This talk will discuss the historic foundations of New Zealand’s national identity, particularly how it ties in with the theme of white dominance, which is one of the major themes of this conference. So it will be a history talk. But I am of the school that believes there is no such thing as history. As William Faulkner said ‘the past is not dead, it’s not even past.’ What happened in the past informs, and explains, and influences the present and the future. When we say ‘legacy’, we are not talking of something dead, we are talking of how the past has influenced and continues to influence us today. In other words ‘who we were is who we are’
So when I talk of the history of our national identity, I am not talking of something safely consigned to the past, I am trying to explain why we are who we are, and trying to why we still react so negatively to certain people and events.
It is often said that nations are imagined communities - meaning we create nations in our minds by an act of collective imagination (although it can also be useful to have some actual military power to back up the power of the imagination as well) - and the same can be said of national identity and if we create nations and national identities in our minds, the same can also be said of race. Races, like nations, are largely imaginary. Races are created and the concept of race is mostly a creation of the European mind. There is really no such thing as a black race or a white race. The white race does not exist, it was created as a means to create and maintain power and to mark limits of inclusion and exclusion.
Race and Empire
So how did New Zealand’s national identity come into being? How was the imagined community called New Zealand created? The myth is that New Zealand identity was born either on the shores of Gallipoli on the 25th of April 1915 – ANZAC Day - or on 6 February 1840 at Waitangi – Waitangi Day. I maintain that our identity was formed during the period from 1890 to 1907, and that the hard work of forming the identity that was supposedly created at Gallipoli in 1915 had been done in the 20 years before 1915.
Before 1890 the idea of New Zealand as a nation was quite weak. Provincial identity was stronger than national identity, and the settlers still thought of themselves more as transplanted Scots, Welsh, Irish or Yorkshire people, and as Cantabrians, Otagoites, Aucklanders etc. By the 1890s communications and transport problems had largely overcome these problems and the possibility of a unified identity was made possible.
Two key factors, however, were required to help create a unified national identity, and these were the ideas of Race and Empire.
Identity and imperialism
Imperialism was a key factor in the formation of our national identity. It was a key factor because it linked our identity to both the British empire and to the idea of race. So what was happening in the British Empire that caused us to link our identity with British imperialism?
The main cause was that the British Empire was under threat. From the 1870s other countries began to compete seriously with Britain. There was a scramble for the last remaining pieces of uncolonised land, esp in South-East Asia and Africa, and Britain was being outstripped ecomonically by countries such as America, France and especially Germany.
The reaction to this competition in Great Britain and the British Empire was a feeling that the Empire was in danger, and the response was a rise in imperial loyalism that became aggressively jingoistic. This response has been called the New Imperialism, and is said to broadly cover the period from 1870 to 1914.
New Zealand responded in a similar way. The insecurities felt in Britain were reflected and magnified here. We felt vulnerable and insecure, and geographically, politically and militarily isolated. If England wasn’t there to protect us, who would? Our response was to tie our identity to the British Empire as a means of collective and national security. We were also British, of course, which helped.
But we also tied our identity to the British Empire because of the idea of race. Although the idea of race had been around in European thought for a long time, it was during the latter part of the nineteenth century that it gained the predominance it does today. Why? The reason is because of the change in the idea of race from being seen as merely a natural phenomenon, to an ideology. The racial lines hardened, with far less crossing over racial boundaries being allowed. The period from the 1870s also saw the rise of scientific racism and social Darwinsim. These gave a pseudo-scientific base to the growing belief in races and that the British and Anglo-Saxon race was the greatest in the world. It also gave pseudo-scientific credibility to the idea that there was a hierarchy of races, and that the Anglo-Saxon race belonged at the top, with a sliding scale of races with black people at the bottom. This was not a matter of races being equal but different, it was a belief in the superiority and inferiority of races, and the right of superior races to rule over the inferior ones. Race was also linked with civilisation, with the white races being deemed the most civilized, and the other races being deemed increasingly primitive the darker they became. Social Darwinism also introduced the idea that races were in a struggle for survival - a survival of the fittest - and that the white race had to struggle to survive against the ‘lower’ races. Some races were also deemed to be particularly threatening - the most dangerous being the Asiatic and Chinese races.
Scientific racism created the theories of eugenics and miscegenation, which stated that selective breeding would create an improved race, and breeding between higher and lower races would create a deteriorated and sub-human race.
Imperialism and race theory combined to create the ideology of Anglo-Saxonism, which was the belief that the British race was the greatest in the world and that the British had a divine right to rule the world.
The next factor in this chain of events was the invention of the white race, or more accurately, turning the idea of whiteness and the white race into an ideology. Whiteness was basically British Anglo-Saxonism writ large. The British race was too localised to truly function as an ideology outside the British Isles and the British empire, and Anglo-Saxonism was also too narrow to encompass the ideas summed up by the new ideology of whiteness. One of the strengths of whiteness was that it was not tied to any nationality, it was the idea of whiteness that mattered. Whiteness transcended national boundaries. Whiteness was as much about values and beliefs as about a place or a race originating from a specific location. Whiteness was more aggressive than the belief that the British race was the best the world had seen. Whiteness was about power and privilege, about the natural God-given right to rule the world. The great African American scholar W E B Dubois called whiteness ‘ownership of the world.’ Whiteness was a privileged and exclusive club, but membership was not necessarily based on being British or Anglo-Saxon. For example in England the Irish were deemed to be as savage and as primitive as the most ‘primitive’ tribesman of Africa, but once they had left Ireland and the British Isles they - after a probationary period – were permitted to become white. Whiteness was also a means of remaking the various regional identities in the white settler societies - such as Cornish, Scottish, English and Welsh - and creating a new identity. Whiteness was therefore a new imagined community. This is not to say that whiteness supplanted Britishnesss or imperialism as the key identity or definer of membership of New Zealand identity, it merely became another and more over-arching means of creating an identity.
Whiteness was also a relatively new concept. Although the term ‘white people’ - meaning Europeans - has been around for centuries, ‘White’ in its modern sense only came into being in the first decade of the 20th century. About the same time as the term Yellow peril was invented, as it happens.
Dirt and morality
At the same time as the ideologies of race and whiteness were gaining currency, there was an allied growth of the Victorian fear of contamination and dirt. This fear led to an obsessive desire to tame and domesticate society, and was reflected in moral movements such as the temperance movement. There was an increasing obsession with cleanliness. The obsession with dirt and contamination tied in with the rise of scientific racism and feelings of race supremacy. The result was that so-called lesser races were linked in the minds of white people with dirt and contamination and disease. The Victorian obsession with cleanliness and domesticity was also shown in the desire for moral cleanliness. The outcome of this thinking was that other races came to be seen not only as physically dirty and diseased, but morally contaminated as well.
Why was race so important in places like America, Australia and NZ?
Race was important in the white settler societies because, as well as providing a means of creating a new identity, it performed the function that class did in the Old World.
British attitudes to race and class
In the old world, esp. the British Isles, class was more important than race. For the British at ‘home’, ideas of race varied markedly from those held in the white settler colonies. The British perceived class and race as equivalent. As Kenan Malik says ‘The concept of ‘race’ today is so intertwined with the idea of ‘colour’ that it is often difficult to comprehend the Victorian notion of racial difference. For Victorians, race was a description, not so much of colour differences, as of social distinctions. The English lower classes were, to nineteenth-century eyes, as racially different as were Africans or Asians.’ Nancy Stepan points out that during this period ‘the labouring poor were represented as the “savages” of Europe, and the criminal as “Negros.” But the white settler societies such as New Zealand were determined to create a world free of the worst aspects of British society, the class system and inequality of opportunity being foremost among them. A classless and egalitarian society—a working man’s paradise—was part of the utopian dream for New Zealand. Therefore race was a much more important defining factor in national identity in the new world than in the old. In Britain race was unimportant, class and status were the keys. In the new world the reverse was true. Class was unimportant, but race was everything. In the white settler societies such as New Zealand, race, not class, were be the means to create identity and unity.
All these factors – race theory, imperialism, whiteness, morality, egalitarianism and insecurity – combined to create New Zealand’s national identity: New Zealand was to be based on racial purity, racial superiority and whiteness: A White New Zealand. There was a further element: the idea of being a model society and a ‘Better Britain.’ ‘Better Britain’ was the idea that New Zealand would be an improved version of England, an England in the South Seas, only better, without the problems of the old country.’ Better Britain’ also meant we would be better than Australia, another very important part of our national identity.
Māori and white NZ identity
But what about the most obvious thing that I seem to have overlooked so far? What about Māori? Where did they fit in? If being a New Zealander meant being a white person, then it was a simple matter to exclude those who were not white, people such as Chinese and Indians. But Māori were indigenous, so it was not possible to exclude them physically, and because we believed that New Zealand was a utopian and model society, we could not exclude them from the definition of ‘New Zealander.’ This would be treating them like the Americans, Canadians, South Africans and esp. the Australians treated their native peoples and we, of course, were better than that. But having Māori equal to us did not fit the racial theories of the time. They were not white, so how could we make them equal? The answer was to promote them, to remake them as ‘honorary whites.’ In fact we went one better and actually made them white. We did this by creating a myth that Māori were in fact members of the Aryan race. They had just gone off in another direction to us. Therefore although they were savages, they were family, and could be treated, at least in theory, as equal. So though Māori were not white, they were honorary white, and the story we told ourselves, and the world, was that because of this equality between the races – unique in the world – New Zealand had the ‘best race relations in the world.’ At the same time, however, as we were proclaiming this myth, we were quietly hoping that Māori would die out, if not physically, at least by intermarriage and cultural assimilation. The only trace of Māori that would be left would be in museums and, as a result through intermarriage, as a ‘golden tinge’ in the faces of the New Zealand people.
The other of the role of Māori in the creation of our national identity was Pākehā appropriation of Māori culture as a basis for an indigenous white New Zealand culture. By taking over elements of Māori culture, Pākehā New Zealanders aimed to gain indigeneity, and this claim to indigeneity would cement Pākehā’s right to be here. Māori would then become colourful tourist attractions or a nice backdrop to Pākehā identity, like pohutakawa, ferns, Kiwis and Rotorua’s mudpools. From the 1890s Māori symbols - for example Māori stories, the haka and the adoption of Māori names like Rewi and Ngaio – were being used to signify Pākehā New Zealand identity. (it could be argued that this still goes on today)
The appropriation of Māori culture as Pākehā culture also mirrors the appropriation of the land itself. Between 1890 and 1900 about 28% of land still held by Māori was taken by the government. Making Māori white and appropriating Māori culture as our own meant we could have our cake and eat it too. The Māori were erased, but remained as well, as a non-threatening Pākehā reinvention. The ultimate aim was that Māori would not disturb our national identity. As the New Zealand Herald happily noted in 1901 ‘Owing to his exceptional characteristics, the Māori interferes in no way with our national homogeneity. His position is unique.’
Because our national identity was based on race and whiteness, it was inevitably exclusionary. Race exclusion and racism were not aberrations, they were inevitable outcomes of our national identity. Our White New Zealand immigration policy was also not an accident. It was an expression of our identity, as well as a means to achieve it. Race exclusion was really an expression of what it meant to be a New Zealander. If being a New Zealander meant being white – and for 100 years from the 1890s to the 1990s at least that is what it meant – then exclusionary racism against non-whites was the core and centre of that identity. Anti-Chinese and anti-Indian racism was not an aberration or a fringe element in our national identity, it was an expression of its core values, values that were formed between 1890 and 1907. During these years we decided who were to be, and who we were to be was white. Race was therefore the key factor in the formation of our national identity. From 1890 to 1907 the call was: ‘make New Zealand white’. In the period after that the call was: ‘Keep New Zealand white.’ [Of course we have largely lost the imperial loyalty part of our identity – the empire has ended so we don’t need to be loyal to the empire any more – but have we lost the white part? Once we were proud to be called white, not embarrassed or ashamed – to be called white was a mark of appreciation and approval.
That our identity was tied to whiteness, explains - for me - the continuity of our negative and exclusionary reactions and responses to Chinese, Indians and other non-white people in New Zealand. Our national identity has not changed – our definition of ‘we’ has not really shifted from the ‘we’ - meaning white people - that we created between 1890 and 1907. Our national identity as a model society where Māori and Pākehā are equal, and a place where there are no race problems, also remains. Part of our national identity is to believe that race problems are a problem of other countries, not ours. The myth that New Zealand is a country with the ‘best race relations in the world’, however, tends to blind us to the fact that there are issues of race and whiteness that we need to deal with here. But if our national identity – our ‘imagined community’ - was based on the idea of an exclusive racially pure White New Zealand, then it is just as possible to re-imagine it in another way, a way that is not based on the definition of a New Zealander being solely, and exclusively, white.