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.