"The problem isn't bi-culturalism or multi-culturalism, the problem is mono-culturalism," said one speaker at the recent "Sweet As?" conference in Wellington last June.
The conference, "Sweet As?": Pākehā and Ethnic New Zealanders talk identity and dominance in a colonised land", brought together around 80 Pākehā, Chinese, Māori and other ethnicities to talk on national identity and other common issues.
"It was the first time anyone's done a conference like this," says one of the conference organisers, Kirsten Wong, "and just bringing such a range of people together to talk about the things we had in common - as well as the things that set us apart - was incredibly positive."
Those attending included community workers/activists, people in service organisations, educators, Pākehā treaty and anti-racism workers, social commentators, academics and government people.
A key aim was to encourage cross-issue discussion among people engaged in social change and community. The idea was to expose people to different views which they could then take back to their communities and areas of work.
The first of the two-day conference focused on Pākehā identity and the experience of ethnic community activists. Among the highlights were the keynote speakers. Dr Avril Bell of Massey University, spoke on Pākehā identity, and some of the difficulties that Pākehā had exploring things that were outside their experience, or in which their experience wasn't central to the proceedings.
The second keynote speaker was NZCA Auckland-branch member, Wong Liu Shueng, who spoke about how her experience of racism and being different has spurred her on to work for positive change in wider society.
Liu Shueng related a number of anecdotes familiar to members of the old Chinese community. One of them involved her wonder and amazement when a school friend in Carterton told her he was going on a six-week summer holiday. "What would you do on a six-week holiday?" she wondered. "I could never go on holiday for that long. Who would stack the fruit? Who would clean the carrots? And most of all, who would serve the customers?"
Two other highlights included a very moving poetry reading by Alison Wong. Alison’s poem about the murder of her grandfather Wong Wei Jung in Newtown in 1914, reminded attendees that past and present racism was real, not just something we talk about in the abstract. The other poems had an equal impact, exploring the subtleties of belonging and her experience as a mother watching her young son embrace and then pull back from his Chineseness.
The conference also heard an inspirational talk from a 17-year old Chinese activist from Auckland, Fu Meng Zhu. Meng Zhu spoke of her background, experience of discrimination, work and the context she worked in. She noted that even among Pākehā social activists - she had experiences of being patronised and not being heard.
The second day's topics were national identity and future paths. The first topic allowed speakers to talk about both the national identity debate and their views of the future.
The day's sole keynote speaker was lawyer, Moana Jackson, who started by examining the very framing of the concept of identity. He talked about the Māori sense of belonging and being connected to whakapapa. He also spoke about general self understanding and belonging in relation to histories and stories built upon the papa (ancestry). He noted that when relationships are very different, as has been generated through Päkehä and Tauiwi settlement in Aotearoa, there is a need to create new ways of relating, fitting and joining.
Professor Sekhar Bandyopadhyay also spoke of the identity debate, talking about “The politics of multiculturalism and minorities”. He outlined the dynamics between the nation and nation state, and how minorities and migration have disturbed that historical relationship. A key point was that a multicultural policy can be used to give limited autonomous space to ethnic minorities, so that diversity is contained in a social way, so as to not threaten the mono-cultural core and values of how a state functions.
An activity on identity, and a session on future paths, formed the last part of the conference.
Among the talks delivered was one from Suzanne Menzies-Culling, who spoke about her work in "Freedom Roadworks", a group of families in Otepoti/Dunedin that has worked for positive change starting with their own families - with astonishing success.
"Among the real successes of the conference was the networking. There was real diversity among the attendees, not only in ethnicity, but also in age range and the issues we work on. We've had lots of reports that people who met at the conference are still in touch and keeping each other looped in with their different activities," says Kirsten.
By Kirsten Wong, WCA secretary, for the Wellington Chinese Association newsletter