Is 'pākehā' a racist term?

Is 'pākehā' a racist term?
Photo credit: Getty

A blog post questioning whether the word 'pākehā' is a racist term has opened up a divisive debate online.

A high school student from Denmark, who is researching New Zealand, posed the question on a Kiwi-focused forum after disagreeing with his classmates over the term.

It garnered dozens of replies, most swinging heavily in either direction.

The term 'pākehā' doesn't actually describe any particular ethnicity. Derived from the word 'Pakepakeha', a mythical human-like being with fair skin, it is used to describe any Kiwi with non-Māori or Polynesian heritage.

It's a term that was used to differentiate between the historical origins of the country's settlers - and many argued on the forum an 'us' and 'them' label is no longer acceptable.

"Wouldn't the equivalent be like calling Māori 'natives' or something?" one person asked.

"I'd understand if someone didn't really like that."

Another added it's a form of "othering".

"It's a name that refers to someone by the colour of their skin, used by someone with a different skin colour.

"I feel discomfort when hearing the word. I refer to myself as a New Zealander of European descent."

But many others said the meaning of the word has changed.

"It seems to have become just a descriptive term for white NZer," one person commented, adding it is commonly used in government and media reports.

"Whatever derogatory meaning it had is historical inaccuracy."

Another said it comes down to the "intent of use rather than the word itself".

"Racism resides in the context, not the word.

"In my opinion, racism is only racism when you treat people differently because of the colour of their skin or country of birth or whatever. I fail to see how calling someone pākehā without malicious intent is racist."

Of the more-than 50 comments, it is unclear which side held the majority.