Friday saw Facebook aflame in one of its periodic bouts of controversy. In its latest advertisement, Z Energy had depicted the ideal New Zealand, but had neglected to include a single Asian-Kiwi and, to cap that, had made a joke about Asian call centres.

All credit to Mike Bennetts, CEO of Z Energy, who quickly got on Facebook and damped the fire of outrage among Asian-Kiwis by apologising profusely and releasing another video that did include Asian faces. It was a timely and first-class example of how companies should react to a digital-media misstep.

However, before we dismiss this incident into cyber-posterity and move on, it raised one interesting point. Fuelling the flames of outrage were contributors who decried the Asian protest, saying that no Kiwi would, or should, react like this, that the Asians should lighten up and learn to take a joke.

Their comments implied that there was an expected "Kiwi" response to the video and that the Asian protest had fallen short of how a Kiwi should act. Their actions were somehow "un-Kiwi" and "Asian".


Despite our progress towards creating a more multicultural society, this video showed that there are clear standards that are expected of a "Kiwi" and it is easy to label minorities as foreign when they fall outside them.

Our understanding of what it means to be Kiwi is still dominated by traditional ideas of race and culture, which rarely allow for alternative means of expression. In this case, the Asian response was quickly written off as being non-Kiwi; of being outside the normative idea of being a New Zealander.

I do not want to deny the progress towards a multicultural society or to decry the legal progress made since World War II. There is absolutely no doubt that our laws have evolved with, and sometimes ahead of, the rest of the Western world. The introduction of Maori as an official language was one crucial step, the increase in migration from Asia another. Chinese is now taught in some of our primary schools, the white population no longer has a monopoly on power and we can all eat sushi whenever we want.

However, all this has proved is that a society cannot legislate racism away. Crucially, our imagined idea of what constitutes a New Zealander has not yet caught up with the legal changes towards multiculturalism and has not evolved to encompass these changes in society. Too often, the dominant "Kiwi" identity is defined as not being the alternative, "Asian" idea.

Let's consider this in the example of education. We have distinctively "Kiwi" methods of early education: child-based directed play. On the other hand, traditional Asian education has focused on intensive rote learning.

My point is not that either method is better, but that we see the Asian method as being fundamentally different, as foreign: this Asian method of learning is the opposite of the Kiwi way. Yet in a New Zealand that was genuinely multicultural, rote-learning would be as "Kiwi" as play-based learning.

Both styles would be different but equal aspects of New Zealand culture. They would not be foreign, they would not be "Asian" methods, they would both be "the Kiwi way".

A good example of this problem comes from a recently published article with the example of a boy who had spent his summer learning calculus. Whatever we may think of his dedication to mathematics, the important thing is that his actions were described as being "Asian", not as "Kiwi", despite his being born in New Zealand and considering himself as a Kiwi.


He was an aberration from the Kiwi norm, which the article explained on the grounds of race. Our understanding of being Kiwi was not inclusive enough to encompass a different culture and so he was excluded.

The definition of "Kiwi" remains firmly mono-cultural. Although I have focused on Asian relations, it would be equally applicable to Indians, Polynesians and to many other groups.

I do not mean to argue that New Zealand has not made progress in race relations; our institutions and laws have made strides to become more inclusive.

However, these are underpinned by a clear idea of being "Kiwi", an idea which too often excludes expressions of Asian culture and has not kept pace with the evolution towards a multicultural society. Only when we are able to look at an All Black and at an Asian maths prodigy and say that they are both true Kiwis will we have moved beyond a racist society.

* Simon Johnson is working on historical theories of nationalism and cultural identity at the University of Cambridge.