Friday, August 13, 2021

How we define ourselves

I reckon New Zealand should stop describing itself as bi-cultural and instead use the term mixed-race.

This is more than a matter of mere semantics. Here’s my reasoning.

“Bi” is Latin for two. It therefore inevitably throws emphasis onto the differences, real and imagined, between Maori and Pakeha.

It’s this focus on separateness, rather than the things that draw us together, that has enabled a political culture to flourish in which people of Maori and Pakeha descent are increasingly at odds.

Politicians and activists who define themselves as Maori, but who in fact are a mixture of Maori and European, invariably focus on issues that divide us. They treat “Maori” and Pakeha as having interests that are inherently opposed and even impossible to reconcile.

This sets up a situation in which Maori and Pakeha view themselves as being in competition for resources and political power.

This in turn leads to a segment of the Pakeha majority feeling threatened. As Maori influence increasingly holds sway in politics, culture and the media, so the possibility of an ugly backlash arises.

This is in no one’s interests. It threatens to destabilise one of the world’s most admired democracies – a country historically noted as fair-minded, liberal (in the best sense), socially advanced and mostly harmonious, certainly by comparison with other countries of mixed races.

This backlash is likely to take unedifying forms – witness Hurricanes board member Troy Bowker’s lashing out at part-Maori entrepreneur Ian Taylor for supposedly “sucking up to the Maori left culture”. A balanced, nuanced debate on race relations in New Zealand is well overdue, but it won’t be achieved by disparaging people in crude racial terms – nor, for that matter, by kneejerk calls for people like Bowker to be punished by effectively being blacklisted.

That may deny them a platform, but it doesn’t magically get rid of the sentiment behind Bowker’s outburst. On the contrary, silencing people will almost certainly magnify resentment due to the perception that only one side of the debate is allowed to be heard.

Besides, we should admit that underneath what appears to be crude anti-Maori rhetoric, there is a legitimate grievance: namely, a feeling that the political agenda is largely being driven by people who represent only 16.5 percent of the population, and that other voices are increasingly excluded from the public conversation – or at least that part of the conversation controlled by the media and the government. A situation in which a minority group is perceived as wielding disproportionate power and influence is plainly at odds with fundamental notions of democracy.

Back, then, to that question of how we define ourselves.

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by arguing about what proportion of Maori blood one needs in order to be considered a “real” Maori, as Bowker did when he demanded of Taylor: “What percentage Maori are you?” That reduces the race relations debate to very simplistic terms. People of part-Maori descent are entitled to identify with, and take pride in, whichever part of their heritage they choose, regardless of the finer detail of their whakapapa.

But what’s undeniable is that most, if not all people, who identify as Maori are also part-European. We’re all citizens of New Zealand (or if you prefer, Aotearoa) and we all have crucial interests – freedom, human rights and prosperity, to name just three – in common.

We have all benefited from living in one of the best little countries in the world (if you doubt that, just look at how we perform over a range of global measurements) and we all have a stake in its future: a future in which everyone enjoys the same rights and opportunities and has every chance to fulfil their potential.  

This doesn’t mean denying that many part-Maori people are disadvantaged in many respects, or prevent us from doing whatever we can to put them on the same footing as the Pakeha majority. As a Pakeha, I can’t see how it could possibly be in my interests for Maori to fail. On the contrary, we would all benefit if Maori health, education and imprisonment rates were improved.   But I don’t see how this can be achieved by setting up a potentially destructive contest between the two main population groups.

That’s why I believe we need to focus on the things we have in common rather than the issues that divide us and threaten to polarise us. Inherent in the term “bi-cultural” is that we’re two peoples, when in fact 180 years of miscegenation has irrevocably melded us together and created a unique mix that combines admirable elements from both constituent parts. 

Factor in the high levels of immigration from other countries in recent decades, and we’re more accurately defined as a mixed-race society. That may provide a more harmonious pathway to a future that’s otherwise starting to look distinctly unpromising.


Andy Espersen said...

Absolutely agree with what you are saying - but aren't we almost always describing ourselves and New Zealand as being multi-cultural?

homepaddock said...

I agree our common humanity ought to be far more important than any of the racial, or any other, differences that divide us. Another point in favour of your argument for mixed race - many Maori will have not just ancestors of European descent, but Pacific, Asian, Middle Eastern . . .Ele Ludemann

Nurse-AB said...

We have far more in common than not. If brown and white (and all hues in-between) got together in a coordinated manner to fight a whole plethora of issues (over taxation, poor infrastructure, hospital waiting lists, declining educational standards, over priced food et al.) the powers that be would be screwed. The only way they can stop this is by creating artificial wedge issues (many of which are totally superfluous nonsense - race, trans rights, gender etc etc). Divide and conquer, use the state apparatus media do the bidding augmented by their corporate masters.

Trev1 said...

I am afraid the separatist genie is well and truly out of the bottle. The demands for "co-governance" over essential public goods like fresh water, for fifty percent of Health and Welfare spending and for a veto over non-Maori allocations is today's shopping list which Labour is now intent upon fulfilling. How Ardern imagines this is sustainable is beyond me, despite her government's massive propaganda effort through the "Public Interest Journalism Fund" and possible use of the weapon of "hate speech" legislation to quell dissent. New Zealand is being steered down a radical and dangerous path by identity politicians to what end? It sure doesn't suggest a future as a "mixed race" or "multicultural" society.

Doug Longmire said...

Once again, Karl, you have provided a sensible, balanced and intelligent description of the situation.
There is no doubt that the increased emphasis on racial identity, mainly by activist Maori and some misguided intellectual, is increasing tension in our country. Add to this the obvious political torrent of racial emphasis by the current government and the situation is looking not very good.
The truth is that the overtly racist victim mentality, blaming [white] colonists for all the ills, cannot and will not help the citizens of New Zealand.
It can only cause a worsening racial divide and ongoing blame game.

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karl du Fresne said...

I have no discomfort with all things Maori. I believe Maori culture should be respected and celebrated. What I object to is people who use the Maori component of their ancestry as leverage to secure political and/or economic advantage.

Andy Espersen said...

Eamon Sloan – There never existed in New Zealand a “discomfort with all things Maori”. Quite the opposite, everything Maori always pulled the right heart strings : The poetically sounding language – the strength of the culture – the confidence and pride displayed by all who identified themselves as Maori – the recognition that we were one people, united through The Treaty of Waitangi. The huge majority of the Europeans (who then comprised 85% of the population) were proud of the Maori people.

I arrived in New Zealand as a 23 year old immigrant – that is how I remember things then. But that was before the massive Maori (and Pacific Island) population influx to the European, industrialised cities. Historian Michael King emphasises that until the 1950-60s almost all Maori remained in their own communities away from the cities.

Sadly, things have changed since then. What we need now is a fearless, in depth investigation how and why things are different now. We must be able to discuss this freely – accepting everybody’s opinions and debating them openly (without being accused of hate-crime!).

Sam said...

I can't believe the stupidity of the second term Ardern Government. Do we have to believe That Winston was supplying all the balance and common sense that gave us the faith to give them a second term. I am already hearing stories of abuse being suffered by Maori women in public and I fear that this is just the beginning of the backlash we will suffer,

Unknown said...

I am in admiration of Mr Bowker and his unapologetic pride in his heritage. If you bemoan the way he said it, or the defiance he showed against the pushback. Then you don't understand what is at stake.

Anything expressing pride or love of our European heritage is now framed as supremacy. And anything ethnocentrically Maori is righteous and just.

Hate speech laws are the admission of the failure of multiculturalism.


Doug Longmire said...

Like you Karl, I have respect Maori culture, language etc.
This is simple normal civilised human respect for those cultural items that Maori/part Maori people hold dear and wish to preserve.
I also have respect for other cultures that have wish to preserve their own historic cultural values and practices. This would include Jewish and Chinese for example.

However, like most New Zealanders, I find that the current political bombardment of all things Maori into our everyday life is totally unacceptable.
This is not a culture respecting it's past. It is Maori culture, language etc being forced upon the population as a whole, when multiple opinion polls have show that 80% of the population do not want it.
This is what the problem is - the intense Maorification of New Zealand, against the will of the people.

Neil Harrap said...

A recent letter by Eamon Sloane to the Dompost put it perfectly in my opinion:
"I believe that a majority are not interested in the Maori language and view it as a distraction. And dare it be said, view it as an unwanted cultural intrusion"
I couldn't agree more.
Neil Harrap

Nigel said...

It's so they can increase societal state intervention ,increase progressive policies etc What we're basically witnessing is increasing state totalitarianism .


Tepee said...

Great piece Karl. I recently spent 3 months in NZ and was greatly disturbed by the path NZ is heading down. It will not end well.