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.