with colonisation but I’d been reluctant to accept it as part of my own personal identity.

The truth is, for years I subconsciously disassociated myself from the term Pākehā, because to accept it meant I must also embrace the truth that I’m a descendant of, and a participant in, a system that has disadvantaged and exploited Māori.

The starting point is to recognise that Pākehā are on the wrong side of history for all things concerning Māori, including the rights and promises afforded to them through Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

While subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) suppressing and rejecting my Pākehā identity, I chose nonetheless to pursue a course in work and life to learn, support, and champion the work of Māori leaders who I’ve come to know and love.

Yet these two journeys — denying and suppressing the colonising parts in my history while uplifting, supporting and advocating for Māori — rarely converged.

One of the defining attributes of Pākehā and western worldview thinking is the ability to compartmentalise our lives, failing to see the interconnectedness between different spheres of existence. So, while I bought into the notion that colonisation was in my family history, I had written off any chance to right the wrongs of my Pākehā past. I thought that individual and consistent support for Māori leadership was a sufficient contribution to honouring Te Tiriti.

Determined to be a force for good, I pressed forward in attempts to ally with Māori, but without traversing the deep rivers within, where unconscious programming and assimilation into western thinking dominated me more than I could comprehend.

This is not to say that I was oblivious to my actions and inaction as contributions to the foundational and constitutional issues facing Aotearoa. Committed to making a difference for those excluded and marginalised by society, I’d forged a career in the non-profit sector, written about the disparities in the care system for rangatahi Māori, and designed community-led responses to some of New Zealand’s greatest social issues.

Equally, on a personal level, my wife and I chose to send our children to the local primary school where the roll is predominantly Māori and Pasifika. Patting myself on the back for our noble choice, I claimed to be different to those other Pākehā who buy into white flight and behave with unconscious or conscious bias in their educational choices for their children.

It’s easy to defend yourself as a white man when you are doing something, anything, to support minorities, because so few do. Still, the argument of participating in affirmative action as a free pass from intergenerational responsibilities can create a perverse perspective — one that claims to be exempt from participating and perpetuating individual, stereotypical white privilege.

White exceptionalism, I’ve learned, asserts to be “good” on the basis that any small acts to support Indigenous rights redeem a person, solely because of their good intentions. Therefore, ongoing criticism of white and western worldviews that deepen injustice for Māori don’t apply to the good white folk (like me) who are trying their best to support Māori.

When questioned on my commitment to Māori rights, I’d often excuse myself from blame, arguing: “It’s those other racists who need to change,” without turning the mirror on myself first.

My personal awakening started with a post on LinkedIn. I’m a frequent user of the platform, and after completing the pre-reading for the first of several retreats for the Pākehā Project, I decided to post an E-Tangata article on becoming “really Pākehā,” by Jen Margaret. I treated the post like any other, promoting a view that asked Pākeha to understand who we are in relationship to Māori and Te Tiriti, and calling on us to actively engage in decolonising acts and profound personal work to see the aspirations of Te Tiriti fulfilled.

Within moments of publishing, the trolls were out with their keyboard knives. Dozens of comments mounted on my page from successful white men, leaders of industry, people like me! A sea of rage was published from men who defended white and western ways of living with the old tropes of earning everything they owned, and the justification that their exceptional achievements were higher than others.

The point they made was crystal clear: each of these successful men believed emphatically that they faced as much opposition as any Māori to get where they are today. They had no problem defending themselves while throwing in racist slurs, seasoned with personal attacks on my character. I was flabbergasted.

The only demographic of friends who came to my defence in the comments were Māori, females, and those belonging to an ethnic minority. Go figure!

The hate hurt, but as I reflected on being offended by a few guys who look like me on social media, I also pondered how much harder it must be for Māori to have this debate when this kind of hate is so prevalent, remembering that the debate has been raging since long before I was alive, since the Treaty was first signed and then forgotten by Pākehā, and fought for ever since.

Initially, I thought the trolls were just angry white men — and again I fell into the trap of thinking I was an exception to this white supremacy nonsense. However, it all changed when I was asked by our Pākehā Project guides to read Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F Saad. Suddenly, I was exposed to terms I’d never heard before, such as “white silence,” “white centering,” “white saviourism,” “white fragility”, and “tone policing”.

My eyes were opened to my self-praising and self-pardoning, and my insecurity about my own whiteness. I began noticing my justification for removing myself as an individual from any blame for what happened before me. With shame, I also realised the way I tone-policed some of my Māori friends, separating the “gentle” and “professional” ones from the “angry” and “unprofessional” ones, based simply on how they spoke of our fraught history together.

Brook sharing his journey at Piritahi Marae at the final Pākehā Project retreat on Waiheke island. (Photo supplied)

During the ensuing retreats, I became aware of the horrific acts of the migrating powers from Europe into the Pacific, spurred on by the Doctrine of Discovery (1493) issued by Pope Alexander VI, which supposedly gave God’s blessing to the acquisition of land and resources by force, with an unwarranted pardon to bring Indigenous peoples into servitude through any means necessary.

As a son of a minister and missionary, my heart began to shatter. What was this new history I was learning about? How could I have been so blind to my own participation in colonising acts masked as “pure motive” evangelism throughout my overt Christian upbringing?

My faith remained genuine, but my soul was in anguish. With the language of the coloniser peppered through a religious history I had never been told before, I felt sick to the bone. I wanted it to stop. I sought freedom and liberation from the waves of guilt, pain, and responsibility that flooded my senses. I needed a break. I longed for a way to escape the cold, hard, unforgiving truth that rocked my foundations.

That was until I remembered that I am the privileged one. I was simply suffering from a mild case of white fragility. It felt like I’d been shaken awake by a rumbling deep within the earth. A new voice spoke and reminded me that Māori don’t get a break from the systemic racism in this country. Māori don’t get a rest from the racial profiling and newsreels of Māori hardship night after night on our airwaves. Māori don’t get any reprieve for the breaches of the Treaty or the use of their history as political fodder.

Oh, how fragile of me to be so hurt by simply learning the truth and having a few insults and reality checks hit me and my religious preferences along the way. Perhaps the pain was a friend and not an adversary. Maybe it was Atua and aroha who were leading me into this difficult journey.

I decided to run towards the discomfort: to bury myself in the thorny issues by asking questions instead of shrinking away in fear. The time had come to investigate the cost and injustice that had given me my privilege in the first place.

After journeying alongside a group of companions on the Pākehā Project, I was beginning to see that, although the results of colonisation in our history are not altogether my fault, it is my responsibility to help to undo them.

Disturbingly, collective trauma lives on in each of us whether we like it or not. We can’t escape the effects of the past, and they echo through our bloodlines. The acts of our ancestors soak into the ground, the rivers, the trees, and our very cells as humans.

The terror and horror of a colonising mindset that treats the planet, people, and culture as resources to conquer and extract, has, and is, failing. Whether we choose to believe it or not, the system is bleeding, choking, decaying, and cracking at the seams.

Among the smoke and fire and ongoing wreckage created by the failures in our system, there is still an old, but new, way which we can all embrace. A journey that not only recognises the atrocities of white supremacy in the system and seeks to undo them, but one that sees and names the enormous harm of human supremacy on our maunga, awa, moana and whenua.

Hearts and minds are being awakened around the globe to facts that recognise the broken design of a system that gave birth to colonisation. The polluted rivers of neoliberalism that continue to perpetuate the suppression, confiscation and rejection of Indigenous culture are finally becoming visible.

And here’s the thing: we are the system! If the system is us, then when we heal ourselves, we begin to heal each other and the world. The river can be restored!

Waitangi Day 2024 at Waitangi: “I was . . . surrounded by Māori from across Aotearoa, and feeling 100 percent at home in myself.” (Photo Brook Turner)

Recently, I made the hīkoi to Waitangi on Waitangi Day to stand alongside Māori I know, and those I don’t know, and claim He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi as our constitutional foundations — irreplaceable taonga — woven into the halls of our past and holding the keys to a unified future.

As I stood on the beach, barefoot in the sand, I listened to a brave rangatahi recite an ancient Māori chant to an ocean of faces. He was followed by a kaumātua with an equally beautiful and eloquent chant — a chant older than colonisation and its effects. I didn’t understand most of the words, but my body shuddered with excitement at the sound.

Before 2023, I never would have found myself at Waitangi on a public holiday. I probably would have put my feet up and watched a movie or gone with the family for an outing in the big smoke. Instead, I was barefoot on the beach at Waitangi, surrounded by Māori from across Aotearoa, and feeling 100 percent at home in myself.

Today I’m a changed man, and the rewiring has begun. As I drift off into my imagination, I ponder whether the same rewiring happening in me can take place in all of us?

Even now, if you close your eyes, or hold your hands close to a tree, a friend, or the earth itself, you will hear a new song. A waiata born in the depths of Papatūānuku and sung by Māori and Pākehā together. A waiata with enough wind, water, fire, and earth energy to blow us off the course of destruction, and into a new enlightened reality, where earth intelligence, Indigenous intelligence, and ancestry intelligence reign supreme.

My heart can’t stop singing. We are just getting started.


Brook Turner has worked in the not-for-profit sector for more than 25 years where he’s led the design and delivery of a range of social change initiatives. He was the founding CEO for youth charity Zeal before joining the leadership team at Visionwest, a social service agency, where he works to address homelessness, reduce poverty, and build a more food-secure Aotearoa. Brook is a Kiwibank Local Hero recipient, and an alumni member of Leadership New Zealand. He is from Palmerston North and now lives in Waitakere, West Auckland.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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