Issues of shared identity, Peter Beatson

Pakeha: The Quest For Identity in New Zealand
Michael King (ed),
Penguin Books, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

I came to this book already blooded from a remarkably bad-tempered review by Maurice Shadbolt, in which he variously described the contributors as numb fundamentalists, chatterers, politically correct wimps, gutless wonders and happy buggers – inane yea-sayers who despise and denigrate European culture while mindlessly endorsing everything Maori. The book I actually read was in most respects the exact opposite of the one evoked by Shadbolt, although I did ultimately have some muted sympathy for his exasperation.

What I read was a collection of urbane, thoughtful and often witty anecdotes and reflections. They were narrated by mature people from an extremely wide variety of backgrounds and orientations. The writers all handle prose excellently and they have thought and felt their way through complex issues. Despite the surface variety, there was a great deal of common experience which will be familiar to most Pakeha readers. The writers traversed well-known territory. This certainly brought home the book’s central thematic assertion of shared identity.

Behind the unanimity about this identity, there was an agenda which Shadbolt, focusing his rage on the word ‘Pakeha’, did not pick up. The real politico-linguistic point at issue was the Maori word ‘tauiwi’ (foreigner, stranger, outsider). Just as we white intellectuals were beginning to recover from the shock of Maori radicalism and were learning to relax on the secure fence of Pakehatanga, the wily natives undermined us by substituting ‘tauiwi’ for ‘Pakeha’. The whole point of the book is to affirm that New Zealanders of non-Maori origin are Pakeha but are not tauiwi. Behind the book’s good-natured affirmative facade there is some discreet political manoeuvring going on to re-legitimise and re-indigenise white New Zealanders. The King’s horses and men are attempting, in short, to secure Humpty Dumpty back on the wall.

This political issue apart, my pleasure in reading the book was marred by a strong sense of déja vu. In his preface, Michael King surprisingly asserts that we know little or nothing about British immigrants, about the cultural baggage they brought with them or how their values changed through interaction with the new land and its inhabitants – we know virtually nothing, that is, about Pakeha identity. Yet surely almost everything written in this self-conscious country since British settlers first came has effectively been about Pakeha identity, even if that precise term was not used? What, to take two strands amongst many, are the novels of Mander, Hyde, Frame, McCauley or Kidman about, likewise the poems of Brasch, Fairburn, Baxter or early Curnow, if it is not the experience of being white New Zealanders – about ‘being Pakeha’? I thoroughly enjoyed King’s volume for the privileged insight it gave into the lives of some interesting and intelligent people, but must admit to having lingering sympathy for Maurice Shadbolt’s fit of abominable temper, provoked by the realisation that apparently ‘it is identity time again’.

 

Peter Beatson is a senior lecturer in sociology at Massey University. In 1992 he is a Visiting Fellow at The University of Auckland.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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