Pākehā Ethnicity: The Politics of White Privilege
Key words: white privilege, ethnicity, inequality, Pākehā grievance, biculturalism, Māori
The novelist Joyce Carol Oates (1999, 189) once wrote: ‘Majority populations take
themselves for granted as the norm; not accident, still less historical privilege, but “nature”
would seem to define us.’ Surprisingly, sociology has had little to say about historical
privilege and the ‘natural’ norms of mainstream society. For much of its history the discipline
has instead focussed on deviance, difference and otherness; in other words on those who stray
from the norm. Its preference has been to gaze down upon the powerless, the minorities and
the marginalised, rather than up to those enjoying positions of dominance. Over recent years
this has changed, through such developments as the emergence of critical whiteness studies
(Delgado and Stefancic 1997). In this chapter I examine this country’s majority ethnic
population, Pākehā, defined here as New Zealanders of European origin, and consider the
privileges that accrue to them.
One of critical whiteness studies’ pioneers, Peggy McIntosh, wrote that dominant
groups struggle to see their own privilege. She (1988, 1) suggests that we should see white
privilege ‘as an invisible package of unearned assets’ that are regularly used but rarely
reflected upon. White people, and their norms and values, are taken as the ideal by which
minority groups are judged (and to which they are expect conform). McIntosh, white herself
within a white hegemonic society (the USA), looked at her own life. Things she had
previously taken for granted included the abilities: to easily hang out with people of her own
‘race’ most of the time; to rent or buy a house in a desired location without it presenting a
problem to her or her new neighbours; to see people of her own ethnicity represented
frequently (and positively) in news media and popular culture; to know that most things
(education included) will come from her racial perspective (and will validate it); to frequent
shops that will sell the things that she likes; to be judged on her own merits rather than as a
stereotypical member of her ‘race’; to deal with authority figures from her ‘race’; to avoid
being the victim of racial profiling; to interact with legal and medical professions that will not
racially discriminate against her; and to remain ignorant of persons of colour, their cultures
and histories. In short, her advantages are such that she feels welcome in all facets of public
life (P. McIntosh 1988, 5–9, 17).
McIntosh also reported reluctance on the part of the majority to close the gaps
between disadvantaged groups and themselves. This sprang from the fear that this would
come at the expense of their privileges. A similar situation occurs in New Zealand. Research
has shown that Pākehā support the symbolic aspects of Māori culture – things like the
inclusion of the Māori version of the national anthem, the use of haka at international
sporting events, Waitangi Day celebrations, pōwhiri, and the teaching of Māori language –
but they remain opposed to anything that challenges the existing structure of economic
power. There is widespread opposition to redistribution of material resources, such as Māori
ownership of the seabed and foreshore, Māori university scholarships and medical school
places, or rates exemptions on Māori land (Sibley, Liu and Khan, 2010). McIntosh discusses
the systemic advantage of whiteness: it simultaneously confers advantage and offers
protection against a large number of social distresses. It provides the opportunity to go
through life largely unmarked by ethnicity or race. In contrast, Māori report a different
experience of the world, including being on the receiving end of discriminatory practices in
the domains of work, housing and healthcare at rates up to ten times that of Pākehā (Harris et
al. 2006), running the spectrum from verbal abuse to outright violence, as well as
stigmatisation and poorer service provision.
The Treaty Resource Centre (2004) identifies historic and current Pākehā privileges
that shape the country’s ethnic relations. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Pākehā
were able to buy Māori land cheaply; learn and communicate in their own language within
educational systems; have the value of their vote increased (by the restrictions on the number
of Māori parliamentary seats and the (now defunct) prohibition of Māori voting in other
electorates; see Shaw this volume for further discussion); enjoy full entitlement of
unemployment benefits and the old-age pension before Māori could; and access government
finance for land development. Some of these privileges have gone, others remain. All of our
major sectors (education, healthcare, justice and so on) are structured according to Pākehā
values. The Pākehā majority can count upon being free from profiling, surveillance and
condemnation on the basis of their ethnicity. Interestingly, when scholars at the University of
Auckland’s Faculty of Education ran a course in which Polynesian cultural values (both
Māori and Pasifika) were dominant, Pākehā students complained about feeling ignorant,
peripheral and alienated (Bell 2014, 183). This was a single course in a single degree. They
should imagine feeling this way all the time.
The Sociology of Ethnicity
Thus far we have made reference to skin colour and races. Both form part of everyday
discourse. But sociologists prefer to talk about ‘ethnicity’, which refers to cultural
characteristics, rather than race, which claims to refer to biological characteristics. The
concept of race is problematic. How do you disentangle environmental from genetic factors?
Even if you could, would you find biologically distinct populations? Scientists have been
unable to. They cannot locate unique races or identify fundamental differences between them.
Moreover, race is an identity category that has been put to pernicious uses. Colonial projects,
dispossessions, genocides and slavery have been justified on the basis of the racial superiority
of the aggressors and the racial inferiority of their victims.
When sociologists speak of ethnicity they are referring to a form of collective
identification that is based on selected myths, memories and traditions, and on shared
standards and symbols. Membership is conferred through a number of dimensions. Anthony
D. Smith (1988, 15–16, 22–31) suggests that those within an ethnic category typically share
group name, which separates them from other groups and signifies their ‘spirit’
myth of common ancestry, which bonds the members together
common history, which gives rise to shared memories and also helps give the group
unique culture, which distinguishes them from non-members. Cultural components
include: language, religious belief, laws and customs, dress, cuisine, arts and literature
definite physical territory – a home of their own. This also strengthens notions of
collective sense of belonging. Members must identify with each other.
It is important to note that individuals do not have to display all six dimensions in
order to ‘qualify’ for ethnic group membership. There are no strict rules regarding inclusion.
For example, it is perfectly possible to be Māori and yet not speak the language.
Pākehā in Theory and in Practice
Having just detailed a sociological definition of ethnicity, a question comes to the
fore: do Pākehā qualify as an ethnic group? Ethnicity, sociologically understood, speaks to
shared memory and history, commonality of customs, language, religion and world view. Yet
Pākehā have Scots, Irish, English, Welsh, Croatian, Dutch and other ancestry besides, plus all
of the cultural and historical differences that this entails. They may share neither religion nor
language nor cuisine, and their histories have often been marked by conflict and warfare. As
arguably the foremost theorist of Pākehā ethnicity has said of his own family: ‘We were New
Zealanders, but Irish New Zealanders. Although statistics may have lumped us among the
almost ninety percent of the population descended from the European migration, we did not
feel like members of a majority’ (King 1985, 29).
Those so lumped now occupy the same terrain and they have the same skin colour.
But beyond phenotype (observable traits) and physical location, what do they share? They
seem to lack the collective memories and traditions of which Anthony Smith spoke. David
Pearson (1989) claims that Pākehā fall short of an actual ethnic group, occupying the more
nebulous position of ‘ethnic category’. James Urry (1990, 20–21) adds that even then ‘it is an
empty category as it does not represent an identity but merely means non-Māori’.
In addition to problems in theory there are also problems in practice. Who are
Pākehā? Deployment of the term gives us insights into the politics of naming. To begin with,
it is unusual for an ethnic group to use a label bestowed by another ethnic group, although not
unheard of (Smith 1988, 23). However, in those other cases, it is a minority group adopting
the name given them by a majority. In taking on a name provided by a minority group,
Pākehā are perhaps unique.
Of course, just who takes on this label yields further insights. Media polls in the early
2000s indicated that at least half of those who qualified as Pākehā eschewed the category
(New Zealand Herald 2001), calling into question the notion of a coherent collective
grouping that is conscious of itself. More recent, social scientific research drawing on a
national sample of respondents shows that New Zealanders of European descent
overwhelmingly prefer more depoliticised national identities like ‘New Zealander’ (49.7 per
cent), followed by ‘New Zealand European’ (24.7 per cent) or ‘Kiwi’ (13.8 per cent).
Preference for ‘Pākehā’ was a lowly 9.8 per cent (Sibley, Houkamau and Hoverd, 2011, 209).
Choice of the term was correlated with their replies to a question about something else:
feelings toward Māori. Those using New Zealander, New Zealand European and Kiwi neither
implied nor acknowledged a relationship with Māori. Biculturalism was off the agenda. In
contrast, those who self-identified as Pākehā reported positive attitudes towards Māori. The
authors concluded: ‘the ways in which people name or describe social groups can thus be
used … to recognize and validate or to mask and exclude peoples and the relationships
between them’ (Sibley, Houkamau and Hoverd 2011, 214).
We should also note changes in identity politics, the shifting meanings behind being
Pākehā. Pākehā and Māori are relational identities. They exist with reference to each other.
They are also colonial constructs which came about in the early days of contact. In the 1970s
the politicisation of identities accelerated change in settler societies like Australia, Canada,
New Zealand and the United States. A ‘politics of recognition’ emerged (Bell 2014, 140)
amongst the majority ethnic group. This politics of recognition acknowledged indigenous
peoples, historic injustices wrought by colonisation, and the right to redress. Some have
explained the emergence of a politics of recognition at this juncture in time as nothing other
than an outbreak of white liberal guilt (Rata 2000, 135). But why suddenly feel guilty at this
point in time? This explanation dismisses history and Māori agency; in particular it ignores a
decade of concerted activism involving hīkoi, occupations, protests and intellectual
challenges to European supremacy within this country (Awatere 1984). In turn, this local
activism was partially inspired by global events, especially the civil rights movement of the
1960s and 1970s in the USA, black power and anti-colonial movements.
It is at this precise moment that we see people self-labelling as Pākehā in a different
sense: to denote cultural difference, to signal their majority membership status (and the
privileges that come with it). Crucially, it was also a way of acknowledging Māori
indigeneity. During the 1980s, one claimed Pākehā ethnicity as a mark of respect to Māori, to
acknowledge their First Nation status and to recognise the Treaty of Waitangi (O’Connor
1996). Pākehā thus emerged as the necessary ‘other’ to Māori in a society officially labelled
‘bicultural’ (Walker 1986). Contemporary Pākehā, then, are a product of the national politics
of the 1980s.
A significant new development began in the 1990s: Pākehā calling themselves the
‘second indigenous culture’ (King, 1991), and in the process laying claim to being an ethnic
group. As sociologist Paul Spoonley (1991, 56) put it: ‘[f]or Pākehā, New Zealand is a young
country and we have to create our own traditions, and our own understanding of what it is we
are doing and have done. There can’t be many cultural groups worldwide who are less tied to
a cultural past with so many opportunities.’ While the development of a new ‘post-colonial’
identity can be positive, we should note reservations: first, to be indigenous is to be the
traditional occupants of a territory at the point of colonial occupation (UN Department of
Economic and Social Affairs 2004), which Pākehā were not; and second, this new identity
seems to forget settler history and the advantages accruing, both then and now, to the ethnic
majority. For Pākehā to say to Māori that ‘we are all indigenous’ suggests that we are all
equal, yet some of us are more equal than others.
Ethnicity and Inequality: The Myth of Māori Privilege
Ethnicity matters for several reasons. First, it is often a key component of personal
identity; how people feel about themselves and their place in the world (for further discussion
about ethnic identity and self-esteem, see Kukutai and Webber this volume). Second, those
sharing the same ethnicity are likely to share lifestyles
to some extent or another – Anthony
Smith (1988, 24) reminds us that the origins of the word ‘ethnicity’ come from the Greek
‘ethnos’ which signals both living together and being culturally similar. Ethnicity, then, gives
us insights into the patterning of social life. Third, members of an ethnic group often share
life chances. Simply put, one’s ethnicity can have profound impacts upon such things as
where you will live, how long you will live and how well you will live. ‘Social status
hierarchies are literally lethal’ (Therborn 2009). Ethnicity, then, is more than individual
identity, or shared social activity, it is part of the complex amalgam that determines privilege
and deprivation. As such, sociologists recognise it as a fundamental element of social
stratification, one of the bases through which systematic inequalities are produced.
Göran Therborn (2009) provides a useful framework for thinking about the causes and
consequences of inequality. He argues that there are four mechanisms which create
exclusion: some people are prevented from accessing the good things in life, like good
health care, schools and jobs
hierarchical institutions: the social order is constructed with a few at the top and many
at the bottom. Those at the top are often reluctant to share their status and privileges
with the rest
exploitation: the ‘haves’ collectively rip-off the ‘have-nots’
distanciation: the idea that some people get ahead and others drop behind, which
masks the political and economic decisions that help create inequalities.
Therborn (2009) suggests that through these mechanisms, three types of inequality
result: vital inequality, existential inequality and material inequality. Vital inequality relates
to quality of health. Evidence suggests that well-being, both physical and mental, is socially
shaped. On average, poorer people have worse health and shorter lives, and therefore suffer
vital inequality. Existential inequality relates to quality of life, the sorts of things one can be
and do; the ability to live a life free from prejudice. Material or resource inequality includes
both social resources, like educational attainment and networks, as well as financial
We can see how this plays out locally. Statistics New Zealand (2013a) data from the
New Zealand Period Life Tables (2010–12) show that:
The gap between Māori and non-Māori (which includes Pākehā as well as Pasifika,
Asian and others) life expectancy at birth is 7.3 years, in favour of the latter; life
expectancy at birth is 76.5 years for Māori women and 83.7 years for non-Māori
women; 72.8 years for Māori men and 80.2 years for non-Māori men.
Statistics New Zealand (2013b) data from the 2013 Census shows that Māori, when
compared to the overall New Zealand population:
are less likely to have a formal educational qualification (66.7 per cent versus 79.1 per
have a lower median income ($6,000 less than the national median income of
are less likely to own or part-own a residence (28.2 per cent versus 49.8 per cent).
The Ministry of Social Development’s (2010) Social Report cited an earlier New
Zealand General Social Survey, which found that:
16 per cent of Māori had experienced discrimination compared to 8 per cent of
56 per cent of Māori said when discriminated against it was because of their ethnicity;
32 per cent of Pākehā said that their experience of discrimination was due to their
The 2010 Social Report also noted that:
28.3 per cent of Māori are generally very satisfied with life compared to 34.4 per cent
The Māori unemployment rate is 12.7 per cent compared to the Pākehā rate of 7.8 per
Age-standardised obesity rates are 43 per cent of the Māori population compared to
23 per cent of the non- Māori population;
Age-standardised suicide rates are 16.1 per 100,000 in the Māori population and 9.9
per 100,000 in the non- Māori population.
Avril Bell (2004, 53) writes of settlers ‘de-authenticating Māori’. Such strategies
work to secure white privilege while effacing Māori claims to indigeneity (and vital,
existential and material equality). The typical claims are that: no full-blooded Māori remain,
Māori also colonised (the Moriori), and Māori are immigrants too. An additional strategy is
to claim that we are ‘awash’ in race-based policies which create Māori privilege. These
complaints are typically raised by the political right. For example, Dr Don Brash (2004), the
then leader of the then opposition National party, delivered a speech at Orewa which claimed
that there are no ‘real’ Māori left; indeed, no distinct Māori population. He also stated that
Māori and Pākehā have very similar income distributions. Finally, history itself was
abandoned as a hindrance to progress. Speaking of the Treaty of Waitangi he said: ‘We
cannot allow the loose threads of 19th century law and custom to unravel our attempts at
nation-building in the 21st century’ (Brash 2004).
This is a routine claim of majority groups in settler societies: that bad things happened
in the past, but that the past is now over. The most obvious response to this is that the past
powerfully informs the present. As Tracey McIntosh (cited in Henley 2007) has noted:
The land issue is the legal, cultural and spiritual focus of almost all Māori grievances
today…. Many tribes, including mine, never even signed the Treaty, so we just view
our land as having been stolen. And above and beyond the Māori’s spiritual
relationship with their lands, you can make a very strong evidence-based argument for
saying that the alienation of our land removed our whole economic base and distorted
the whole range of social relationships.
Rather than being an irrelevance, ‘this history is so important: for Māori, the
injustices of the past have real implications for our present lives. We’re still seeing their
consequences’ (McIntosh, T. cited in Henley 2007). Drawing on an observation from Patrick
Wolfe, Avril Bell (2014, 6) adds that it makes more sense to see colonisation as a structure
rather than an (historic) event: ‘Structurally, present-day white New Zealanders … occupy
the positions in our societies that were created by the labour of the early settlers. We still
constitute the dominant culture of our societies, and our political and economic institutions
are largely governed by people like us’. The majority ethnic group are inheritors of privilege
in the broadest sense. Not only are Pākehā inheritors of privilege but Pākehā dominated
institutions, like education, operate to maintain that privilege, for example, through the use
teaching resources that are typically written from a Pākehā perspective (Gibbons 2002).
And yet complaints about Māori privilege continue. Such was the topic of a July 2014
speech made by the then leader of the ACT party, Jamie Whyte. Whyte railed against race-
based rights, beginning with the Māori electoral roll and Māori parliamentary seats and the
existence of a Māori advisory board for Auckland Council. He has ‘forgotten’ that originally
the seats were established to limit and contain Māori representation, and, by extension,
Whyte omitted discussion on the first race-based policy in our history:
the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852. This made British common law the law of our land,
thereby margainalising Māori customary laws and practices (for further discussion see
chapter by Walker this volume). It was fundamental in securing settler supremacy, via a
system made by them and for them (Durie cited in Borrell and Gregory 2007, 5).
Instead, Whyte condemned ‘race-based favouritism’ as demonstrated by easier access
to university for Māori (his example was admission to law school). Research shows that
Māori (and Pasifika) students from low-decile schools are less likely than those from other
ethnic groups to go to university, to complete their first year or to continue on with their
studies (Madjar, McKinley and van der Merwe 2010). As these students are denied equality
of opportunity, what schemes such as lower admission thresholds try to work towards is for a
greater equality of outcome. The majority of University of Auckland students come from
high-decile schools, yet no one rails against years of over-resourcing. As ever, privilege is
Whyte finished his argument by concluding that the legal ‘privileges’ Māori have
equate to the benefits enjoyed by the French aristocracy prior to the Revolution. He was
careful to stress ‘legal privilege’ as he knows that all of the available social indicators
indicate that Māori are not materially privileged. Even setting aside the differences in
material privileges (the French aristocracy sat at the top of the social order, owned most of
the land, and were the nation’s wealthiest inhabitants) the comparison with the French
aristocracy was still odious. To take but one obvious point of difference: French aristocrats
were legally exempt from paying taxes; all Māori are legally obliged to do so. Let us cut to
the chase: calls for ‘one law for all’ and the ‘level playing field’ are calls to perpetuate the
status quo. These current social arrangements systematically advantage some groups over
others (as was revealed earlier with official statistics).
This chapter has looked at Pākehā ethnicity. In considering why ethnicity is important
I have focussed on the issue of social stratification. This paved the way for a discussion of
inequality and of privilege: how it is conferred and denied. In discussing Pākehā ethnicity I
suggested that it can only make sense of if it is considered in relationship to Māori, Māori
activism (demands for recognition and reparation) and British decolonisation (New Zealand
has moved away from the ‘Mother Country’ but it has also moved away from New Zealand).
Being Pākehā is being bicultural
and being local. Finally, here I claim that it is also
necessary to remember that race, or what sociologists prefer to call ‘ethnicity’, is but one
‘identity hook’ among many (T. McIntosh 2001, 145). Thus, who we are cannot be reduced
to a single category. We are far too complex for that. Other elements inform our identity, like
our age, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality. Similarly, ethnicity works as
but one ‘advantaging system’ (P. McIntosh 1988, 15). Numerous factors contribute to the
complex matrix that determines advantage or disadvantage. Often these markers are
dismissed. People claim that ‘we are all just individuals’. Indeed we are, but sociologists note
that we are also social beings enmeshed in networks of mutual dependency. Moreover,
privilege and prejudice take no account of individual merit; neither advantage nor
discrimination occur because of what we have done; rather they occur because of what we are
seen to be (which links back to our membership of collective groupings like white, black,
male, female, gay, straight, etc.). All the more reason, then, to take ethnicity seriously.
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The degree to which those of the same ethnicity share a lifestyle is complicated by
other social status hierarchies – like class, gender, sexuality and age – as well differences that
arise from locality.
While it is true that the Local Government Amendment Act (2002) permits local
authorities to constitute Māori wards and constituencies in order to increase representation
very few have. In fact, Māori ‘are still chronically under-represented amongst elected
councillors’ (Hayward 2011, 186).
It is important to remember that a bicultural relationship that starts from the vantage
point of Māori as indigenous positions Pākehā as just one of a number of tauiwi or the ‘rest’.