The true picture of New Zealand’s vision of ‘Us’

Julian Wood

We have been rightly proud of our country’s unity in response to the Christchurch Mosque attacks. But in the weeks following, we have also been asking questions about how accepting New Zealand really is. It is an ongoing public debate that previously flared up when Taika Waititi said New Zealand is “racist as f***,” asking: are we a racist, or an accepting country?

The True New Zealander

The good news is there’s actually recent research that explores some of these questions. The Social Attitudes Survey New Zealand explores the characteristics that people in New Zealand think are associated with “truly being a New Zealander.” In understanding the boundaries people want to draw around who can be a “real” New Zealander we get a picture of how racially and culturally exclusive New Zealand’s vision of “us” is.

It turns out a majority of us hold inclusive views on who can be a “real” New Zealander. The research explored two different types of views: “civic,” those that leave room for any person to become a New Zealander through their actions and choices, and “ascriptive,” views that define “New Zealander” by categories like place of birth, skin colour, and other characteristics that a person cannot choose or change.

Survey Results

Positively, the research found plenty of civic responses: 93% of respondents held that someone “feeling like a New Zealander” was important to truly being a New Zealander, “respect[ing] NZ political institutions/laws” was important for 91% and “[holds] NZ citizenship” for 88%.

However, the research also found that 70% of people held that it was very or fairly important for someone to have been born in New Zealand for that person to truly be a New Zealander. It seems many of us hold a messy combination of inclusive civic and exclusive ascriptive views, whether we like to admit it or not.

Attitude of Immigrants

To help us move forward, I was encouraged by a second research paper that explored attitudes to immigrants and cultural diversity in New Zealand. This work highlights that frequent contact with people who have migrated to New Zealand is clearly and positively linked with positive attitudes towards migrants. This work indicates a need for us to intentionally foster intimate, cooperative, positive, and equal status contact with new New Zealanders, with shared common goals.

Spontaneous giving helps

I like that the research here doesn’t place the emphasis on the immigrant becoming one of us. Rather the fostering is something we need to be doing. Official settlement policies have a role to play here, sure. But, largely, it’s about the little things, like the Taranaki trust giving away free meat to people willing to invite their neighbours over for a BBQ. Or being a community that ensures recent migrant workers are invited to the school fair. Indeed if we want people to feel welcome and one of “us,” it’s up to us to freely offer the best of what being a New Zealander looks like.

The wonderful thing is that the very act of welcoming others might end up developing our own thinking about what makes for a “real” New Zealander.

Julian Wood is a Researcher at the Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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