There always have been, always will be, people moving around the world.
We understand better now how the Maori came down to New Zealand, to be
followed from the end of the 18th Century by Europeans and others.
Currently there are major movements into Europe, from North Africa, Eastern
Europe and the Middle East, and into North America from the South and
from East Asia. All these changes in demography impact on economies, politics,
life-styles and cultures.
Ethnicities become blurred. Intermarriage makes it less and less easy
to speak as though people lived in clearly defined groups, community or
cultural, and as there is only one human race, words such as “race”
and “racial” can be misleading. They are widely used, but
sometimes with unhelpful implications.
Our 2001 census found nearly 230 countries represented amongst the birth
places of people who live in New Zealand. More than 50 of those countries
had contributed more than 1000 people. And who should be surprised?
For the most part we mix up freely and live together happily enough,
and let’s hope we stay that way. Some will no doubt drift away;
undoubtedly more will arrive.
Plainly enough some new arrivals take longer than others to adjust (New
Zealand has for long been sympathetic and generous towards refugees -
Displaced Persons in post war years - and asylum seekers) but over time
they all become more or less “kiwis” – they meld into
a common identity – while retaining, no doubt, some distinctive
features. The concept of “assimilation” has now gone out of
favour. And while newcomers adjust to our way of doing things, “we”
learn to recognize and utilize their strengths. On both sides there will
be changes, not only in life-style but in values and ways of thinking.
Our society, like our economy, is constantly changing.
Meaning of terms
Talking about these relationships, therefore one must be careful about
the meaning of terms. Given that there are no individual races, to speak
of someone’s racial background is better seen is a reference to
his or her ethnicity – but a high proportion of people, certainly
in New Zealand, are of mixed ethnicity. In this country data is based
on the principle of individual self-identification: when asked people
associate ethnicity along with cultural affiliation but also along with
such factors as previous nationality, and prospects in this country. The
term “ethnic minority” is not very useful, therefore. “Cultural
group”, because the definition of culture must always be quite loose,
may be more satisfactory. It is argued that culture is what matters for
identity, not ethnicity and not money either. And clearly there are “communities”
of people who are ready to acknowledge a linkage and who will from time
to time display or express a common interest. (Recently Wellington enjoyed
a Greek Festival – though no one would suggest that all participants
were exclusively of Greek ethnicity. Subsequently Te Papa celebrated the
achievements in this country of the Italian Community.)
A Middle Eastern country has recently been described as a cocktail of
concessions and ethnicities. New Zealand is perhaps unlikely to go that
far, but is already vastly different from the New Zealand of 100 years
We know that people who on first arrival in New Zealand look for others
who speak their language; and have a similar background and perhaps religion
may later drift away, finding new friends and new interests. Some do this
more quickly and easily than others.
Inevitably new arrivals make an impact on society, and most make valuable
contributions, whether as individuals or cultural groups, not only w
ith their particular skills, their energy or capital but with their music,
their foods, their sporting abilities or the values they express.
In this pluralist democracy, as new voters they have ready opportunity
to voice their views on policy issues or their own expectations, and alert
politicians will take account. In some areas the electoral balance may
change. Everyone has to adjust a bit.
Over time, as New Zealanders are well aware, the balance of the population
can shift. We accept that it will never be static. Demographic change
In today’s world such diversity – new people, new ideas,
new cultures – gives us new strength and is to be welcomed. It is
probably also inevitable, a fact of life which cannot be ignored.
If a number of the estimated one million “overseas Kiwis”
were to return that too would make a significant difference. Consider
for a moment how progressive waves of immigration have changed American
We must be concerned therefore, that new arrivals are given assistance
and guidance as may be necessary and that as they are absorbed into the
body politic – as they take their places as citizens – while
important aspects of their cultures can be preserved these do not become
the cause of feuding, unpleasantness and tension.
Education, in the broadest sense of the word, should produce understanding,
toleration, and respect. Ultimately, we are all citizens, so we should
be good citizens. It is that citizenship which binds us together, whatever
our backgrounds may be. Meanwhile we continue to cherish our diversity.
New Zealand is home to representatives of many cultures who, whether
after many generations or as recent arrivals, chose to live here and to
see themselves as one people. This is something to be proud of.
From Roger Peren, a Centre for Citizenship Education Adviser, and former
New Zealand diplomat
Updated Tuesday, March 15, 2005
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