Weekend Poem: We don’t know how lucky we āre

New Zealand’s number one slam-poet Ben Fagan begins a new series exploring what he thinks it means to be pākehā in 2019.

A few weeks ago, Associate Professor Ekant Veer was accused of “casual racism” for using the word pākehā in a public presentation. The approved process began: Experts were interviewed, there was a healthy amount of eye-rolling on Professor Veer’s behalf, a few think-pieces were written and the nation got on with business. An appropriate dismissal for a silly accusation.

But this story might only be the start of discussing what pākehā means in 2019, as events (and protests) commemorating the “first onshore meetings between Māori and Europeans” appear on the horizon. There are many historic pākehā heroes. Cook isn’t one of them. Scheduling a festival of cultural conversation to mark his arrival is bizarre and raises questions. A replica of Cook’s ship the Endeavour will sail to New Zealand. Will the Endeavour represent pākehā during these events? Can I opt-out of this representation? Should I be able to?

As the media wrestled with etymology, I wondered if there was a way to talk about what defines pākehā that doesn’t involve a dictionary. I had my own questions, who are we as an ethnic group? Where are we going? What do we want?

Cultural groups will use their unique customs and pop-culture to define themselves. A slice of pav or a ‘Slice of Heaven’. Though the catch-all ‘Kiwiana’ is as cringy to some as ‘pākehā’, I have such a soft-spot for our shared nostalgia that I can’t separate it from more important conversations.

And so a series of poems was born. Come for the double-scoop and stay for the decolonisation.

I’ve called the series ‘Pākehā 2020’. One poem per month until the 180-year anniversary of my family arriving. Here is the first poem. It was recorded at the National Youth Drama School in Havelock North, and is titled ‘We Don’t Know How Lucky We Āre’.

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