Ethnicity and the Census: Statistics New Zealand Asks ”’whaddarya?”

Listener: 25 February, 2006

Keywords: Literature and Culture; Maori; Statistics;

March 7 is Census Day, the day on which Statistics New Zealand (like Foreskin) asks “Whaddarya?” The Census may not cover all the questions you think important, but a good quality Census response makes the surveys that ask such questions cheaper and you are surveyed less often.

Most Census questions are straightforward. However, the ethnicity response is complicated. It is an important “whaddarya?” The 2006 Census is asking exactly the same question as in 2001. Its notes give no guidance. You respond as you feel. It need not be a race-based response. We know there are people of part-Maori descent who say they are not of Maori ethnicity. And there are those who say they are of Maori ethnicity but have no Maori ancestors.

I shall write: “Pakeha.” Asked whaddarya? when I am overseas, I say “New Zealander”. But at home I provide a finer distinction, because I respect the 30% who say they are “Chinese”, “Maori”, “Samoan” or so on, as well as being New Zealanders. I am comfortable with “Pakeha”, which Henry Williams used for the translation of “European” in the Treaty of Waitangi. A missionary using “Pakeha” in an official document shows it is a dignified word.

Ethnicity is such a nuanced notion that the Census allows us to record multiple options, publishing detailed tables so we can trace how groups respond. But for public purposes we need a summary.

Until recently, the practice was “prioritisation”. All those who ticked “Maori” were classified as of Maori ethnicity, even if they ticked other categories as well. Pasifika peoples were similarly counted (unless they were already in the Maori classification), and so on. The proportion of (ethnic) Maori in the 2001 Census Population was reported as 14.7%. But 44% of them said they were something else as well. This group is particularly prone to multiple ticks. Only 8% of the whole population gives more than one ethnicity. Those who ticked “Maori only” came to but 8.2%. (See table.)

Such prioritisation is insulting to those who ticked Maori and something else: they clearly did not want to be classified only as Maori. It is also insulting to those who only ticked Maori, since it is diluting their ethnic commitment.

Worse still, it has distorted public discussion. Sure, there are about 15% who think they are whole or part Maori ethnicity. But often the relevant proportion is the 8.2% who think themselves as sole Maori. (That better explains the number of Maori electoral seats, for instance.) It’s a case of Gilling’s law. The statistician’s technical prioritisation rule has changed the way the nation thinks about its ethnic relations.

Realising this, Statistics New Zealand now simply records everyone by all the ethnicities they report. That means, unfortunately, that the total of people’s ethnicities exceeds the total number of people, since multiple tickers get counted more than once. If you know what you are doing, it does not matter, but, in a recent report, I had to laboriously explain this complication.

There is a simpler solution. Suppose we record a new ethnicity, “Maori-Pakeha”, which is all those who tick both categories. We are not inventing it. You already did that when you designated yourself that way.

The shares of the population by large ethnic categories in 2001 were sole New Zealand European 72.8%, sole Maori 8.2%, sole Asian 6%, sole Maori-Pakeha 5.4%, sole Pasifika 4.6%, sole Other (eg, African) .5%, with only 2.5% of the population reporting they belong to two or more of these categories.

But this is statisticians resolving technical problems. What is really important is that over 5% of New Zealanders say they belong to an ethnicity that has components of both Maori and Pakeha. They are entitled to be recognised in the statistics and in public policy, and to be celebrated as part of the exciting ethnic diversity that is evolving in New Zealand.

Whaddarya According to the Census

  Only Multiple ’Priority’
European 72.8 80.1 72.8
Maori 8.2 14.7 14.7
Asian 6.0 6.6 6.3
Maori-Pakeha 5.4 n.a. n.a.
Pacific Islander 4.6 6.5 5.6
Other 0.5 0.7 0.6
More-than-one 2.5 n.a. n.a.

n.a. = not applicable.