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.
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?)
SPECIAL BONUS FOOTNOTE TO NOTHING
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.
Warning: contains footnotes!