The Ethnicity Question

Warning: contains footnotes!
There’s been a lot of talk this week in New Zealand about the ethnicity question in our coming census.(1) The question asks ‘Which ethnic group do you belong to?’ and allows you to choose more than one group.
The stoush comes about because the first option is ‘New Zealand European’. This is understood by everyone to mean ‘white New Zealander’. However, ‘NZ European’ is widely disliked as a description. As a result, emails have been widely circulated that ask recipients to tick the ‘Other’ box and write in ‘New Zealander’ (2).
There is some depth of feeling about this issue. It gets into some complicated issues surrounding New Zealand’s sometimes-fraught identity politics.
What is the question trying to achieve? Could it be phrased better? What is ethnicity anyway? Why do people care?
Who Are All These White People Anyway?
The ‘NZ European’ category is clearly an attempt to measure the size of New Zealand’s white population. It is understood as such by everyone, and I would be astonished if anyone seriously claimed that it was inappropriate to try and measure this.
The fact is, many people are reluctant to identify as ‘NZ European’.(3) Could, hypothetically, the category be renamed?
There is, in fact, already a perfectly correct label for New Zealand’s white indigenes – the Maori word pakeha. Sadly, this word would never fly in a census, as it has been identified in the popular mindset as a derogatory term (often translated as ‘white pig’ or ‘white meat’). Of course, this is completely without basis, but the urban myth that pakeha is insulting is pervasive. ‘NZ European or Pakeha’ was an option in the ’96 census, but was removed for essentially this reason.
Why not simply ‘White New Zealander’? Somehow, I doubt that would go down terribly well either. So we’re left with a somewhat ridiculous situation where there is obviously a category worth measuring, but no generally-accepted label for the category.
Domination Games
A lot of the discussion I’ve seen about this focuses on a desire to support a unified sense of NZ identity.(4) I think that’s a worthy goal, but it would be a great shame if this compromises the utility of the census.
In any case, I think that something else is going on with the ‘New Zealander’ campaign and its obvious momentum. It seems to be an archetypal case of a majority-group normalising itself. White Kiwis are to be simply ‘New Zealanders’, whereas other Kiwis require a modifier: ‘Maori New Zealanders’, ‘Chinese New Zealanders’ (5), etc.
This is a linguistic power game used to assert cultural dominance. (6)
It implicitly asserts the centrality and preeminence of White New Zealand culture, while marginalising the cultures of other ethic groups as modifications. It’s the kind of language that gets deep into your perception of the world, and frames how you interact with it.
I think it’s a dangerous trend and it should be resisted.
So What Do I Do?
The census is attempting to ask a valid question, even though it’s doing it in a clumsy way. It would be good for New Zealand to have a helpful set of answers to this question. So I wish people would respond in the spirit in which it was meant. I’m going to tick NZ European, even though I dislike that label.
(Working towards the rehabilitation of ‘pakeha’ is maybe a helpful long-term goal, too.)
Some Footnotes Because I Like Them
(1) It’s worth noting that there’s a lot of mythology surrounding the NZ census. That ‘say your religion is Jedi Knight’ thing that swept the world a few years ago started here, too, gaining momentum from an urban myth that if 1,000 people wrote it in it would be added as an option for the next census.
(2) Much has been made of the fact that in Australia you can identify your ethnic group as ‘Australian’. Considering that Australia is widely considered a haven of racism and bigotry in New Zealand, I find it odd that an appeal to their example is seen as helpful.
(3) Asking for your ‘ethnic background’ might have been a less confrontational way to ask this question.
(4) Another point that I’ve seen in several places is that, because ethnic identity is based on personal identification (‘I’m Maori if I say I am’), then it is inherently unreliable for measuring anything, let alone real biological qualities, such as might be used for public health. This is a pretty weak argument. Human beings take our identities seriously – this whole email campaign is just one proof – and the number of people who will, frivolously or otherwise, choose an ethnicity that they have no ‘claim’ to will be vanishingly small.
(5) I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Chinese New Zealanders and how they’re New Zealand’s ‘third culture’. A significant number of Chinese came to New Zealand in the gold rush during the mid-1800s, and remained ever since. Never a large community, they nevertheless have been out of China for as long as my ancestors have been out of Europe.
(6) Note that this doesn’t need to be the intention of the campaign, at least not the conscious intention. More likely it has arisen organically from a number of components of our cultural discourse. For example, a common misconception among human beings is that ‘culture is something minority groups have’, while the majority group’s own distinct culture is invisible because of its ubiquity. In the same way, ethnicity is seen as something minority groups have. Identifying the ways in which this is an emergent, not directed, effect is waaay beyond the scope of this blog post. Maybe someone will do a Masters on it sometime?)
The email campaign has been pushed (and may have started with) Dick Quax, a local body politician who was born in Holland. This new-migrant status is an interesting point of data, but I’m not going to dig into it now. What is clear is he’s on to a good thing, politically, and is getting lots of media attention and flying the flag for, I dunno, something.
Also, I really want to describe the ‘call yourselves New Zealanders’ campaign as ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD!’ but… well, okay, I just did. Yay me.

22 thoughts on “The Ethnicity Question”

  1. My advice? Tick “other” and write in “pakeha”.
    Personally, I tick the box “other” and write “african”. I know I’m white, but I was born in Africa, my parents were born in Africa, their parents were born in Africa… though they each have one grandparent who was born in the UK.

  2. Svend/Dave – yeah, seen and appreciated both those links. Y’all should go looky.
    The census options are: NZ European; Maori; Samoan; Cook Island Maori; Tongan; Niuean; Chinese; Indian; other such as DUTCH, JAPANESE,
    TOKELAUAN, Please state:

  3. Y’all can do your census online as of now. I’ve just done mine. You need a PIN number that your census delivery person should have given you, and you’re golden. Of course, now I’ve said that I biked to work next Tuesday, I’m hoping that the weather clears up a bit.
    I agree on using Pakeha (it’s not a term of abuse, and if it was, fuck it – reclaiming terms of abuse is what people do well, my bitch-ass niggaz, innit), but c’mon: everyone knows what they mean by NZ European (honky!), so just use it and don’t worry too much. I also put my religion down as ‘no religion’ rather than ticking ‘other’ and filling in ‘atheist’ for pretty much the same reason.

  4. I personally don’t like the term Pakeha as it grates, I’m not sure why. Despite this I think NZ European/Pakeha is fine. I don’t feel I have much of a “culture” as I don’t get special holidays, costume or anything of that sort. Most of my friends from school and some others I have met more recently have closer ties to their culture as they were born overseas and immigrated here or like to wear kilts/saris etc. I claim I’m Irish like half the planet as I’m from mostly British stock but that doesn’t make me any different from most NZ Honky bitches, or any other New Zealander. Can I call Mash a Yapi?

  5. I don’t like pakeha because it can also be used to include anyone not Maori – this makes it inherently inaccurate. It’s actually still used that way sometimes, too, so I’m not just being picky.
    I prefer to break European New Zealander down – my culture’s actually pretty distinct from that of my childhood best friend. Her family were fairly recent Roumanian/Greek immigrants, I’m almost all Scot, but back four or five generations.
    I think the census should give more options – let the descendents of the Dutch identify as such if they wish to and let me identify myself and my culture – it’s more accurate and gives a much better picture of New Zealand’s ethnic diversity.
    White New Zealanders are much less one group than we’re presented as, but because it’s not easy to tell this with a glance at our colouring, it’s easy to see this country as made up of one huge majority with a few minorities off to the side, instead of as a whole lot of minorities. This doesn’t mean that some minorities aren’t doing quite well compared to others, which may need more support, of course, or that some aren’t disadvantaged, which should be fixed.

  6. Morgue,
    wouldn’t it be easier if they divided the question into two:
    What is your ancestry?
    What do you identify yourself as?
    Beyond legal recognition in terms of a passport, there is not really a quantifiable way to make an assessment about who you are beyond what you identify yourself as. I agree with the objection to NZ European. I’m not one. I’ve lived here for 4 years and I’m reminded everyday that I’m so not a European. If I keep my mouth shut I might pass for one, but who I am is just not European. It is New Zealand. If the census was to ask where my ancestors hail/ed from then wouldn’t that provide the statistical information and more politically correctly lay the focus on ancestory rather than forcing people into boxes they feel that they have to tick but doesn’t in the truest sense reflect who that person is.
    Unless of course you want to define New Zealand European as simply a person who looks white and has ancestors that come from Europe and then it is just a matter of everyone getting over themselves and ticking a box that *by definition* describes you. Still, you know how people are when it comes to labels….

  7. I can’t help thinking about the issues associated with your footnote 6. I’d suggest that the census form points to the fact that the majority group doesn’t have a describable ethnic identity just by looking at the tick box options. Why for instance is the default box for the majority an amalgam of NZ & european, where as all other boxes are described distinctly?
    I don’t agree with the e-mail, but I also don’t feel that my ethnic identity is well described by NZ European or Pakeha. My parents, grandparents and great grand parents etc. were all born in NZ, so my strongest identity is with NZ, not Europe and not as white indigene. Yes I am descended from a mix unknown ancestral european blood, and yes I’m as white as a very white thing, but my immediate identity is with that of what I think of as a NZer.
    Maybe a better approach to the form would be to isolate the NZ and pakeha and or European statements as individual weighted tick boxes. That way everyone can have a go at describing their ethnicity as they see it. e.g. I would tick NZ first, and then pakeha second (just to let them know with 100% certainty that I was white and proud of it). This type of form would also allow a NZ identifying Maori or an NZ Chinese to tick NZ as an option too and weight it according to the way they see their ethnicity balance.
    I know that this starts to mix in with ideas of nationality but I believe there is a value in NZers thinking of themselves as part of an ethnic NZ collective. I don’t think this value has anything to do with poIitical correctness or me wanting to normalise my whiteness – I simply do not consider myself to be european; I’m afforded no privileges for having any european ancestry so I should not be automatically obliged to identify with them.
    And finally, for many reasons, I dont believe that a NZer option, let alone anyone attempting to persuade others to tick an ‘other ‘”NZer” option, can affect the utility of the census. Can someone out there put together an argument for how the utility would be affected by this? I can’t.

  8. Like the no-religion/atheism thing: “atheism” is just Latin for “no religion” – either term defines you in terms of someone else’s belief system, not your own. But then, that could be true of any identity.

  9. Why not treat “New Zealand European” as like “African American”? It says where the main part of your genetic makeup theoretically came from, while acknowledging where you’re actually from.

  10. hahaha pearce’s comment is the best of the lot. great post. i just wanted to clarify that there is very little need from a public health perspective to know about ‘biological qualities’ (footer 5). there is more likely to be biological / genetic differences within population groups, like Maori, than between population groups. so the differences in health outcomes could, arguably, be the cause of social constructs. this makes the way you identify as if not more important that your quantum of maori blood or whatever.

  11. I think this whole issue is about the white majority wanting to jump on the oppression bandwagon. If they actually had to deal with the receiving end of racism they would realise that being an oppressed minority is a total drag.
    I’m Maori but look white. This means that for the most part I get the mana of being tangata whenua without having to put up with things like being followed around shops by security guards and hassled by cops for walking home at night.
    On the other hand, white people regularly say to my face that Maori are lazy and criminals. Do they think that because I look white, I won’t take offence at blatant racism against my people?
    I believe these people have now decided that as being a minority is often considered trendy (a lot is made of brown people being over-represented in our prison populations, but they are also extremely high achievers in sports, art, music, writing, poetry etc, not to mention the fact that NZ takes pride in exporting Maori culture), if they can just get the appearance of a little oppression themselves some of this trendiness will rub off on them.
    White people tried to emulate minority groups & co-opt their cultures throughout the 20th century. This is just the latest installment. I’m bored already.

  12. See, I think I’d probably go with New Zealand European. I mean, most of my ancestry is European – English, Scottish, Polish and Irish. A tiny bit is Maori. Sure, we’ve been in NZ for many generations. But hey, I really don’t care that much.
    I agree that Pakeha grates a little.
    I don’t know if I have much more of an opinion than that, I just thought I’d chip in with some input, so people didn’t forget I exist…

  13. How many hard-working criminals have you met, Lackey? Have you ever heard of someone spending years of grueling study for their career of crime? Nah, criminals do crime because they think it’s easy. We’re ALL lazy!

Comments are closed.