More than 11,000 New Zealanders wrote in ‘Pākehā’ as their ethnicity in the last Census because the official form does not provide for this option. This needs to change, for reasons beyond the Census, writes Peter Hosking

Last week, Dame Anne Salmond argued that rather than seeing Māori ways as an either/or with existing thinking about the world and its governance, it’s time to bring them together for new institutional forms of order for Aotearoa-New Zealand.

I suspect that currently few Pākehā understand enough about our own culture, let alone Māori approaches, to contribute much to the discussion. Essential to this debate from a Pākehā perspective is knowing who we are, what our own culture is and how it has impacted on current systems of governance including through the colonisation process.

The situation is not helped by the state’s approach to ethnicity. Although I certainly think of myself/feel Pākehā, the state considers my ethnicity to be New Zealand European. Every Māori I know thinks of me as Pākehā – a New Zealand word for a New Zealand ethnicity. Most of my family and friends see me, and themselves, as Pākehā. Yet according to Statistics NZ, my ethnicity is not Pākehā, but NZ European.

According to the Statistics NZ website: “statistics about ethnicity give information by the ethnic groups that people identify with or feel they belong to. Ethnicity is a measure of cultural affiliation. It is not a measure of race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship. Ethnicity is self perceived and people can belong to more than one ethnic group.”

Except, apparently, that if you self perceive your ethnicity to be Pākehā, (that is, you identify with, or feel you belong with, others who think of themselves as Pākehā) you are not afforded the opportunity to have that officially recorded by the State.

Call Me Pākehā Please has run a campaign for the last two censuses, inviting Pākehā who don’t consider their ethnicity to be “NZ European” to check the ”Other” box and write in “Pākehā” there.

We have since attempted to discover how many New Zealanders took this write-in option. Statistics NZ declined our request in both 2013 and 2018 on the basis that the information was below the lowest level of the ethnicity standard classification [counted]. Staff would provide the information, but their time doing so would be charged out at $155 + GST. This we weren’t prepared to pay, given that all we are seeking is access to official information that should be available to everybody.

Then, in November 2019, Statistics NZ announced that it was reviewing the New Zealand standard classification of ethnicity. Wouldn’t it be relevant to such a review, we argued, to know just how many New Zealanders felt so strongly that the census options were inadequate that they described themselves as “Other” in their own country and typed in “Pākehā”? In the end, the department relented. There were 4,485 write-ins in 2013. The number was up to 11,593 by 2018, which would rank “Pākehā” in the top quarter of the more than 100 different ethnicities collected.

There used to be an option for “NZ European or Pākehā” in the 1996 Census but it was removed, apparently because some people objected to a Māori word in the option. In case there are still people who think like this, we would be happy for “Pākehā” to be listed as an option separate from “NZ European”. Indeed, it would be useful to know just how many people prefer to call themselves “Pākehā” rather than “NZ European”.

“Pākehā” is now in widespread use – by pollsters, by the business community and even by official bodies like Auckland Council. Around half the respondents in two informal media polls during our write-in campaign thought that “Pākehā” should be added to the census options.

It is surely unthinkable that Statistics NZ will persist with its current formulation through another census. Recognising Pākehā ethnicity is at the heart of the debate about who we are – as individuals, as cultures, and as peoples – not to mention essential for analysing the challenges and responsibilities that flow from the colonial history about which Dame Anne has written so eloquently.

Peter Hosking is a former human rights commissioner and former chairperson of the Human Rights Foundation of Aotearoa New Zealand

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