(Mixed) Racial formation in Aotearoa/New Zealand: framing biculturalism and ‘mixed race’ through categorisation

(Mixed) Racial formation in Aotearoa/New Zealand: framing biculturalism and ‘mixed race’ through categorisation

Kotuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online
Volume 7, Issue 1, (May 2012)
DOI: 10.1080/1177083X.2012.670650
pages 1-13

Zarine L. Rocha, Research Scholar
Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore

This paper explores racial formation in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the impacts of state categorisation on understandings of ‘mixed race’. Processes of racial formation have undergone significant shifts over time, from initial colonial understandings of racialised domination and hierarchy, to present-day narratives of a multicultural society within a bicultural national framework. Connecting these narratives is a constant thread of racial differentiation, framing inter-group relations within society and underpinning contemporary state and social understandings of (mixed) race. Although New Zealand maintains an innovative method of measuring ethnic (self) identification, this fluid categorisation is constrained by existing classification structures and dominant racial narratives. ‘Mixed race’ identity is thus firmly positioned within the bicultural/multicultural tension, which characterises ‘race relations’ in New Zealand. Mixed identities for the individual can be seen as reflecting the ‘mixed’ nature of the state and society, with the narrative of a bicultural nation providing a macro level depiction of personal mixedness.


Omi and Winant’s theory of racial formation (1986, 1994) provides a lucid and grounded framework to explore and analyse the politics of race and ethnicity. The term racial formation describes the complex interrelationship between social, economic and political forces, the creation of racialised categories and hierarchies, and the content and influence of racial meanings (Omi & Winant 1986:61). Placing race at the heart of social analysis, racial formation theory emphasises the centrality of race in social structures, as well as its socially constructed, politically contested and historically flexible nature. Racial categories, historically created and embedded, both dictate and reflect individual understandings of race, where micro understandings meet macro structures (Omi & Winant 1994, 2009; Winant 2000:182).

Processes of racial formation in New Zealand have undergone significant shifts across different stages of nation-building, moving from colonial understandings of racialised hierarchy, to the present-day complex narrative of a multicultural society within a bicultural national framework. Connecting these narratives over time is a constant thread of differentiation along racial and ethnic lines, framing inter-group relations and underpinning understandings of race and ‘mixed race’. Despite a shift towards conceptions of ethnicity, the country’s racialised colonial past continues to influence social policy and popular understandings of identity and belonging. This article illustrates the temporal continuities and changes in macro narratives of race and ethnicity, exploring historical processes of racial formation through colonisation and categorisation, with a focus on how ‘mixed race’ has been understood in policy and practice.

As a lingering colonial legacy, the idea of ‘race’ in New Zealand as a means to structure and understand society remains pervasive and powerful, for the state and the individual (Spoonley 1993:2). As racial narratives have shifted over time, from colonialisation and amalgamation, through assimilation, and towards biculturalism (Bozic-Vrbancic 2005:518), state, social and individual understandings of what it means to be ‘mixed race’ in the New Zealand context have also developed and changed. Although 90% of the population reports a single ethnic group (Statistics New Zealand 2009), these groups are complex and fluid, representing a multiplicity of understandings and practices. Within the contemporary overarching binary narrative (potentially illustrating a ‘mixed’ identity at the state level), individual mixed identities have been simultaneously acknowledged and ignored – recognised officially through categorisation, but practically subsumed under the broader categories of Māori, Pākehā, Asian and Pacific Peoples, which structure institutional and everyday interactions. This article traces the origins of this dissonance and complexity, looking primarily at the Māori and Pākehā populations, and changing constructions of race and ethnicity in New Zealand…

…Race, ethnicity and projects of categorisation…

…Further complicating understandings of race, the concept of ‘mixed race’ has been the subject of increasing interest over the past two decades (Parker & Song 2001; Ifekwunigwe 2004). In multicultural societies, greater numbers of individuals of mixed ancestry are identifying outside of traditional racial categories, posing a challenge to existing systems of classification, and to sociological understandings of the significance of ‘race’. Highlighting wider questions about the consequences of and motivations for identification, ‘mixed race’ identities were recognised by the American and British censuses in 2000/2001. New Zealand provides a particularly interesting contrast, highlighting policy and individual outcomes in a context where multiplicity has been formally recognised for an extended period of time. Applying racial formation theory to ‘mixed race’ illuminates new ways of understanding both racial formation processes, and what it means to be ‘mixed’. More broadly, placing ‘mixed race’ at the centre of racial formation theory, this paper illustrates the shifting and problematic concept of race in New Zealand, and the ‘crisis of racial meaning’ that is posited to occur when racial categorisation is not possible (Omi & Winant 1994:59)…

…Racial formation in New Zealand…

…New Zealand’s first national census in 1851 included only the European population, providing a clear message as to which population counted (literally) in the nation-building process. A partial census of Māori was carried out in 1857–1858, before full and regular censuses of Māori became institutionalised from 1867, with this separation in measurement continuing until 1951 (Statistics New Zealand 2004:21). This delimiting of the Māori population combined ideas of race and culture, measuring those identified as Māori, but also, interestingly, those who lived as Māori, highlighting the importance of the practice of racial identities for the state (Callister et al. 2006:5; Howard & Didham 2007:2). The application of race as practice was directed particularly at those who were classified as ‘half-castes’. After 1916, data on race was systematically collected, and those in the middle, the ‘half-caste’ population, were classified by their modes of living (Statistics New Zealand 2009:11).

In contrast to many other colonial societies, the New Zealand state closely monitored racial mixing and attempted to structure private lives through colonial policy, but never prohibited miscegenation, intertwining racial identities, gender roles and empire building (Wanhalla 2004:39, 2009:15). The Māori population were viewed as biologically ‘close’ to the European settlers, and intermarriage was seen as a viable method of social and biological assimilation, as well as of appropriation of land (Freeman 2005). Intermarriage generally occurred between Māori women and European men—initially due to the population of single European men involved in early trade, and later continuing a pattern of gendered power imbalances. Inter-racial unions, as gendered crossings of racial boundaries, represented an important point of contact between the colonisers and the colonised, and a disruption of the racial hierarchy, particularly if they produced biological evidence—the ‘half-caste’ (Grimshaw 2002:12; Wanhalla 2004:28).

‘Half-caste’ children were viewed as in-between the two populations in terms of traits and worth, and were practically included as Māori or Pākehā, depending on the cultural associations of the parents (A. Anderson 1991; Meredith 2000:11). However, despite the lack of legal prohibition, neither group viewed mixed children positively, particularly as they disrupted popular settler notions of a ‘white New Zealand’. Differential understandings of land and inheritance also highlighted how colonial ‘mixed race’ differed significantly from Māori understandings of belonging. Traditionally, measurements of ‘blood’ were not used to defined ‘Māoriness’: rather, being born with links to other Māori made an individual a grandchild of the tribe, regardless of blood percentage (Jackson 2003:62; Howard & Didham 2007).

Official understandings and measurements of ‘mixed race’ were complex and often inconsistent—based on biological understandings, but tempered by the realities of cultural practice. The concept of ‘half-caste’ both described and dictated relationships between racialised groups, acting as a means to promote certain processes of land acquisition and cultural dominance, in favour of the British settlers (Wanhalla 2004:9; Kukutai 2007:1151). By troubling the binary mode of Māori/non-Māori for the census enumerators, and often relying on subjective judgements of living conditions or skin colour rather than ‘scientific’ measures of blood, the category of ‘half-caste’ ‘continued to defy categorisation and instead occupied an ambivalent and unstable position in the national census’ (Wanhalla 2004:296–297)….

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