Pākehā Invisibility: Why does ‘migrant’ mean ‘brown’?

complains

By Ani White and Kassie Hartendorp.

Note: This article was written directly before the 2017 General Election, so comments about party policy refer to that period.

Internationally, many white immigrants to non-white countries are not termed immigrants, they are termed ‘expats.’ Immigrant means brown, expat means white.

A similar dynamic plays out in Aotearoa. Pākehā immigrants1 do not describe themselves as immigrants. Many even object to the term Pākehā; we are simply “New Zealanders.”

Some may object that their family has been here for generations, but the same standard does not apply to brown immigrants. Asian people whose families have lived here for generations are assumed to be new migrants, not “New Zealanders.” At a candidates’ meeting I recently attended, a white woman asked an Asian candidate a question along the lines of “if you don’t like this country why did you come here?” She had no awareness of his family history; for all she knew, he was a third-generation migrant (as it happens, he arrived as a child, so didn’t have much choice in the matter). But his brown face marked him as a migrant, a ‘foreigner.’

Even though Europeans and Asians in New Zealand are both immigrants, Europeans are naturalised as part of ‘New Zealand’ and non-white migrants are cast as ‘outsiders.’

The New Zealand where Europeans are naturalised as the dominant population, and inheritors of land and resources, relies on a story that erases colonial history. Those who strongly defend the identity of ‘New Zealander’ very rarely acknowledge that before this region became New Zealand, it was Aotearoa. It was (and is) Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Waipounamu. It was (and is) a Pacific Island in Te Moana-Nui-a- Kiwa before it became a British colony. Many Pākehā prefer to forget this history.

The colonial state of New Zealand, set up by Pākehā immigrants, gets to determine who can come into this country. Indigenous approaches to manaakitanga (values of welcoming and hospitality) were violated, replaced with a bureaucratic edifice which categorises and profiles people hoping to cross borders. Institutions enabled by mass European immigration presume to dictate who can come next.

Ironically, a recent survey indicated that whereas only 28% of New Zealand citizens strongly agreed with the statement “People who want to live here should have to declare their commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi”, 40% per cent of recent migrants agreed (close to the 47% of Maori who agreed). The irony is underlined when ‘New Zealanders’ act offended at the thought of migrants ‘invading our country’ when many of their forebears actually invaded, at the mass detriment of Māori.

In certain respects, European migrants to Aotearoa have something in common with new Asia-Pacific migrants. We came here seeking a better life, with 19th century colonists escaping dire economic conditions. However, Asian migrants are not stealing land at gunpoint, as Pākehā did in the 19th century. Rather, they work in banks, cafes, on dairy farms, cleaning office buildings, their sweat oiling the nation’s economic growth, paid back in low wages and abuse. Even higher-paid, ‘high-skilled’ white collar migrants, supposedly more valuable than ‘low-skilled’ workers, still cop abuse.

Scapegoating of Asian migrants goes back to early colonisation. Chinese migrants during the Gold Rush were forced to pay special taxes, and chased out of places like Wellington. In the early 20th Century, the NZ Labour Party flirted with a ‘White New Zealand’ policy to match Australia’s ‘White Australia’ policy. More recently in 2014, Labour’s Phil Twyford controversially highlighted those with ‘Chinese surnames’ purchasing property. For all he knew, these people were long-term residents.

Yellow Peril scares are therefore deeply ingrained in New Zealand society. Noticeably, while many worry about Chinese investors buying up land, British and Americans who buy up land go largely unnoticed. International investors are also equated with migrant workers, as with the case of Twyford’s ‘Chinese surnames’, which again could either have been investors or long-term residents.

Rather than projecting all of New Zealand’s problems onto brown faces, perhaps Pākehā could reflect on the real sources of New Zealand’s problems. Migrant workers are not causing the housing crisis, or underinvestment in sustainable infrastructure. Labour is proposing to cut students and ‘low-skilled’ workers, not people likely to buy houses or clog up motorways. In fact, middle-class Pākehā are far more likely to buy property or use motorways.

In a recent minor controversy, National Party MP Paul Goldsmith implied that the slumlord problem was primarily an Indian problem. Yet about 80 MPs in parliament own more than one property. As a Pākehā MP in his 40s, Paul Goldsmith is a far likelier face for slumlord profiteering than the young Indian student he spoke to. As Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign spokesperson Gayaal Iddamalgoda said in the Herald article on the topic, “if we’re serious about addressing the [housing] problem, we need to understand it’s a problem caused by slumlords and other profiteers, regardless of their surnames or the colour of their skin.”

Jacinda Ardern has recently softened Labour’s rhetoric about migrants, but maintained the policy of cutting 10s of 1000s of migrants. In that sense she is actually spinning a policy that was introduced by a Little as a xenophobic populist tactic. If she’s really worried about migrant exploitation, she should call for the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme to be radically reformed, or the international tertiary sector to be vetted for quality, rather than restricting free movement. It’s easier to pity the brown dairy worker than to confront the Pākehā farm owner who benefits from the exploitative RSE scheme.

Even Pākehā without the structural power of a politician, or a capitalist, often buy into these narratives. Facebook comment threads regularly complain of ‘real New Zealanders’ being shafted by ‘mass immigration.’ But if working class Pākehā are being shafted, they are being shafted by the powerful, not by migrants.

Wages are driven down because employers prioritise their bottom-line, treating social impacts as ‘externalities.’ Migrant workers do not want shitty wages. If Pākehā worked together with new migrants – for example in the Living Wage Campaign, which is supported by many migrant workers, and has won a number of victories – they could improve conditions for all workers, rather than competing in a race to the bottom.

For Pākehā to make things better, we need to get over our investment in defending ‘Fortress New Zealand’. In moments where anti-migrant rhetoric is high, we have the option to reflect on how we came to be in Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa ourselves. We need to recognise our status as coming from a history of immigration on this land, acknowledge who came before us, and find solidarity with those who want the same things as we do – housing security, living wages, the right to flourish and contribute to Aotearoa.

1We have used the terms ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’ fairly interchangeably, the article primarily concerns those who come to Aotearoa to live.

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