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When I first realised I was Pakeha

Opinion article by Stacey Shortall

With te wiki o te reo Māori approaching, I have been reflecting not only on Māori language but also on the first time I realised I was Pakeha.

As a child growing up in a farming family in the rural Manawatu, race was frankly irrelevant to me. Everyone in my immediate and wider family shared the same fair complexion. We predominantly had Irish names. Our cultural rituals were primarily rooted in our Catholic faith. We celebrated our history and lineage without any reference to colonisation. I don’t recall anyone ever asking about my cultural identity or ethnic background. I was simply a “kiwi kid” – albeit a country one and not a townie.

The great majority of the other students at my local country primary school were Pakeha too. I knew the couple of “Māori kids,” as they were called, but I never reflected on how that was pronounced or what it really meant. Even by the time I went to secondary school in Palmerston North, where I played lots of sport with other Māori children, their race was irrelevant to my childhood view of the world. I never winced when someone mispronounced their name. I never reacted when someone joked about them bringing boil up for lunch. Sure I turned to them for support when we played inter-school events against Wellington colleges who performed kapa haka, but I never inquired about why or what the waiata meant. I simply never really thought about my friends’ race. Yet, looking back now, I fully suspect they thought about mine.

When I went out into the world, it never occurred to me that my skin colour set the tone for the interactions I had. No one eyed me suspiciously as I ducked behind the shelves at the local dairy to find the coin I dropped. No one raised an eyebrow when I shrieked and ran excitedly around the playground. No one demanded to know where my parents were while I sat quietly reading in the public library. No one looked through me as I stood in line to enter the swimming pool. I just never noticed the (favourable) assumptions being made about me because of my race. Yet, looking back know, I fully suspect that any of my Māori friends accompanying me probably did.

I believed as a child that the experiences and opportunities of my life were universal. That Martin Luther King’s words about being judged by the content of your character rather than the colour of your skin prevailed in the land of the long white cloud.

I never really saw race because I never felt racially excluded.

And then I did.

It was at university in the early 1990s that I first became embroiled in race conversations. New Zealand had just marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Storm clouds were brewing. Protests over land and Treaty issues were growing. Studying and flatting with Māori law students, I found myself in discussions about the importance of Māori language revival and proper recognition of Māori rights. Trying to do my best to have some voice in those conversations, I shared views about race and equality that were inevitably drawn from my childhood experiences. Uninformed and uneducated views. Ideas premised on notions of there being a flat playing field and colour-blind assessments of people. Thoughts around us all being the same that ignored the richness of our differences.

Such remarks hardly went unnoticed. In response, I was confronted with the distressing history of land injustices and a silenced language, dismaying accounts of institutional bias, racism and racial profiling, and harrowing stories of discrimination and harassment.

This silenced me. I had no common experience. No similar events had occurred in my life that far.

For the very first time, I stared in the mirror, saw myself as Pakeha, and recognised that my race had excluded me from encounters that other young people – with whom I otherwise had much in common – endured.

My race had protected me. And the race of others had exposed them.

Almost 30 years later, as I look to celebrate te wiki o te reo Māori, I find myself back in front of the mirror. That same Pakeha face is unsurprisingly reflected back at me (with perhaps a few more wrinkles). I would like to think that I am now more informed and educated about the experiences of Māori in our country. But I know that I need to continue to listen more than speak. I recognise that I need to continue to educate myself, and that really engaging in te wiki o te reo Māori is part of that effort. I acknowledge that the way in which I parent my children and engage with other people in the world can influence their education too. I challenge myself to encourage awareness of Māori language not just next week but in my everyday life. But, most importantly, I commit to remembering what it was first like to be confronted with my race and to doing everything within my ability to ensure that all races feel protected in Aotearoa. Recognising and celebrating the significance of te reo is part of that commitment.



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