Skin Colour: Does it Matter in New Zealand?

Skin Colour: Does it Matter in New Zealand?

Policy Quarterly (Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington)
Volume 4, Number 1 (2008)
pages 18-25

Paul Callister, Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Policy Studies
Victoria University of Wellington


Pick up any official New Zealand publication which includes photographs representing the population and it is highly likely that the people featured will have visible characteristics, including skin colour, that are stereotypically associated with the main ethnic groups living in this country. Equally, examine official reports which consider differences in outcomes between groups of people, such as in health and education, and it is very likely that ethnicity will be a key variable in the analysis. But it is extremely unlikely that skin colour will be explicitly mentioned in either type of report.

This article explores three areas where skin colour might matter. First, with reference primarily to US literature, the question of the role of skin colour in discrimination and, ultimately, economic and health outcomes is examined. Then, turning to New Zealand, there is a discussion of whether skin colour is a factor in why those responding to official surveys who identify themselves as ‘Māori only’ have, on average, worse outcomes than those reporting Māori plus other ethnicities. Finally, two connected health issues are looked at. One is skin colour and the risk of skin cancer; and the second is the hypothesised, but still controversial, links between skin colour, sun exposure, vitamin D production and an inverse risk of developing colorectal cancer. Two main questions are asked in this article. First, in contrast with many other countries, why in recent years have researchers and policy makers in New Zealand been averse to discussing and researching skin colour? Second, is there a case to be made for the use of measures other than self-identified ethnicity – such as skin colour – in official statistics and other large surveys, including health-related surveys?…

…Single and multiple ethnicity and outcomes

Moving back to the American context, two hypotheses have been put forward to explain the effect of mixed race on a variety of outcomes, including health status. One is that mixed-race individuals will be at greater risk of poor outcomes than those who affiliate with a single race because of stresses associated with a mixed identity. The other theory is that outcomes will lie between those of the two single groups. Many factors are likely to be influencing these outcomes, but variations in skin colour could be important, either directly or indirectly.

In New Zealand there has been relatively limited use made to date of single versus dual and multi-ethnic responses when analysing advantage and disadvantage. However, early work by Gould (1996, 2000) suggested a gradient of disadvantage in relation to degree of ‘Māori-ness’. In his 1996 paper Gould associated Ngāi Tahu’s integration into European society with their relative success when compared with other iwi. However, while other people have talked about Ngāi Tahu as being the ‘white tribe’, skin colour was not discussed by Gould in any of his papers.

In a number of papers, Chapple (e.g. 2000) divided the Māori ethnic group into two groups, ‘sole Māori’ and ‘mixed Māori’, and found better outcomes for ‘mixed Māori’. Chapple raised the idea that the disadvantage amongst Māori is concentrated in a particular subset: those who identify only as Māori, who have no educational qualifications, and who live outside major urban centres. Again, skin colour was not a feature of these studies.

However, Kukutai (2003) suggests that social policy makers should not put much weight on categories such as ‘Māori only’ and ‘Māori plus other ethnic group(s)’. Using survey data and a system of self-prioritisation, Kukutai showed that those individuals who identified as both Māori and non-Māori, but more strongly with the latter, tended to be socially and economically much better off than all other Māori. In contrast, those who identified more strongly as Māori had socio-economic and demographic attributes that were similar to those who recorded only Māori as their ethnic group. Kukutai’s work shows that some people recording multiple ethnic responses feel a strong sense of belonging in more than one ethnic group. For others, however, a stronger affiliation is felt with one particular ethnic group. While not discussed directly in the study, factors such as visible difference, including skin colour, may influence such decisions.

What is causing different outcomes between those recording only Māori ethnicity and those recording Māori and European responses? We do not know. No one single factor is likely to be a driver, but skin colour, in a variety of ways, may exert some influence. For example, it may be that those who ‘look more Māori’ (or look more ‘Pacific’) are more likely to record only Māori (or Pacific) ethnicity in official surveys. If this is correct, and if discrimination is common in New Zealand, the Māori-only (or Pacific peoples) group would be more likely to suffer discrimination from police, landlords and healthcare providers…

Read the entire article here.

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