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Many cultures, all good citizens


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.

Displaced persons

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 ago.

Valuable contributions

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.

Pluralist democracy

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 continues remorselessly.

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.

Overseas Kiwis

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 society.

Settlement education

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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