Stats Dept seeks feedback on ethnicity stats

April 27, 2009

Who am I?

That’s a fundamental question of identity and one which government agencies think they have a better answer to than those of us who identify as New Zealanders because most official forms which seek to know our ethnicity won’t let us give that answer.

For years when I couldn’t find an ethnicity which matched how I felt I ticked other, and put New Zealander if asked to specify what that meant. Those who deal with the stats would then have included me under European which I consider to be racist because by doing so they were saying that New Zealanders were only of European descent.

Now most forms have New Zealander of European descent so I tick that,  but I do it with reluctance, partly because I feel ethnically that I’m of Scottish descent rather than European. But even more because I’m uncomfortable that while I can be a New Zealander people of other descents aren’t always given an option of being one of any flavour, they’re Maori or Pacific Islanders or Asian or European.

The picture becomes even more clouded because the census allows you to be more specific than Pacific Islander and identify as Samoan, Cook Island Maori, Tongan, Niuean, Chinese or Indian and gives examples Dutch, Japanese and Tokelauan as examples under other.

Isn’t there something wrong with their reaonsing if you can be Dutch which is definitely European but not a  New Zealander which isn’t European though may be of that descent? 

I think part of the problem is that we’re not sure exactly what’s meant by ethnic group. If the question was about race it would be much simpler, but that’s not the same thing as ethnicity.

On the cesnus form it’s defined as:

 . . . people who have some or all of the following characteristics:

a common proper name

one or more elements of common culture, such as religion, customs or

language

a unique community of interests, feelings and actions

a shared sense of common origins or ancestry

a common geographic origin.

 The OED defines ethnic, in relation to a population group as:  sharing a distinctive cultural and historical tradition, often associated with race, nationality or religion, by which the group identifies itself and others recognise it . . .

Often associated with  is not the same thing as only being and following both the Stats and OED definitions I’m even more certain I’m a New Zealander, albeit of Scottish descent, because the distinctive cultural and historical traditions which I identify with most strongly are New Zealand ones.

Perhaps we could learn from the USA because they enable people to identify as, for example Afro Americans, Native Americans or Asian Americans . . . which acknowledges both the cultural and historical things which differentiate them as well as those they have in common. (Although in a typical US centric-fashion that does ignore the fact that the millions of people in the many other countries in North, Central and South America also regard themselves as American).

However, that aside, I think the USA’s approach could be the answer to the dilemma facing Statistics NZ which has resulted in the release a discussion paper on the way ethnicity statistics are collected and reported .

This has been prompted by the debate over the inclusion of the category New Zealander  in the official census and the consequent difficulty in matching stats from previous years and with other official sources such as birth registrations which didn’t or still don’t offer that option.

Stats are important and they need to be accurate, reliable and to be compared, but they also need to reflect reality and I think that the reality has changed. 

My mother, like many of her generation, called Britain Home, with a capital h even if they’d never been there. That would be most uncommon now because many of the ties which bound us to Britain have been cut and we are much more independent in our outlook and our identity.

The categories in official forms need to change in response to that and enable us, like people in the USA, to answer the who-am-I? question by recognising the cultural and historical things which unite us as well as those which make us different.

Let those of us who consider ourselves to be New Zealanders be counted as such and satisfy the statisticians’ and planners’ need to be more specific with sub-categories which recognise our descent as well.

P.S. Feedback to the discussion paper can be emailed to: ethnicity.review@stats.govt.nz, until May 25th.

UPDATE: PM of NZ is quite sure who he is.


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