Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Mentioning ethnicity in news stories

Take a look at this sentence from a NZ news story today (the bolding is mine):

Cannibalism lasted for several hundred years until the 1830s although there were a few isolated cases after that, said Professor Moon, a Pakeha history professor at Te Ara Poutama, the Maori Development Unit at the Auckland University of Technology.
(Note for non-NZers: "Pakeha" is the general term for a white New Zealander).

"White" is so often the default assumption, so news stories usually only specify the person's skin colour if they aren't white. Admittedly, the reason why a reader might expect Maori as the default for this story is that the story itself is about Maori history and the professor is located in the Maori Development Unit of Auckland University. But even so, I think it's pretty damn cool that, as the wording in this article implies, the average reader would otherwise assume a professor of Maori history to be Maori hirself.

8 Comments:

Kelly said...

Is it possible that Professor Moon is a professor of Pakeha history, not just a history professor who happens to be Pakeha?

StyleyGeek said...

I briefly wondered that too. But I really don't think there is such a thing as a professor of Pakeha history. Once again, people take whiteness as the default, so you have a Professor of History (who may or may not be concerned primarily with white people history), and a Professor of Maori History, or a Professor of African History, or whatever, but I don't think people would generally spell out that someone was a Professor of Pakeha History.

Either way, it's weird and kind of cool.

Jana said...

I read it like Kelly: a professor who was a historian of Pakeha things.

The fact that it springs out at us like that does reveal a lot about our biases - so often we assume people are Pakeha unless it's pointed out otherwise. I wonder, though, what the relevance of saying that Professor Moon is Pakeha was?

Jana said...

Oh, and on the subject of pakeha history - I would assume someone who was specialised in Pakeha history to be an authority on white settlers in New Zealand, and on New Zealand history from a distinctly pakeha point of view. This seems particularly plausible to me if his position is within a Maori unit.

As an aside, don't you think it's interesting that what are now referred to as the Maori Wars were referred to by the British as the New Zealand wars? What do Maori call them when speaking Maori? The Land wars? The Pakeha wars?

StyleyGeek said...

Out of curiosity, I googled Prof Moon, and while he clearly is Pakeha (father's family came from Sussex, and mother from Montenegro), that doesn't rule out the "Prof of Pakeha history" interpretation.

He has published mainly on the Treaty, also biographies of Hone Heke and Governors William Hobson and Robert FitzRoy. While the latter comes under "Pakeha history", I think it would be a stretch to appropriate Hone Heke into that category, or to class the Treaty as somehow more "Pakeha history" than Maori history. Still, I realise that this is hardly strong evidence for what the journalist meant.

And Jana, I agree that the renaming of the NZ wars is interesting. To me, calling them the "Maori wars" makes it sound either like it was civil war among Maori tribes, or like it was somehow all the fault of the big bad Maori attacking the poor Pakeha. I realise there must be more legitimate reasons for the name change, but I can't imagine what.

If I were Maori and speaking Maori, I would be tempted to call them the Invader Wars.

Grace Dalley said...

To me the meaning is perfectly clear in the context of the whole article: Prof Moon is a Pakeha who has written a book about a difficult issue in Maori History.
While he may well speak from a profound understanding of Maori culture, it is obviously much less acceptable for a Pakeha to raise these issues in the public sphere than it would be for a person of Maori extraction.

Weekend_Viking said...

I've just picked up a bit of NZ history actually, a Snider carbine from the Land wars - From the serial numbers, it appears to be one of 500 rifles issued to troops from Napier and Taupo during the wars. It's been hurriedly cut down from full length to carbine length, probably to allow use with the NZ Armed Constabulary, who were required to have breech loading carbines to join.

And the wars were not purely Brits versus Maori - at various points, various tribes switched allegiance, and fought on either side, both for reward, land rights, or out of tribal enmity. One of the odd things that people forget about NZ is the Musket Wars between 1815 and the signing of the treaty - intertribal maori warfare, which pre-pakeha was of a sort of semi-chivalrous way of keeping score among tribes, gaining slaves for the greenstone runs, and general stuff, etc, (much like the bronze age celtic cattle raids the irish liked so much), with the addition of cheap surplus muskets from the napoleonic wars, morphed into a really scary thing, such that people like Te Rauparaha and Bloody Jack Tuawaiki between them went around depopulating various tribes (most of the Ngai Tahu, for instance) almost to extinction - mutual protection from an armed power was a not insignificant impetus for the treaty.

Badaunt said...

I found one version of the story which says he is "Professor Moon, a professor of pakeha [white people's] history". But whether that is true or whether some journo rewrote the wire story using his/her own interpretation, it's hard to say.