Census Musings, Or Why I Identify as ‘Pakeha’

Time for that most delightfully bureaucratic of tasks: filling out the New Zealand census form (it theoretically applies to 7th March, but never mind). And one of those census questions is the one about ethnicity.

The appropriate option for me – a white New Zealander – is ‘New Zealand European’. But if truth be told, I prefer the label ‘Pakeha’, and rather wish the census had listed that as an option.

The issue with ‘NZ European’ is that I am not European. My father might be, and my ancestors might be, but I was born in New Zealand. My mother was born in New Zealand, and that half of my family have been here for some 160 years. This country is my home, not Europe. It’s the light of the Southern Cross in the night skies of my homeland, not the North Star. Christmas, for me, is a midsummer thing, not midwinter.

(And, sure, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Stride (1770-1867), was an agricultural labourer from Somerset. But go back another millennium and more, and my ancestors were probably among those invading and colonising the British Isles from somewhere else. Human beings move around, and settle, and put down roots. I have never been to Somerset, and to claim an association strikes me as profoundly artificial. It would be artificial even for my father, who happens to be British, on account of him coming from Fife in Scotland and not from the South-West of England).

In fact, I am also reminded of the novel Sleeping Murder, by Agatha Christie. The protagonist is a New Zealander, and while the book was written in the early 1940s, it was only published in 1976. Christie has a paragraph where she notes that New Zealanders often tend to think of Britain as ‘home’. This may have been true in the early 1940s, but by the 1970s would have been considered old-fashioned. To read it in the 2020s, as a New Zealander, it comes across as so quaint as to be funny. This country has evolved – and the European-derived population has evolved with it, until we are no longer European. I am not my great-great-grandfather, Daniel Keenan (1837/1838-1936), who arrived in New Zealand from Ireland in 1864. I am a product of 160 years of ensuing history.

Which brings us back to ‘Pakeha’. In origin, the word is simply Maori for ‘foreigner’, though I have seen suggestions that the word might be associated with the Patupaiarehe, the Maori fairy people (which, yes, would mean we’re all a bunch of Evil Elves). Some older people do consider the word offensive, or at least they once did, on the basis that it designates ‘foreignness’ and hence not belonging. But here’s the thing – words, like people, evolve. One only needs to look at Shakespeare for that. And when ‘Pakeha’ is used today, in the New Zealand vernacular, it carries none of those ‘foreign’ implications, no more than calling us ‘Kiwis’ is to call us a flock of flightless nocturnal birds. The word simply refers to the section of the population descended from Europe.

(As an aside, it’s also worth recalling that ‘Wales’ comes from an Old English term… which just happens to mean ‘foreigners’ itself).

As a recognised identifier for a New Zealander of European ancestry, ‘Pakeha’ is more organic and less forced than various other attempted labels. It also indicates that we are something more than ‘New Zealand Europeans’, inhabitants of Europe who have suddenly found themselves at the antipodes. And as someone who is not, nor has ever been, an inhabitant of Europe… I’d say it describes me pretty well, insofar as one’s ethnicity matters to the census.

One thought on “Census Musings, Or Why I Identify as ‘Pakeha’

  1. They force us to choose the “European” label because to the census takers this is basically interpreted biologically as “white.” It’s a way to measure presumed “racial” categories without using (racist) color or geographical race labels (like “white” or “Asian”) even though science has proven that human races do not exist. If they really wanted to address “identity” – who we believe we are – they wouldn’t use such an obvious race-based category. It’s more than just ironic that they are forcing us to identify as someone we are not – Europeans – by not providing a category for how we actually identify – which is as Pakeha. This, of course, completely screws up (‘invalidates’) any interpretation they hope to or will draw from this inherently flawed data. By the way, the census people have been thinking about this for several decades (several censuses) now, and have had the guidance of social scientists who point out the problem with the “European” category, but they appear to just not be able to “get it.” I believe the reason is the one I stated, they still have an idea that it’s important to measure “racial” differences in the Aotearoa New Zealand population, and the “European” category helps them count the “white” people.

    Liked by 1 person

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