Tapu Misa: Ethnic Census status tells the whole truth

Every time I describe white New Zealanders as Pakeha or Palagi, I get at least one complaint from someone, objecting either to their supposed pejorative origins (not true) or to my audacity in using labels without the permission of those I'm describing.

One woman took her complaint to the Human Rights Commission, not so much because she found the meaning of Pakeha or Palagi offensive (they're not, and are much friendlier than "white"), but because they are not English words. She was European, she insisted, and brown people had no right to inflict their names on her.

Tough, I thought at the time, dismissing her as a dyed-in-the-wool bigot (which she was). History is full of examples of ethnic groups who have been named, and defined, by contrasting others.

Yet I understand the visceral reaction, up to a point. I feel the same way about "tau iwi", meaning alien or outsider, which excludes rather than includes, and defines me by what I am not rather than what I am.

(By the same token, I've never understood why anyone would want to be called a non-Maori, a term once promoted by Don Brash, to replace Pakeha.)

But, like it or not, we're defined as much by what we're not, as what we are. Maori didn't become Maori until others arrived on these shores and they were forced to describe themselves as "ordinary" (maori).

And I wasn't a Pacific Islander (a Pacific person, Pasifikan, or whatever else is in vogue) until my family moved here and it became necessary to differentiate my lot not just from Pakeha but also from Maori.

Labels can be emotionally and politically loaded. My identities include Samoan, Pacific Islander, Polynesian, New Zealander, Kiwi, mother, wife, daughter, sister, mother and journalist.

I have no difficulty managing them. When you're a minority, juggling multiple hyphenated identities, ambivalence becomes second nature. But don't call me a Pacific or Samoan journalist rather than a journalist who is Samoan or Pacific Island - there is a subtle but important difference.

Why does identity matter? Why does so much of contemporary politics converge on identity? This question is posed by the editors of New Zealand Identities (Victoria University Press, 2005), in a book of essays exploring our conflicting notions of identity.

They write that "our concepts of ourselves affect our daily lives, from high-level political decisions about whether or not to participate in the American-led invasion of Iraq, to personal decisions about where to stand on the seabed and foreshore debate, to mundane choices about who to invite for dinner, which schools to send our children to and what music to fill our airwaves with".

Paul Morris, professor of religious studies at Victoria University, posits that "identity is always about the exercise of power - that is, it is political. The power to exclude or include lies at the heart of the process of the generation of a dynamic national identity".

So it shouldn't surprise us that there's so much angst over identity and the naming game that accompanies it. The call by Gerry Brownlee and others to declare "New Zealander" as an ethnicity in this year's Census form is just the latest example of that.

We all know that "New Zealander" isn't an ethnicity. It's a nationality that I can lay claim to, and not just because my passport says so.

Brownlee wants us to stop pretending we're "ethnically divided". But who's really pretending here? Is the term New Zealander intended to unite us - Pacific Island New Zealander, Chinese New Zealander, Somalian New Zealander - or to divide us into the white, "mainstream New Zealand" that Don Brash promoted during the election, versus the alien others?

Some who declared themselves "New Zealanders" and nothing else will be like Chris, who wrote to me explaining why he objected to being called a Pakeha.

"It is a label that robs me of my heritage and culture. My father's family came from Tonga and my mother's family originate in France. I am white, my sister and brother are brown. We would be considered by most to be Pakehas yet we consider ourselves to be full-blooded New Zealanders. There is no such place as Pakehaland, and I am not a Pakeha. I am a New Zealander, a white New Zealander."

Fair enough, but as a colleague of mine argues, "New Zealander" is a given, a tag available to all New Zealanders no matter their ethnic make-up. "New Zealand European" carries no resonance for her, whereas Pakeha, cleansed from the Census, is the term that best describes her.

Like Chris, my colleague is driven by the need to stake her claim as someone who belongs to this country and nowhere else - someone who is indigenous.

They wouldn't have had any argument from the late historian and author Michael King, who held that Pakeha are the "second indigenous people" of New Zealand, or Trevor Mallard, who declared last year that he was indigenous because he was born in Wainuiomata.

It doesn't help that there's no consensus among Pakeha/European New Zealanders on what to call themselves. James Liu, a senior philosophy lecturer at Victoria University, who describes himself as a Chinese-American-New Zealander, confirmed this in 1999 research.

He and others found that the labels people choose tend to be revealing. For example, those who identified themselves as Pakeha (about 20 to 25 per cent) were more likely than those who called themselves New Zealand Europeans (40 to 50 per cent) to be sympathetic to Treaty claims and see their relationship with Maori as an important part of their own identity.

Liu concludes that while Maori and Pakeha are two social categories that are intimately related, "psychologically some people want to distance themselves from this relationship and others embrace it".

Maori, Pacific and Asian New Zealanders had no such issues. "It is only the majority group that seeks the prerogative and has the power to go ethnically unmarked," Liu says.

Maybe being "ethnically unmarked" is the way to go. Imagine police bulletins where a suspect is described as "a solidly built New Zealander of medium height". Imagine cursing "bloody Kiwi drivers".

I recall being excited after reading a story saying Pacific Islanders were the most academically successful people in the United States. On closer inspection, I found that their Census lumped Asians and Pacific Islanders together for statistical purposes.

Perhaps they knew we originated in Asia. All I know is that since they decided to separate us into separate categories, a less rosy but more truthful picture has emerged.

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