For many New Zealanders of European descent, the decision to omit the ‘Pākehā’ category on the 2023 Census has caused confusion. Instead, those with European ancestry were directed to tick the box for ‘New Zealand European’. So why was it not included? And why are those of European descent the only group permitted to tie their identity so clearly to New Zealand?
As soon as the 2023 Census was rolled out across Aotearoa, some New Zealanders began to question the options made available for them to self-identify.
“Why can’t I identify as a Pākehā?” former Green MP Catherine Delahunty asked on Twitter.
“Who are all these ‘Europeans’?” she asked, saying that many would have European ancestors but that she didn’t believe it formed a part of many Kiwis’ “local identity”.
“Colonialism issue,” she added.
She wasn’t alone in asking the question, but the problem of how to officially count New Zealanders of European descent is one that has troubled the Census for decades - and a solution that keeps everyone happy looks unlikely to be found.
So, why was Pākehā excluded from the Census, despite becoming increasingly common in other official forms and public spaces?
Statistics NZ told the Herald that it wasn’t - but you had to go looking for it.
Sixteen synonyms for New Zealand European were offered within a drop-down menu on the online Census form, including Pākehā and other terms such as Palangi and “New Zealand White”.
This issue of what to call white New Zealanders is one that has caused an issue for Census takers for years.
In 1981, those with European ancestry were asked if they were “Full European”, alongside other groups in the last Census to use blood quantum.
In 1986, it was just “European” and then “New Zealand European” in 1991.
The next major change came in 1996, when a choice was offered: NZ European or Pākehā.
This use of te reo Māori was not universally well-received.
Statistics NZ told the Herald: “The resulting impact of this was that 1996 ethnicity data was assessed to be not consistent with 1991, and subsequent 2001 ethnicity data (when the question changes for 1996 were retracted).”
So we’ve stuck with New Zealand European since 2001, despite campaigns for white New Zealanders to write their ethnicity in as “Pākehā” or “New Zealander”.
There was a huge spike in the use of New Zealander in the 2006 Census, after a popular campaign called on New Zealanders to “declare your pride” and write the term in.
But we are having a fresh look, with a review currently underway to improve how we collect data on ethnicity.
“This will result in more people seeing themselves reflected in data that supports decisions about them, their communities, health, housing, and businesses,” Statistics NZ said, noting that the outcome of the review will not affect the ethnicity outputs for the 2023 Census.
The difference between diversity and inclusivity
While our statisticians have spent much of the past 40 years vacillating on what to call our largest ethnic group, for many other groups there has been little change.
Ekant Veer, Professor of Marketing at the University of Canterbury, was one of many to question why the modifier of “New Zealand” was only available to those of European descent.
In a video shared on TikTok, Veer asked why, despite spending most of his life in Aotearoa, he could still only be “Indian” — and questioned whether Census 2023 had achieved its stated aim of being the most inclusive Census yet.
Statistics NZ told the Herald there were options available, including “New Zealand Indian”, but it was also tucked into a drop-down menu of synonyms.
Veer told the Herald there had been a rise in people of all races wanting to identify as New Zealanders and the exclusion of other ethnicities from the “New Zealand” modifier could be othering.
“One of the solutions that have been said to me a number of times, you can always just fill out the other column and in the other column you can put in whatever you want,” he said.
“And my response is there’s nothing literally more othering than having to fill out the other column.
“It’s almost the mere presence of the ‘New Zealand European’ that makes all the others feel a little worse.”
He said he understood there was a need to keep the ethnic criteria stable so that demographic changes could be tracked, and that a generic description of “New Zealander” did not serve that purpose.
“The whole point of this is to provide inclusivity and I know people who are of Māori or Pacific descent who say ‘no, I’m a New Zealander’ and they’ll type New Zealander and actually doesn’t help us when it comes to funding decisions, which is what the service is using because money is set aside for Māori, Pacific and other equity groups in society.
“And if we’re not collecting what would be accurate information, it’s difficult for the Government to make accurate funding decisions.”
He said a balance needed to be found so that the Census was inclusive of our various identities, but also served the purpose of providing accurate information to guide decisions on important issues such as funding.
“We do need to find a way that someone can say, ‘you know what, my family is Tongan, but I have always known New Zealand’, how do we make them feel included in this?”
Veer believes the “identity issue” for communities such as the Indian and Chinese communities could not be “pushed under the carpet”, but it was much more important for some of the other priority equity groups to be properly counted to ensure funding matched their needs.
He said the call from many - especially since the debate on co-governance became topical - urging all New Zealanders to identify as one people was a “really derivative and unhelpful response”.
“We’re not all one and we shouldn’t try to say ‘no, you need to now become part of the hegemony and absorb in’.
“I want to fit in. But I also want to feel included for being different.
“The difference between diversity and inclusivity is massive and we need to have this discussion in New Zealand.”
Veer said the decision to allow only New Zealanders of European descent to claim a New Zealand identity enforced that existing white hegemony, saying it sent a “really clear signal” that, aside from tangata whenua, only Europeans were truly counted as New Zealanders.
He claimed the message was: “It doesn’t matter if you’re third, fourth, fifth generation, doesn’t matter if you identify here and you’re first generation, you’re still not a New Zealander.”