Some mythical pakeha, Paul Spoonley

Inventing New Zealand. Everyday Myths of Pakeha Identity 
Claudia Bell
Penguin, $29.95
ISBN 0140244964

The last decades have been the final unravelling of the great empires that marked the beginning of the century, both capitalist and communist, and of the cultural connections which characterised this imperialism. The need to access and exploit the resources of the colonies and to justify the subjugation of the colonised were epitomised by ideological distinctions between the “us” of the imperial power and the “them” of the colonised, resulting in such evocative and patronising phrases as Kipling’s “the white man’s burden”.

The resistance of the colonised, the decline of these empires and a consideration of what might replace them has produced one of the most interesting areas of intellectual and political debate in the post-second world war era. Beginning with authors such as Frantz Fanon in the 1950s, a recent literature has explored the issues of what constitutes the “Other” or the “Subaltern”, of diaspora and hybridity and of nationalism, resistance and decolonisation. Edward Said’s work in the late 1980s, alongside those of authors such as Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Trinh Minh-ha, bell hooks, Stuart Hall and many others, provide a corpus of material which reflects the evolving politics of culture and the implications for post-imperialist, or post-colonial, states. These politics signal the importance of cultural identity, for coloniser and colonised, in negotiating new settlements, as the old order of mass political party, of employment, of work-based identity and representation and of nation-states (which were encompassed in global empires and which reflected the singular interests of a dominant cultural group) have declined in importance. The relationship between centre and periphery has changed in fundamental ways.

To the puzzlement of many and the delight of some, New Zealand has not been exempt from such transformations even if it has taken some time for us to perceive the shape of the new order. The decline of the British Empire was not widely acknowledged locally until the 1970s when the entry of Britain into the EEC coincided with an oil crisis which exposed the fragile nature of our economic base and signalled the cutting of a cultural umbilical cord — not in that single moment but over some years and decades. What should replace these imperial links and influences? The exploration of a local voice had been occurring for some time and it can be heard in the work of Frank Sargeson and Allen Curnow. Others such as Dick Scott had begun the process of challenging and revising a colonial-inspired history, and to give some cognisance to the voice and experiences of those colonised in Aotearoa. What hastened these developments and marked a significant turning point was a new stage in the active resistance by the tangata whenua, especially from the 1970s onwards.

The post-migration experiences of an urbanised Maori emphasised the losses of colonialism — the loss of land, of culture, of language. In connecting with other colonised groups on an international stage, new strategies and political claims were made and a critical text of the moment was provided by Donna Awatere’s Maori Sovereignty. Here the arguments of Frantz Fanon about the nature of colonisation and what needs to be accomplished in the process of decolonisation are repeated, along with Gramscian notions of contesting “white”/pakeha hegemony. It challenged many — pakeha, unionists, feminists, Maori leaders — on their willingness to sustain a British colonialism and to consider what the alternatives might be. It remains one of the most widely read books of a decade that marked a new stage in domestic politics and which prefigured the significance that was to be subsequently given to treaty issues and to tangata whenua ambitions.

Three other best-sellers add different strands to these cultural politics. One was the appearance in 1985 of Michael King’s Being Pakeha which represented what was and remains a minority but still influential response from members of the majority group. The others were Jamie Belich’s The New Zealand Wars and a Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (1986) and Claudia Orange’s The Treaty of Waitangi (1987). These marked the beginning of a surge in revisionist histories which, following in the steps of Dick Scott, sought to give attention to groups that had previously been silenced. The work of Charlotte MacDonald, Anne Salmond or Jock Phillips have given us a new version of history and a new sense of who we are as citizens of this country.

These books from the 1980s exemplify the main elements of a New Zealand which is struggling with how cultural issues will shape its future. Iwi politics and increasingly those of non-iwi, urban Maori now play a significant part in national political debate with varying degrees of success as Jane Kelsey has noted. Nevertheless, the resolution of Treaty of Waitangi grievances along with the ambition to progress towards tino rangatiratanga are evident in a way that would have been inconceivable in this country in the 1960s. An important part of the resolution of treaty claims has been the revision of New Zealand history. A particular group from within the academy (broadly defined) and from the tangata whenua have helped rewrite how we should view this colonial history. And finally majority group members have been forced to respond to these developments and have done so in various ways.

My preference for describing these developments is to cast them as post-colonial. This should not be read as a stage which comes “after” colonialism or imperialism but as a period in which the values and institutions which represent colonialism are critiqued and new ways of identifying ourselves and of organising our institutions are explored. Simon During, one of the most interesting commentators on what post-colonialism might mean in a New Zealand context, talks of the need to find an identity which we have created, rather than something which has been granted by the colonial power, and that inevitably New Zealanders will come to know themselves in Maori terms. The previous invisibility of the tangata whenua, or indeed of pakeha, is replaced by a self-conscious and critical privileging of cultural identity, locally named and understood, which disrupted colonial understandings. As Stuart Hall observes, it is “a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture…”

How do we then categorise and understand members of the majority cultural group? One of the developments of the 1980s and 1990s, especially with the work of Ruth Frankenberg or David Wellman and books such as Names We Call Home, has been to explore what northern hemisphere writers call “whiteness”. Not only is the focus on indigenous and minority groups as they emerge from the disabling ideologies of colonialism. Majority groups, the descendants of the colonisers, are also invited to review critically what cultural identity means for them. If such whiteness remains invisible, then it reconfirms the fact that white values and behaviours continue as the norm, unmarked and unacknowledged, most notably to those who are themselves white. It also hinders the resolution of inequities that derive from a colonial history.

At the heart of the settler colony is also an ambivalent attitude towards their own [white] identity, poised as they are between the centre from which they seek to differentiate themselves and the indigenous people who serve to remind them of their own problematic occupation of the country. The process of effecting justice, restitution and reconciliation with the indigenous peoples, is now crucial to any notion of creating an effective identity…

New Zealand, unlike other settler societies or colonial powers that have had the colonies come to them in the mass migration of the postwar period, is not forced to use somewhat doubtful labels such as “white”. “Pakeha” exists as a ready-made alternative, a signifier of cultural difference and political commitment. Since King’s book, contributors such as Hamish Keith, Jim Ritchie or Belich have redefined (refined?) what the label means. At one level it has been used to describe the cultural or ethnic identity of the dominant group but at another it reflects a commitment to resolving treaty issues and establishing a more equitable partnership. Of course, the term pakeha can be used in other ways, and there are many who oppose any use of it at all. This opposition is not surprising, given the reluctance of majority group members to acknowledge, much less support, the implications of post-colonialism.

Of course, such post-colonial politics have their own weaknesses. They tend to overemphasise the nation-state at the very point at which nation-states appear to have less and less authority in the face of globalised production and ownership and the influence of internationalised institutions such as the media. The term also implies that something is being discarded when in fact new forms of imperialism are emerging, including new ethnic policies which enshrine many of the inequities of the old colonial order. Pakeha as an ethnic label might gain new meanings and use but equally it can be used to silence others and to claim that the core values and experiences of this society are still those of the majority group. The celebration of culture can easily slide into the superficiality of multiculturalism and a denial that there are more substantive issues of exclusion and disadvantage involved.

New Zealand seems poised to become Aotearoa. The possibility of post-colonialism is there but so are other possibilities. Tino rangatiratanga holds out promise but it has begun to fade as the opportunities to exercise national sovereignty over resources of various kinds declines for all of us. The liberal moment for considering a progressive construction of the political responsibilities of pakeha has been burdened by the uncertainties and costs of the post-welfare state. The arrival of Asian capital and migrants has encouraged a fortress mentality and a middle-New Zealand racism. If cultural identity is to be privileged, it is more likely to be as a soft form of multiculturalism rather than a hard-edged biculturalism or as concessions in terms of political control or resource ownership.

For all the scepticism of these observations, there is a sense in which New Zealand and New Zealanders are remaking themselves and are coming to understand themselves, as During says, in our own terms. Contributions to this process and the heated debate which they engender attract a lot of attention. The sales of Maori Sovereignty, Being Pakeha or The Treaty of Waitangi signal a willingness to be convinced but it must be remembered that Geoff MacDonald’s Shadows Over New Zealand or Stuart Scott’s The Travesty of Waitangi also do well on the Whitcoulls best-seller counter. We can buy and read some interesting and enlightening histories; there are increasing numbers of texts which tell the stories of minority ethnic groups; and there are analyses of the things that concern Maori. The gaps, at least in the non-fiction arena, are those that deal with the issues of cultural identity for the majority group. There has been little to match the stature of Being Pakeha.

On to this terrain wanders Inventing New Zealand. Everyday Myths of Pakeha Identity.

Given what I have described so far, the title of the book is tantalising. The issues of constructing an identity, and specifically a pakeha identity, are signalled in the title. There is the promise that we will explore the way in which New Zealandness has been invented. But, despite the fact that many of the central issues are discussed, the book seldom rises to the occasion. The fact that we no longer call Britain “home”, that we are revising our history and creating new icons and myths as we proceed and that the postwar baby-boomers have played a key role are all canvassed and a light once-over provided. But the book does little more than describe these things and the most frustrating aspect is the unwillingness of Claudia Bell to provide substance. Critical to her task is the notion of pakeha: what it might mean to various New Zealanders and how it has been contested and moulded by a range of interests, political and commercial. Snippets are provided but they are insufficient to sustain a book which hinges on the term. A sentence such as the following remains unconvincing even if the reader is in sympathy with the sentiments:

…television tries to show us a society that the viewer (pakeha) can comfortably believe they [sic] belong to. It places the viewer (pakeha) in an assumed ideal role in relation to what is shown; the viewer (pakeha) is invited to unquestioningly occupy their position, for instance as potential consumers (pakeha) of items advertised. (p132)

I do not know which definition of pakeha is being used here nor am I persuaded that the media operate with such explicit constructs as a “typical pakeha”, if that is what is implied. The result is that some of those things, notably commercial in origin, which contribute to identity — the “Weetbix heroes” advertisements or the “Heartland” programmes — are described but without the detail which allows us to agree with the author’s conclusions. If we return to the sentence quoted above, television does a lot of things, including some of those things attributed to it here, but seldom in a straightforward way. The views of some pakeha might be endorsed by television in the ways intended by those making the programme or advertisement, while other pakeha will be disinterested in, opposed to or offended by the same material. Such different readings are seldom explored here. Also seldom explored is how images and messages connect with those of the viewers and thereby influence notions of identity, those of pakeha or other New Zealanders. Moreover, the way in which we are created by our experiences because of our gender, location, class, education and so on and the implications of these experiences for the messages we receive about what constitutes “New Zealandness” are not discussed in any depth. Most reading this book will say, with some justification, that what is described is not their experience but that of some mythical “pakeha”.

An example is the material on museums. The author visited many and was obviously struck by the way in which some museums have worked hard to create a pakeha folk history which sustains certain myths about colonialism in New Zealand. I am sure that this is true of a number of the smaller museums, but little mention is made of the larger ones. As a consultant on the Te Papa Tongarewa project, I can affirm with some feeling that the issue of what aspects of pakeha history and identity were to be included was a very contested one. A number of those advising the project team wanted to see a much more critical understanding of the pakeha role in colonisation reflected in the museum’s displays, that those who are often ignored in historical presentations such as the single women migrants or working class pakeha should be represented alongside the politically important and economically affluent. The eventual result will be a compromise but the point is that there are critical and contradictory processes creating our national myths, with a variety of results. Not all of them produce a romanticised folk history. These nuances and disputes are not part of this book and there is a strong suspicion that only those examples that sustain the author’s thesis are included.

This is a disappointing book. Bell is well placed to write on pakeha and on the way in which they construct images of themselves. Her work has led to television programmes and a book — Putting Our Town on the Map — on the images and icons of largely small-town New Zealand. It would have been timely to have written and had published a relatively light-hearted but convincing exploration of the way in which pakeha identity is being altered and made in a world that privileges cultural identity in new ways. But this, unfortunately, is not that book.

Paul Spoonley is professor in the sociology department, Massey University – Albany.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more