Diversity, kiwi-style

3 Feb

Kia ora!

I’m back from New Zealand with just one word: Go.

If you haven’t been, you must. And if you have, go again. We certainly plan to.

While there’s much I could rave on and on about, for the purposes of this post, I’ll stick to a bit of musing about racial diversity in NZ…

The majority population of NZ is European-heritage, who outnumber the “indigenous” Maori almost 5:1. (I say “indigenous” because NZ, which I understand has no indigenous mammals, has only been populated for the last 1000 years. But the Maori did get there first.) NZ is also home to a minority population of Polynesians, and more recently, Dutch, South African, Chinese and Indian immigrants.

While I think there’s substance to the perspective that NZ is a model (especially in comparison to the US and Australia) for relations between indigenous and European colonizing peoples, I also observed, read about and discussed with locals persistent prejudices and systemic inequities that resemble the issues we’re struggling with here:

  • In the newspapers and guidebooks, there’s open acknowledgment that Maori are disproportionately over-represented in school failure and truancy, unemployment and incarceration rates. A young European-heritage teacher who was our kayak guide in Abel Tasman offered his theory that schools are set up in a Eurocentric way that doesn’t serve Maori youth well. What a theory, eh? That schools are inherently cultural with a bias in favor of students who come from or conform to that culture, and that cultural competency is a critical tool to help teachers teach better and students learn better. I told our guide, who was about to start his first teaching job in Christchurch (a city still recovering from the devastating earthquake in 2010) that I thought he was on to something.
  • … Meanwhile, our North Island fishing guide offered his perspective on the lower achievement of the Maori, in terms that were disturbingly familiar. He spoke of the Maori as lazy people who feel entitled because of government reparations (who can blame them?), although he also readily vouched that “some of them are hardworking.” Sound like the attitude toward any groups in the US that you know of? I’m actually glad to have had this experience because our fishing guide is a prime example of the truth that really nice people can be racist, too.
  • On a pop culture note, two Maori movies that came to our attention around this trip (Once Were Warriors and Boy) depict the struggles of socioeconomically disadvantaged Maori families. The circumstances of these characters derive from inequities that are historic and systemic, as well as individually perpetuated. And again, I’m reminded of race in the US and the stories that are told about and by different groups of people. Whose stories are always about overcoming adversity? Whose stories are always about being a foreigner? And whose stories get to be “just stories about people”?
  • In the index of our Rough Guide, I found entries for prejudice (p.71), racism (also p.71)–and “gay New Zealand” (p.72). On the topic of racism, the Rough Guide offered, “There’s little overt racism, but neither is there much mixing.” I found this to be very true in our 17 days there, spent on the South, North and Stewart (NZ’s 3rd largest) Islands. While I saw other multiracial couples when we visited Milford Sound, they were also from the US. (Sidenote: they were all notably female Asian-white male couples like us, which says something about the phenomenon of race-mixing in the US in our age and soceioeconomic groups.) Sure, we saw plenty of people of different races–particularly in the large North Island cities–but we didn’t see them in mixed company. This struck me vividly on our last day, which we spent exploring Auckland. I happened to look over at a car in traffic and noticed a white man seated next to an Asian man. I remember being surprised, and then realizing that what was so surprising was just that these guys were in a car together. And then I realized what I also hadn’t seen: any multiracial families (unless, of course, the men in the car were a couple). Quite common in the SF Bay Area, the multiracial family (of any combination) turned out to be a rarer sight than the kiwi (bird), of which we saw 3.  

While not the same as in the US, race in NZ also didn’t seem completely foreign to me. Neither did the dynamics of class, sexuality or gender, although I do wonder how being a remote country of 4 million people (only 1 million of whom live in the South Island) impacts people’s perceptions of and experiences with each other. Maybe more on this later…

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