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Friendship impacts on race relations

The identity "New Zealander" is often used to hide differences under a veneer of similarity a Victoria University researcher says.

Farida Tilbury found that many Pakeha resent the lable 'Pakeha' because they see it as dividing the people of New Zealand and some Maori also dislike the label 'Maori', preferring to be called New Zealanders.

Tilbury examined friendships between Maori and Pakeha and asked whether such contact is likely to promote unity or conflict for her PhD Thesis entitled 'some of my best friends are Maori …: Cross-ethnic Friendships, Ethnic Identity and Attitudes to Race Relations in Aoteroa/New Zealand.

Her central question was - do friendships between Maori and Pakeha people in New Zealand lead to improved race relations? She found there is evidence to suggest that such friendships lead to better inter-ethnic understanding, but also evidence that they produce (or reinforce) stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes.

Dr Tilbury interviewed Maori and Pakeha with and without close friends from the other ethnic group and compared the different friendship networks with beliefs about race relations issues such as affirmative action, land rights, Te Reo, parallel education and health and justice systems.

"Most people believe that 'what we need is a great big meting pot', but sometimes the pot becomes a smouldering cauldron, with interaction leading to misunderstanding, fear and aggression," suggests Dr Tilbury.

"What seems to be most important is the nature of the relationship between the people interacting. Sometimes people say 'some of my best friends are Maori', but they are really just using this to validate a racist view."

"What I found most important was the individual's sense of their own ethnic identity," explains Dr Tilbury. Those who feel strongly Pakeha, Maori or 'Kiwi' tend to hold particular beliefs about race relations.

For example, there appears to be a political Pakeha identity which entails a strong belief in biculturalism and equity for Maori. This is more common among those Pakeha who mix with Maori. Likewise some Maori feel very strongly about their identity and some even choose mainly Maori friendship networks to support that identity.

Many Maori hold views which are surprisingly conservative. They tend to be those who mix more often in Pakeha circles and who feel quite ambivalent about their own identity.

While friendship is generally seen as an area based on trust, the thesis suggests people are circumspect in their relationships, being careful about what they say in front of each other for fear of giving offence. For relationships to overcome prejudice, open communication is necessary, she says.

Her thesis concludes that contact is necessary but not sufficient condition for the development of more positive race relations.

Dr Tilbury was prompted to look at the effects of interaction between different ethnic groups because of her own mixed background - she is the product of Indian and American parents, born in Brunei, raised in Australia and living in New Zealand.

"Ethnic identity has always been an enigma to me," she explains and New Zealand seems the perfect place to study the effects of interaction, for it has a strong indigenous population and on the surface it appears there are relatively harmonious race relations here."

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