New Zealand is browning. The melting pot that is New Zealand has had some new ingredients added to it. The results for the 2006 census show that Europeans are a dying breed in terms of the proportion of New Zealand’s population. Last year Europeans made up 67.6 per cent of New Zealand’s population, compared to more than 80 per cent in 2001. New Zealand demographics have changed a lot. Almost one quarter of New Zealand’s population was born overseas. Our Asian population increased by 50 per cent and now makes up 9.2 per cent of New Zealand’s population. In Auckland, Europeans are almost an ethnic minority, making up just 56.5 per cent of the population. For some, it would seem that the ‘Asian invasion’ is at hand; that we are in danger of losing our culture and way of life to a wave of migrants.
But New Zealand has two options in response to immigration. We can ignore and deny our population diversity, or we can accept and adapt to it. There is no doubt that immigrants are here to stay and that our ethnic diversity will only increase. Massey University Sociologist Professor Paul Spoonley forecasts that by 2016 one in four Aucklanders will be of Asian descent. Migrants have presented us with many opportunities as a nation. Their skills are highly valued in a tight labour market and their different beliefs and ways of life have made our own New Zealand culture more sophisticated and connected with the rest of the world. But do New Zealanders really embrace people of other cultures and the diversity they offer? Professor Spoonley says that New Zealand employers have not capitalised on the talent pool that the range of ethnic groups offer. “Some of our employers are great, and use diversity to their advantage, but other employers are struggling. And they struggle to see immigrants as their first-choice employees”.
New Zealand is often seen to have positive, dynamic race relations. We have not seen any of the race riots that have occurred in places like Paris, or Cronulla in Sydney, and the over-representation of Maori in many of the negative statistics is not as extreme as in other countries with indigenous minority groups. However, while New Zealand is largely a tolerant nation towards people from different ethnic groups, if we are to truly embrace our multiculturalism, then we must move from mere tolerance to respect and understanding. Tolerance is essentially indifference; we get along because we have to and go about our daily lives with our backs turned to others. Respect and understanding is the level we should be aiming for. When people do not understand difference, they are often open to false perceptions and prejudices. The New Zealand of today and the New Zealand of the future requires people of all races to work together. One only needs to look at the faces in our school’s classrooms to see what our country’s future will look like and depend on.
Race relations is a bit like breakfast cereal. People cling to their breakfast favourites as they do their attitudes. Imagine you have Weetbix for breakfast every morning. Suddenly a packet of cornflakes appear on the shelf. Would you throw the cornflakes out, refusing to eat them, or would you look at them in delight, seeing an opportunity to indulge in what may be a healthier, tastier cereal? Many people would refuse to eat the cornflakes, fearing that their comfortable, safe and predictable ritual with the Weetbix may come to an end. Yet if one looks to the cornflakes with an open mind and begins to understand them, then perhaps the cornflakes may even be respected. Whether or not New Zealanders come to respect the cornflakes and the diversity that different ethnic groups bring to our communities will be an important milestone in race relations in New Zealand.
Governor General Anand Satyanand said on Race Relations day this year, “Our increasing diversity gives us the mandate to harness all our cultures of origin to fashion a shared national consciousness”. If we offer our hand and not our shoulder to the diversity of our population, then New Zealand’s future will be a much more positive one and our culture, as Satyanand notes, will be richer for it, “We can allow our own distinct culture to emerge by being open to new influences and by being receptive to change”.
We are increasingly going to face the influence of migrants in schools, in the workplace and in the community. These people, whether one is enthusiastic about it or not, will continue to play a larger role in our country and our national identity.
Establishing positive, open responses to people of different ethnic origins and developing respect for them is crucial to creating a successful future for New Zealand.