The Ethnic Future for New Zealand Is Unknown. But It Will Be Diverse and Different 

The promise of increased future ethnic diversity is undoubtedly true, but often the statistical projections are both misleading and obscure the real issues.

Each Population Census asks the respondents’ ethnicity. That is not their race, which is a genetic notion. Ethnicity is a social construction, self-assigned and subjective. One politician promised to call himself a Pacific Islander on the basis he was born in the Pacific island of New Zealand. Not all of part-Maori descent describe themselves as of Maori ethnicity. Not all of Maori ethnicity are of part-Maori descent.

Moreover, about half of those that say they are of Maori ethnicity say they are also of another ethnicity – most often European. It is common to ignore this and prioritise. Those who say they are Maori and something else are called ‘Maori’ in the prioritised statistics which is insulting to them because it ignores their specific desire. Of the remainder, those who say they are Pasifika are so classified (unless they also say they are Maori in which case they are classified as Maori) even if they give another ethnicity. Among the remainder, Asian is prioritised over European (or Pakeha).

The last Census was further complicated by those who said they were ‘New Zealanders’, which is not strictly an ethnicity, although exactly what we mean by the term is unclear.

Maori is probably a comprehensive category (although many are keen to mention their iwi too). Neither Pasifika nor Asia is a single ethnicity but groupings of them. Admittedly there may be historic ties between, say, Samoans and Tongans, but Chinese and Indians are very different peoples and the various South-East Asian communities would want to distinguish themselves from the two biggies.

It is foolish to try to predict the evolution of these communities with any precision, especially as individuals may reassign their ethnicities between censuses, while who can tell how the children of inter-ethnic marriages will describe themselves?

I should not be surprised if asked in today’s way, many nineteenth century ‘Europeans’ would have classified themselves as ‘English’, ‘Irish’ or ‘Scots’, a distinction which has largely died.

We cannot rule out new ethnic categories. Those who say they are both Maori and Pakeha may be an evolving one, except they have no ethnic community. Some ethnicities may die out. I shan’t be surprised if in a couple of generations some of the Pacific Islanders from smaller islands are unable to maintain their identity by endogenous marriage and become clans in a wider Pasifika ethnicity.

So our ethnic future is very uncertain. The current projections are misleading, except for saying that things will be very different. While you, like me, may be almost entirely of British descent the likelihood is that among your great-grandchildren and great-great-grand ones there will be those with ancestors from other parts of the world.

Ethnicity is not the only dimension of diversity. The trend has been towards a more secular society, with an increasing proportion of New Zealanders not registering any religion (although that may be no less spiritual). Non-Christian religions are small but increasingly common. In the last census 89,000 described themselves as Hindu, 58,000 as Buddhist and 46,000 as Muslim. They are all up a shade on the previous census, while the numbers who describe themselves as Christian (1.9 million) or Maori Christian (53,000) are down. (There are about 7,000 Jews.)

Because there is a bit of anxiety about terrorism, I add that the vast majority of New Zealand Muslims are as peaceable and socially constructive as the vast majority of Christians. The best defence we have against terrorism is ensuring they are an integral part of New Zealand society, while accepting they are different and not imposing any narrow values on them. (David Farrar provides a thoughtful review of kinds of Muslims.) But it is not solely for Muslims we need to do this. The same challenge applies to every ethnicity, every religion and to other dimensions of diversity too. 

There is another way of looking at our future rather than through mechanical projections. We can, if we wish, make our own ethnic future. To do so we need to be tolerant and responsive to diversity, to celebrate with others’ communities. We are already on the way. The Chinese celebrate their New Year, the Indians Diwali. Those from other ethnic communities who go to these celebrations outnumber the Chinese or Indians. That sort of engagement, together with a comfortable acceptance of intermarriage and the diverse blends it creates, offers a promisingly diverse and uniquely New Zealand ethnic future.