Pākehā perspectives on white supremacy in Aotearoa New Zealand

Updated: Oct 30

By Leo Baker

Course: SOCIOL 101/G Understanding Aotearoa (S2'22)

Growing up as a sheltered white kid in an affluent suburb of Tāmaki Makaurau, it has required, and will require, a lot of unlearning to fully understand my privileges. I am Pākehā, which is to say, I am racialised as white. Racialisation as white in Aotearoa means a lot of things: seeing people of your ethnicity positively represented in media, enjoying a higher standard of living and comfort compared to indigenous and other racialised people, not being racially profiled simply for existing, the list goes on. However, it’s safe to say that many Pākehā don’t see it this way. I want to analyse white attitudes to the realities of white privilege and white supremacy and Aotearoa: where they come from, why they exist, and who they benefit.

Where does white supremacy come from?

The privileges and advantages that come with being racialised as white didn’t just appear out of thin air. They have become solidified over the course of around two hundred years by a process which all too often is thought of as being simply another event in history – settler colonialism. Aotearoa New Zealand is a settler society, meaning European settlers established, and their descendants continue to retain, political, economic and cultural dominance over indigenous peoples – in the case of Aotearoa, Māori (Stasiulis & Yuval-Davis, 1995, as cited in Pearson, 2001).

Despite how idyllic accounts of our history are brazenly peddled by those who largely materially benefit from dismissing and downplaying its effects, the settler colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand was anything but peaceful. The signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840 should have, in theory, put an end to the violent land dispossession that characterised the early nineteenth century in Aotearoa. Yet most of the destruction was yet to happen. From the passing of the Suppression of Rebellion Act in 1863, which legalised stealing land from Māori who were deemed by the British forces to be “rebellious” (which is rather audacious given that the British were visitors to the land), to the Native Land Court, which made it legal for Pākehā to steal (or ‘purchase’, if you choose to believe the British framing) Māori land at gunpoint (Walker, 2004), Te Tiriti was violated time and time again by the overzealous settler ideology of creating a ‘White New Zealand’.

Our settler colonial histories are also anything but ‘irrelevant’, as politicians and pundits alike would have you believe. The land is still stolen. It hasn’t been returned. I grew up in a rich neighbourhood surrounded by Pākehā, which makes perfect sense if we understand the hierarchies which were imposed by settler colonialism – settlers at the top, Māori at the bottom – as being very much well and alive in 2022. Please excuse me talking about myself, but it’s particularly difficult to grapple with the fact that despite how ideologically opposed to settler colonialism I am, I am still materially very much aligned with settler colonialism – that is to say, I benefit from the unjust hierarchies and social structures that have been cemented in our society via settler colonial violence.

How do Pākehā deal with the reality of their privilege?

They don’t

Although the impacts that settler colonialism has had, and continues to have, on Aotearoa society is basically undisputed in academic fields such as sociology, in society at large, it’s a different story. That Māori are ‘legally privileged’, or that iwi have ‘too much control’ over everything, are very common sentiments amongst politicians and pundits who echo the feelings of New Zealand's Pākehā upper-middle class. “Hobson’s Pledge” (www.hobsonspledge.nz) consists of articles upon articles which supposedly debunk the notion that settler colonialism in Aotearoa could’ve possibly been violent. White supremacist discourse often refers to the plight of ‘white people’, either directly or via the use of racist dog whistles such as ‘ordinary Kiwis’ or ‘hard-workers’.

But what even is a ‘white person’? I mean, obviously someone with light skin, right? Well, not exactly. Stratification of people based on physical appearance – ‘race’ – is an idea which originates from the discredited field of race “science” and has been used as the justification for European colonisation of countless countries – Aotearoa being no exception. This white supremacist pseudoscience positions whiteness as “pure”, “civilised”, “ideal” - in other words, superior.

Although explicit statements such as "whiteness is superior" are socio-politically frowned upon, the notion of white superiority, or that whiteness is "the norm", is still omnipresent in Aotearoa society which still massively favours white people.

Gray et al. (2013) suggest that ‘the assumption of a Pakeha self-identity may allow the bearer to discursively obscure both the cultural capital that whiteness provides and the privileges afforded by this capital’. The idea that whiteness is an advantaging factor in life, to those who adopt whiteness into their identity, feels like an attack on their very being. Critical analysis of whiteness is dismissed as being 'racist', as in, racist against white people.

How this affects the 'othered'

Of course, the ideology that depicts whiteness as the ‘ideal’ form of 'mankind' cannot exist without a group, or groups, to ‘other’. The racialising ideology of primitivism depicts Māori as ‘uncivilised’, ‘savage’, and ‘under-developed’, and these stereotypes were used as ideological grounds to steal Māori land and repopulate it with Pākehā settlers.

These stereotypical characterisations of Māori have changed very little since the advent of settler colonialism and are still widely propagated in mass media. Historically, explicitly racist messages in mass media depicted Māori as ‘content with living in dirty and over-crowded conditions’, ‘lazy and irresponsible’, and ‘ignorant and superstitious’ (Thompson, 1954). More recently, media has given up on the explicit racism, but news about Māori is still rare, and news about Māori that doesn’t talk about violence and criminality is even rarer (Nairn et al., 2012). While explicit antiMāori racism is not common in news publications; it is still a common sentiment in Pākehā society. For a brief while, upon typing “Maori are” into the Google search bar, the top three autocomplete suggestions were ‘Maori are scum’, ‘Maori are lazy’, and ‘Maori are stupid’ (Elers, 2014).

Knowing this, isn’t it insane how many people claim that NZ is some sort of paradise with racial harmony? Settler colonialism has had such a massive impact on Aotearoa, has created the incredibly powerful and ever-present structures of white supremacy and systemic racism, yet those who frame the discourse are the same people who benefit from these structures. We simply don’t have to think about racism, and since it’s so much easier to just pretend it doesn't exist, why would we?

Reference list

Elers, S. (2014). Māori are scum, stupid, lazy: Māori according to Google. Te Kaharoa, 7(1), 16-24. https://doi.org/10.24135/tekaharoa.v7i1.45.

Gray, C., Jaber, N., & Anglem, J. (2013). Pakeha Identity and Whiteness: What does it mean to be White?. Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, 10(2), 82–106. https://doi.org/10.11157/sites-vol10iss2id223.

Nairn, R., Moewaka Barnes, A., Borell, B., Rankine, J., Gregory, A., & McCreanor, T. (2012). Māori news is bad news: That’s certainly so on television. MAI Journal, 1(1), 38-49.

Pearson, D. (2001). The Politics of Ethnicity in Settler Societies. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Thompson, R. H. (1954). Maori affairs and the New Zealand press: II. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 63(1), 1-16.

Walker, R. (2004). Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou – Struggle without End (2nd ed.). Penguin Books.


8 views0 comments