Tuesday, 28 April 2009

all nz'ers are equal, but some are more equal...

where were we? yes, ethnicity and the census. i remember there was a lot of heated debate about this prior to the last census. debate with politicians like hon gerry brownlee (then deputy leader of the opposition) and dick quax (ex olympic athlete & current city councillor) having plenty to say about the issue. i also recall a lovely open letter by our race relations commissioner to mr quax, wherein he waxed eloquently about his dutch heritage. unfortunately i can't locate a copy of it just now.

i think the context of that debate is quite interesting. we were just past the 2005 election, and dr don brash was still the leader of the opposition. we had still not recovered from dr brash's orewa speech which claimed that maori were a privileged class in our society - despite all major social indicators proving the contrary. during the 2005 campaign, we had gems such as the "end of tolerance" speech by rt hon winston peters and a rather nasty immigration speech by dr brash. we had the usual immigrant bashing, and the case of the 2 iraqi men named in parliament for allegedly having links to saddam hussein's regime (never proven as far as i know, but causing much grief to those 2 & their families). we had the ahmad zaoui debate raging, with the media regularly reporting the cost of the case, as if justice should only be provided if it's free. and post the election, we had the wonderful post of "PC-eradicator" filled by hon wayne mapp.

it was certainly not the best period for race relations in this country. having a debate about reporting of ethnicity in such an environment was less than helpful. the main beef was from white new zealanders (not all of them, of course), who really didn't want to be called white new zealanders, whether that was denoted by "european new zealander" or "pakeha" or some other label.

historically, the term "new zealander" had pretty much meant white new zealanders by default. then there were maori, and everyone else was generally treated as "foreign". even migrants who had lived here for 20 years or more used "new zealander" in this way, and would define themselves using their own ethnicity - islander, chinese, indian etc.

but there was an increasing recognition that these islanders, chinese, indians etc were also new zealanders and entitled to be called such. the term could no longer be appropriated by whiteys*, but had to apply equally to everyone. which then left the problem of how to define the whiteys in a way that they felt comfortable with. not surprisingly, there was little agreement about this.

in order to avoid having to agree to any kind of label, certain people started calling for the removal of ethnicity questions, not just from the census but from all forms of data gathering. "we're all new zealanders", the argument went, "and we shouldn't have to be identified as anything else". this was good - it side-stepped the whole labelling issue while sounding deceptively inclusive. anyone who disagreed was clearly racist and wanted to create division, under this particular framing. why did we need to identify our ethnicity anyway?

well, i can tell you why it's important. because there are inequalities. if pacific island women are, on average, earning less than other sectors of society, then we need to know about that and we need to do something about it. if asians are more often victims of violent crime than other ethnicities, then we need to know about that and we need to do something about it. if maori have a lower life expectancy than the rest of us, then we need to know about that and we need to do something about it. if islanders or asians have a greater tendency to contract diabetes, then we need to know about that and we need to do something about it.

but we can't do anything unless we first gather the data to identify the problem. in order to gather the data, we need to know about people's ethnicities. by failing to collect ethnicity data, we won't ever know whether or not any policies targetting particular ethnic gropus need to be developed and implemented. that doesn't mean the problem ceases to exist. all it means is that some sectors of society are suffering and the rest of us don't care enough to even find out about their condition.

of course it's not always easy to measure ethnicity. there are plenty of people of mixed parentage, say half maori & half dalmation (quite common up north, from what i hear). and there are some of us who identify with an ethnicity, even though we don't have much of it in us. so someone who is one eigth maori may identify as maori because they have been brought up in that particular culture and feel it more correctly reflects who they are. some of the definitions provided on various forms might not be helpful eg asian includes chinese (over a billion of them) and indian (some 800 million), and these two are quite distinct, with several ethnicities in each country. then there is the wonderful dept of statistics category "MELAA" (middle eastern, latin american and african) which again includes such a variety of ethnicities as to almost be meaningless. on the other hand, we can't design systems to deal with huge numbers of different ethnicities, so we do have to lump some ethnicities together in order to obtain any kind of meaninful results.

despite all of these problems, i still think it's important to measure ethnicity, and will continue to think so until such time as the average income of new zealanders is equal regardless of ethnicity; and the average life expectancy and infant mortality rates of all new zealanders are equal, regardless of ethnicity; and... well i think you get my point. where inequality exists, it needs to be measured. there's no point in pretending we're all equal when aren't yet, and might never be (particularly when it comes to genetic susceptibility to health issues). i know it's what we aspire to be, but until we have the proof that we have achieved that goal, data on ethnicity must be gathered.

so in the meantime, we need a way to distinguish whiteys from maori, pacific islanders, indians, chinese etc. and the term "new zealander" is not it, something else needs to be found. i thought pakeha was a pretty good and positive term, but others clearly don't see it that way. i do firmly believe that it is up to whiteys to come up with a term they feel comfortable with. but if they are not even willing to enter into such a debate because they see it as somehow insulting to even ask them to define their ethnicity, well that just makes things difficult. i'm tempted to say "well if you guys can't get your act together and come up with a label, then i'm quite happy to come up with one for you". unfortunately, i couldn't force anyone to use that label, so it would be a total waste of time.

so all i can do is to urge whiteys to enter into the debate. to see the importance of reporting on inequalities, and to enable such reporting to happen by identifying themselves with an ethnicity. do it for the greater good, because you will also benefit from a society where inequalities no longer exist.

*i use this term not to be derogatory or facetious but by default, because there is no other agreed upon term at present which nz'ers of caucasian ethnicity have been able to agree upon. really sorry if i cause offence.


Anonymous said...

The term whitey is really offensive, I suggest using 'caucasian' instead.

Anonymous said...

'well if you guys can't get your act together and come up with a label, then i'm quite happy to come up with one for you'

I'd be careful before you go down this path. In the USA and Canada there is a lot of debate as to what is the correct term of reference for indigenous peoples - some are happy with 'Indian', some like 'Native American', some 'First Nations', but the fact that there is no consensus does not mean that it's OK for outsiders to impose a term.

moz said...

"Asian" is worse than that - I recently heard it extended as fast west as Israel. At which point it's not much more useful than "human"... more than half of whom are "asian" by that reckoning.

There comes a point where some "white" people are so genetically generic that "new zealander" makes sense. The alternatives are really "pick one at random" or an essay.

Which is where "pakeha" meaning "non-maori new zealander" is actually really useful. You were born here, you speak english like a native, you know more about Whangamata than Warangal... you're a pakeha.

In Oz it's just as bad, my partner is "Vietnamese" (hey, at least she's actually been to Vietnam, unlike lots of other "Vietnamese" Australians). I had a "Chinese" girlfriend who could pass for part-Maori and was 3/4 european. And Pakeha beats banana as an ethnic identity. Speaking of which, is there an Indian equivalent to banana? Potato?

stargazer said...

anon no. 1, point taken & i'll use for future.

anon no. 2, totally agree, which is why i say in the post that i really don't believe in imposing terms on communities.

moz, i don't know that indians out of india are labelled as any kind of fruit really. the term used is NRI (standing for non-resident indian), and is one of prestige really. this is because only educated types get to go overseas, and they earn a lot of money so they are to be looked up to. of course, their children do face the same issues of being seen as not "indian" enough and not true to traditional culture. they haven't yet come up with a fruit or vegetable to describe this phenomenon (long may that last!!).

as for caucasians being genetically generic, i don't know that i'd agree. eg the scots down in dunedin have a distinct identity and go to some effort to maintain scottish culture. which is why i have trouble understanding why they would be offended at being called scottish new zealanders.

Moz said...

Stargazer, not that there aren't "scottish new zealanders", but that some people go "well, my mother's mother is half Orkney, half lowland Scots, my mother's father is mostly Sussex English, my father's father is half French half lowland German, my father's mother is mostly French but where her family's from is now mostly Belgium. I have never been to Europe." So, you want the essay form or should I just list the 1/64'ths? Some of us can go way further back than merely grandparents too :)

stargazer said...

that reminds me of my childhood days, when i used to be so jealous of all the kids who would reel off the various parts of their ethicity, and all i could say was that i was indian, and only indian, going back at least five hundred years. for some reason, i used to feel inferior because of this. then i grew older and learnt the difference between mongrels and purebreds!

but seriously, obviously the full length version wouldn't be useful for data gathering, which is why "european new zealander" would cover all of that, and "pakeha" would do just as well! but not just "new zealander", because then that would imply that someone like me is not a new zealander. which i would find very offensive.

Moz said...

Stargazer, where does ethnicity shade into race? Is it just the polite synonym? If someone has NZ born parents then four generations in Malaysia then before that most of their ancestors came from India, are they ethnically half Indian despite being culturally kiwi/Malaysian?

I'm used to seeing "New Zealander" used pretty inclusively, albeit racists will use whatever term you prefer to cast you as the out group. I mean, they'll use their preferred term when they can, but if you call yourself the "Indian expatriate community" they'll readily use that too.

stargazer said...

we're talking about data gathering categories here, and a way to measure inequalities that may arise from race/ethnicity. in that context, we need to define caucasian nz'ers as opposed to all nz'ers. hence the need for a label.

see, the malaysian example is perfect. from what i've heard from relatives and friends living in malaysia, there is quite a bit of discrimination against indians in malaysia, regardless of how many generations live in the country. if you wanted to measure the effects of that discrimination, you'd have to ask people in that country to categorise themselves ethnically, as to whether they were chinese, indian, malay, indonesian, etc.

it's all very nice to say "we're all malaysians, we're all one". but by doing that, you ignore the fact that indians are kept out of certain jobs, are getting less access to educational opportunities etc. ie you fail to recognise inequalities, and you fail to do anything to improve the situation.

and that is the point of the ethnicity question in the census. and that is why it is a valid question, and why all ethnic groups need to identify themselves. i happily concede that the measurement may not be entirely accurate, for all the reasons i've mentioned in my post & we've discussed in comments, but it is still better than no measurement at all.

shop girl said...

I agree with your post (though like anon no. 1, I think the term "whitey" is problematic). It's good to see someone discussing the purpose of collecting ethnicity data, instead of just being aggrieved by the terms! Another point is that the data's most useful when it's comparable over time, so the census has to be very cautious about changing terminology.

Perhaps the census people could soothe the debate by keeping the ethnicity question and adding a nationality question. That would highlight the distinction between the two (which many people don't seem to understand), and we might also learn something about the inequalities faced by recent immigrants/people who don't (yet) consider themselves New Zealanders.

I consider myself a pakeha and am quite happy with that label. I like that it distinguishes me from Europeans who live elsewhere.

stargazer said...

yes, i know it's not the best term. i guess i was using it facetiously to highlight the point that there is no agreed upon label.

re the nationality thing, that may work if i answered indian in the ethnicity section and new zealander under nationality. it wouldn't solve the problem of having an ethnic definition for caucasians, but perhaps people might feel less threatened.

however, i think that the root of the problem is that the people making the loudest noise about this don't want to recognise discrimination. they don't want to produce any data that shows it has detrimental effects. because that would require a change of behaviour on their part, or the use of public resources, or some loss in the benefits they gain from being in a privileged position.

Raf said...

I meant to reply to this but my thoughts fell by the wayside.

But the joys of global ethnic warfare and cleansing have awakened my interest so here I am.

Yesterday I read about a Scottish man beaten to death by some football supporters (Rangers = Protestant) for being a Catholic (Celtic supporter). Of course the Tamil situation is being highlighted daily. It's interesting that the media saw the Tamil Tigers from a lens of terrorists for many years and now it's all over the view is more sympathetic and the story is more about the underlying discrimination.

I understand your point about data collection and its usefulness in targeted intervention. But I'm not sure that's a good thing as it can become self-reinforcing. In fact I believe that ethnic stereotypes do create expectations for outcomes and behaviours.

I think focusing on ethnicity simply entrenches separateness, creates and them and us framework and actually creates a very inefficient approach to helping all people move forward.

And of course it delivers nicely packaged sections of society to be demonised at the appropriate time.

That's my opening gambit anyway.

stargazer said...

i can understand where you're coming from raf, but the french "let's pretend we don't have a problem" or "there's no racism in australia" approaches haven't been particularly successful. we need to identify what the problems are, what is the extent, what are the effects, and then target policies to deal with them.

i don't think ethnic cleansing would not have been solved by pretending that one ethnicity was not discriminating against another, when clearly they had been. rather, the better solution is to name what's happening, and then to deal with it. in fact, you find ethnic cleansing more likely to happen where there is a very strong nationalistic movement - because that nationalism becomes very narrowly defined. anyone who doesn't fit within the definition - the outsider - becomes less than human. a truly successful society is a pluralistic one where differences are not only recognised but celebrated.

we aren't all uniform, we never will be and neither should we be. by trying to hide ethnicity by failing to mention it, we suppress the individual expressions of identity. i don't see how that can be healthy.

Raf said...

I'm not arguing for the suppression of ethnicity or identity in general terms. We are all who we are after all. And our differences can always be celebrated but why the need for specific labeling?

And of course I come from my own particularly viewpoint as a mixed race person born and brought up in a 3rd country. But with constant intermarrying between different races over time everyone will be in my boat!!

So my point is more about targeting interventions based on ethnicity when that itself is quite a tricky proposition. How do we identify people? "Pure blood" disappears quickly and let's face it we all share the same DNA source.

And in terms of discrimination, well that's a natural human extension of judgment. That finds its way into everything regardless of legislation, affirmative action or targeted intervention.

"What are the problems?" I'm happy to start there.

"a truly successful society is a pluralistic one where differences are not only recognised but celebrated."

Where is this promised land? I'd love to know so i can move there :-)