Review: Asians and the New Multiculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

unnamedAsians and the New Multiculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Gautam Ghosh and Jacqueline Leckie. Dunedin, NZ: Otago University Press. 2015. ISBN 978 1 877578 23 6, $40

Reviewed by Katie Higgins

Migrants from Asia have been arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand since the nineteenth century, but you wouldn’t always know it from the stories it tells about itself. This timely edited collection disrupts the dominant narrative of Pakeha (white New Zealanders) and Maori (indigenous peoples). It aims to prompt conversations about multiculturalism, particularly with regard to the histories and migrations of ‘Asians’. Some of the complexity, and the tension, around these debates was illustrated at this year’s Waitangi Day. MP and prominent voice for Maori rights, Marama Davidson expressed her support for Asian tauiwi on social media, after hearing that a group of young people holding an ‘Asians in solidarity with tino rangatiratanga’ banner were given a hard time by a Maori woman at Waitangi. The popularity of her statement and the blog ‘mellow yellow’, as just one example of what’s available, speak to some of the sophisticated conversations already happening outside of academia.

Aotearoa New Zealand has changed from one of the more homogenous settler societies in the twentieth century to boasting cities described as ‘superdiverse’ in the twenty-first century. Such increasing diversity has taken place in a postcolonising context in which a bicultural approach has been broadly adopted which privileges the Treaty of Waitangi as the nation’s founding document. As Spoonley puts it, in an erudite chapter which provides a broad introduction to the histories of migration and civic recognition, this makes Aotearoa New Zealand ‘somewhat reluctantly and without a lot of political or policy understanding of exactly what was being unleashed … a particularly interesting site in terms of identity politics and recognition’. This book emerged from a symposium in 2011 at the University of Otago to address that lack of understanding called ‘Interrogating Multi-culturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand: An Asian Studies Perspective’. It is made up of nine substantive chapters organised around biculturalism, performance, religion and economies as they relate to multiculturalism, with an introduction and afterword by the editors.

Although sometimes densely realised, Ghosh’s introduction skilfully picks out underlying themes, and assumptions, in the subsequent chapters and outlines future avenues for research. To draw on his imagery, the kaleidoscopic inclusion of tantalizing references to Heidegger, migrant metropolis, and fractals remained, perhaps necessarily, undeveloped in a piece mapping potential next steps, and I look forward to seeing some of these ideas developed further.

The development of a model of multiculturalism informed by the Treaty in Aotearoa New Zealand could be an exemplar for other settler societies. Nakhid and Devere provide a compelling argument for the inclusion of the Treaty and Maori in future discussions on immigration and multiculturalism, as do many of the contributing chapters. In fact, the prominence given to the Treaty and of Maori in this process made me question why this was not reflected in the title of the book. There has been a lot of anxiety generated by population projections that Asians will outnumber Maori in a matter of decades. Often this discourse infers a cohesiveness for the former, never mind the latter, beyond the ascription of an ethnic category by the census. The debate is frequently couched as a zero-sum game. The story goes that biculturalism excludes ethnic minorities and migrants, while multiculturalism diminishes the status of Maori. As Ghosh argued, in a footnote,* ‘Non-Pakeha constituencies could be empowered not by taking it away from each other, but by claiming a share of Pakeha power’. The creation of space for conversations between ethnic minorities/migrants and Maori outside of a Pakeha-dominated sphere appears crucial. In another important footnote, Ghosh highlights that little attention is given to tauiwi  – ‘those persons and things that are non-Maori but are not necessarily only Pakeha’ – in the volume. One important exception is Chung’s analyses of counter-discursive theatre that aims for a more capacious ‘symbolic space of the national narrative’. The role of the performance of culture in raising the profile of communities from Asia, in this case via festivals, also shapes Johnson’s chapter, where he takes a cautious line on the role of the state in funding and realising such events.

With regards to religion, two chapters address the one per cent of Muslims in Aotearoa New Zealand. ‘In terms of multiculturalism in a Western liberal democracy, Muslims pose possibly the greatest challenge’, Kolig argues, in a contribution which flirts with inflammatory statements. Through an international comparison, he draws heavily on the supposed ‘death of multiculturalism’ in Europe while merely dedicating a few lines to the far more comparable situation, with regards to economic inclusion and migration histories, of other British settler societies, such as in North America. In contrast to these examples, he argues ‘New Zealand is fortunate to have one of the most peaceful and complacent Muslim minorities in the Western world’. Kolig gives credit for this situation ‘mostly to Muslims individually, as well as to their leadership’. From which I can only infer, rather than any broader social and historical processes, that individuals, as well as their leaders, are to blame for so-called ‘spectacular cases of maladjustment’ in other places.  Kolig portrays Muslims in Aotearoa New Zealand as an inconspicuous presence. In fact, ‘If it were not for the characteristic architecture of mosques and a distinctive female sartorial code, New Zealand majority society would hardly notice their presence’, which speaks to a particular kind of desired criteria for successful integration. Kolig does acknowledge, ‘Another reason [for their successful integration] may be that New Zealand immigration policies have favoured better-educated and economically better-situated immigrants’, but this point deserves greater significance.

Alternately, through the ‘personal narratives of some ethnically/culturally diverse Muslim and Asian women in New Zealand’, Dobson invokes a less complacent situation in her rich contribution. She calls for greater inclusion of context in media portrayals of Muslims to avoid ‘tautologically repetitive stereotypes’. She then illustrates their negative impact through attending to the lived experiences of such portrayals for Muslims, at the same time as centring the agential and critical voices of her participants. Meanwhile, the role of Christianity has been undervalued in research on Aotearoa New Zealand. In an enlightening chapter, Butcher and Wieland contest stereotypes about who New Zealanders are, who Christians are, and a dominant, simplistic narrative of the ‘dilution’ of a traditionally Christian nation by ‘Asian’ immigration.

In Beal, Lindsay and Retna’s chapter, they provide yet more evidence to counter the popular idea that migrants have a detrimental impact on the economy. They make the case for a country that not only ‘values the cultural backgrounds of its citizens’, but ‘actually utilises those assets’. However, their celebration of Asian migrants as a source of human capital prompts the question: what about less ‘successful’ migrants? What is lacking in a celebration of migrants on the basis of their economic value to the nation? Immigration policy has been an important dimension of contemporary neoliberalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is something Spoonley, Meares and Cain are aware of in their chapter which is framed against the backdrop of a laissez-faire approach to migrant settlement in Auckland. Through case studies, they explore whether ethnic precincts enable integration and labour market access for Chinese communities, or whether these entrench parallel lives.

‘[R]egardless of the intellectual and political debates about multiculturalism, it is a lived reality being constantly negotiated throughout people’s lives and daily activities’. Through the story of Lalita, who identifies as Maori and Indian, Leckie picks up themes in her afterword which had thus far been lacking. Lalita’s multiple identifications trouble straight lines and clear demarcations. Asians and the New Multiculturalism in Aotearoa New Zealand would have benefited from more space dedicated to those who inhabit ethnic categories multiply and ambiguously. As well as, while troubled consistently, more space dedicated to exploring the subjective experiences and collective consciousness, if any, of the homogenising label ‘Asian’.

Many of the chapters are accessible to undergraduates but would be useful for researchers in the field too. I recommend this book for those interested in cultural and ethnic politics in Aotearoa New Zealand, particularly as it relates to those who identify, or are identified, as Asian.

Katie Higgins is in the last stages of her ESRC-funded PhD on the topic of contemporary British migration to Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She is based at the University of Sussex, but has had the good fortune to spend time as a visiting researcher at Queen’s University, Canada, and also at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.