What does it mean to be Pākehā?
There are hundreds of answers, all of them right. I am Pākehā. I know it, I feel it, though I wouldn’t presume to categorise anyone else, and I stand to be corrected at any time. To me, being Pākehā assumes some kind of relationship with Māori (even as simple as not-Māori) without necessarily defining what that relationship is.
So, if I am Pākehā, just what is my relationship with Māori? That’s a more difficult question altogether. It’s a question not often discussed openly (up there with religion and politics) because the language can be fraught and viewpoints misunderstood and layered on top of a history of colonialism. And there is no answer. Better not go there. Alison Jones, on the other hand, goes there directly and honestly, with grace and intelligence. She has spent her life thinking about being Pākehā and her relationship with te ao Māori — and that shifting place in the middle of the Venn diagram where Māori and Pākehā meet.
This pākehā life (her lower case) is a memoir. The backdrop is Alison’s childhood and adult experiences: a white new immigrant family, constantly moving homes, Māori and Pāhehā friends, marching through the sixties and seventies protesting against injustices, studying philosophy and education. There is a family discovery and a family of her own. Work and more education. Layered on top of this story is her analytical thinking about complex issues of race relations in New Zealand and the Māori movement. She challenges everything, is sceptical about the way the world is structured and calls out privileges divided among the powerful. She questions things that don’t have answers and restructures questions so to come at them another way, as if to admire the complexity of things as much as to reach a conclusion.
At the beginning I was battling with her a bit, sticking in little notes where I disagreed with her conjectures but I slowly realised (slowly, because I’m a stubborn thing) that I didn’t have to agree or disagree with her. She’s saying: here’s something complicated, this is how I came to see it but someone else disagreed with me and there isn’t really an answer but we’ve discussed it and are wiser now we’ve talked. She says (now a university professor at Te Puna Wananga) she steers her students away from a search for solutions.
“In the end , the most important things are ineffable, unexplainable, difficult and sometimes even contradictory.“
There is so much here to think about and a modelling of a new (to me) way of thinking. A post online this morning over whether Pākehā should be allowed to learn te reo didn’t rile me as it might have done previously, but instead I read through the hundreds of comments with wonder that there were so many issues contained in that one debate. I now feel more confident in my confusion, more open to there being no answer.
If you’ve ever questioned what being ‘Pākehā’ means, there is no straight answer in Alison Jones’ this pākehā life. As she says, it’s an unsettled memoir. What she does offer is an intellectually stimulating, challenging and very compelling account of her journey through the complexities of race relations (and other issues) in New Zealand, opening up ideas for others who follow.