New Zealand: Ethnic minorities want ‘crude’ MELAA classification changed for Census 2023

Of note (overly broad category):

Kiwis from minority ethnic communities say census results need to stop lumping them together in the same basket.

Currently, people who are Middle Eastern, Latin American and African are rolled together in one category called MELAA, an acronym of the ethnicities, even though they are from very different demographics.

Dr Diana Albarrán González moved to Aotearoa from Mexico in 2015, and was surprised to find herself in the same ethnic category as people from Lebanon or Somalia.

“When I first arrived, I was confused about MELAA because there is a lot of diversity within that classification, said González, who is a deputy director of design at Auckland University.

“Africa for example is a huge continent and diverse within that continent. Then you have the Middle East, and again, they have their own histories, and their own cultural backgrounds, and then the same within the Latin American community here in New Zealand.”

González said the MELAA classification was incorrectly homogenising minority ethnic groups.

“It’s important to have numbers and a register of the population, but when those numbers become policies to improve health or employment outcomes, this ethnicity classification is not serving us.”

Dr Matthew Farry​ identifies as a Lebanese New Zealander, and said the MELAA category reduced a “huge” amount of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity.

”The reason they’ve put us together is we’re all non-white European ethnic groups. It lumps people of colour into one category, when the only thing we have in common is that we’re all non-European in our origins.

“I’m a third-generation New Zealander whose parents are Lebanese ethnically. We always used to get upset because there was never anything in the census that said Lebanese, when we’ve been here for 130 years.”

Farry is executive director of the Courageous Conversation South Pacific institute, which works to improve race relations in Aotearoa.

The number of MELAA people in New Zealand is statistically small – at the 2018 census there were just 70,330, representing 1.5 per cent of the country’s population.

A Census NZ spokesperson said people were able to provide their actual ethnicity on the census form, which meant statistical data could be provided for different ethnicities within MELAA.

“MELAA was established to give more prominence to these ethnicities in statistical reporting as a level one (the highest level) statistical grouping, in the same way there is a statistical grouping for European, Pacific Peoples, Asian.

“It is currently used in output data where the focus is not looking at ethnicity in detail, but in combination with other detailed concepts, or when a high-level overview is most appropriate.

“The majority of core census outputs on ethnicity that Stats NZ produces are available at more detailed levels of the classification.”

Farry said the experience of MELAA communities echoed how Māori had been treated in a colonial setting.

“Their stories were suppressed, their histories suppressed, they were dispossessed. That set up a New Zealand that doesn’t deal with racial, ethnic and cultural diversity very well.

“So when we come here, we enter an already single narrative New Zealand and symptomatic of that, is MELAA. It is a reduction that doesn’t enrich me.”

Justin Benn​ said the MELAA classification was “crude”.

Benn, who is president of the West Indian and Caribbean society in New Zealand, moved here in 2011 after growing up in London with a family from Trinidad and Tobago.

“I am from the Caribbean community,” he said. “It’s different from coming from Africa or the Middle East or Latin America.”

Benn added that the classification “weakened a sense of inclusion”.

“It communicates a disregard that is probably not intentional, but it does need addressing. If we’re looking at opportunities to be more inclusive, here is a clear example of how we can do that.”

Guled Mire, a community advocate and public policy specialist whose family fled Somalia as refugees, said the ethnicity classification should be updated immediately.

“Statistics population data is really essential for public policy,” he said. “That is information that is used to then plan, develop and implement public policy measures.

“If we’re not recording and classifying ethnicity data for some of our most vulnerable communities in a way that is appropriate, that harms us in terms of how government is able to respond to our needs.

“We have asked for this to be changed for years.”

Stats NZ ran public consultation in 2019 to seek feedback on the classification of ethnic groups, the Census NZ spokesperson said.

“The MELAA grouping was highlighted as an area of concern for a number of people. Stats NZ has recently commenced a review of the Ethnicity NZ Standard Classification. The MELAA issue will be considered as part of this ongoing review.”

Any changes made as a result of the review will not be implemented until after Census 2023.

Source: Ethnic minorities want ‘crude’ MELAA classification changed for Census 2023

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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