Ethnicity coding is part and parcel of quantitative health research in Aotearoa New Zelaand. When working with ethnicity data it is not uncommon to defer to the standard Level One Ethnicity Codes of European, Māori, Pacific Peoples, Asian and MELAA. However, these conglomerations fail to capture the diversity of culture, characteristics and need. Alina shares her thoughts on ethnicity coding, and how this is influenced by her experiences and relationships. 

“I once had a Colombian girlfriend, but I couldn’t understand anything she said because she wouldn’t stop speaking Mexican.”

The above is a statement made by a young man I met at a local pub, made in what I can only assume was an attempt to engage my friend and me in conversation. He expected us to laugh at the stereotypical minimization of Latin American peoples, an ignorant mixing-up of nationality for language (i.e., “Mexican” for “Spanish”) that is common in my home country of the United States. There, “Mexican” is often ignorantly used as a one-size-fits-all term for anything related to Spanish, Hispanics (Spanish-speaking Latin Americans) and Latinos (a term that includes both Hispanics and non-Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, such as Brazilians), and their culture. “Mexican” is often the group that all Latin Americans, specifically Hispanics, are lumped into to make it “easier” for some U.S. Americans to comprehend, categorize and “other” this population. While my friend, a fellow American, let out a nervous chuckle to break that silence that followed this young man’s poor “joke,” I proceeded to give this fellow an explanation of why his joke is unfunny, discriminatory and ignorant, followed by a lengthy explanation of how Mexico and Colombia have completely different histories, demographic makeups, cultures and even linguistic tendencies in their Spanish. Let me tell you, he was not amused.

The ignorant, reductionist rhetoric that this young man used brings to mind a different form of minimization in this country: how ethnicity data is reported. While our standard Level 1 ethnicity codes provide some pretty obvious categorizations, such as “NZ European” and “Māori,” one option always tends to catch my attention: MELAA (Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, and Africans). Although I can understand that the creation of “MELAA” may have been done to give statistical visibility to these less populous groups, it seems to completely strip them of their respective identities, making each of these groups invisible at the same time. How did these entirely different populations end up being assigned to the same ethnicity category? These are people from three separate regions of the world, people with completely separate histories, cultures, languages, religions; with differing health needs and social preferences; different paths to New Zealand entirely. And they’re put into one. little. group. I can’t help but feel that this reductionist moniker plays into the disempowerment and marginalization of these groups. However, even if we were to disaggregate our data (for example, split them into their three respective groups – Middle Eastern, Latin American, and African), how can we truly capture and appreciate the richness of culture even within these groups? Just as I explained to the young man at the pub, Colombians and Mexicans – while both Latin Americans – have vastly different histories and traditions that make them each unique. And even within each of these countries, there is a rich diversity of peoples and cultures that get obscured when we begin “sorting like with like.”

This, in particular, is something my partner, a ni-Vanuatu, speaks of frequently. While he is technically a “Pacific Islander,” he doesn’t feel that his Melanesian roots are properly represented by this identifier, especially since most Pasifika in NZ identify as Polynesian. And even though “Melanesian” may seem more representative of his identity than merely “Pacific Islander” (at least he’s being grouped with people who speak languages that are similar to Vanuatu’s Bislama and who may enjoy a shell of kava as much as he does), there’s something so empowering about being identified as ni-Vanuatu because it gives visibility to the archipelago and its culture that has so uniquely shaped him as a person.

It is my aversion to the category “MELAA” and my partner’s quest to be identified appropriately that leads me to argue for the increased use of the write-in option on our standard ethnicity question. By having individuals record their own ethnicity – in their own words – we are able to provide them the opportunity to express their identities in the best way they see fit, while empowering and providing visibility for them and their respective groups. And, while changing the way ethnicity is recorded is important, it is only half the battle; we must also change how we report ethnicity data. Therefore, I encourage researchers to collaborate in this effort of promoting the visibility and appreciation of diverse ethnic identities by using Level 4 ethnicity codes (or, at the very least, relying on more specific codes than “MELAA”). In this way, not only will the public be able to better understand the ethnic nuances within the results, the richness of identities that contributed to the research will also be able to shine through.

By changing our standard protocol on recording and reporting ethnicity – and, of course, by stopping and correcting any casual, racist ignorance, such as that which was displayed by the young man at the pub – we are able to celebrate the richness of all ethnicities, cultures and identities that make New Zealand the diverse and beautiful land we know it to be, while promoting an even more just and equitable future for New Zealanders to come.

If you have found Alina’s post interesting, the following articles may also be of interest:

Rasanathan, K., Craig, D., & Perkins, R. (2006). The Novel Use of ‘Asian’ as an Ethnic Category in the New Zealand Health Sector. Ethnicity & Health, 11(3), 211–227.

Boven, N., Exeter, D., Sporle, A., & Shackleton, N. (2020). The implications of different ethnicity categorisation methods for understanding outcomes and developing policy in New Zealand. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 15(1), 123–139.

About the author

Alina Meador

Alina grew up in Florida, and moved to Auckland after working as a health promoter and health educator in Latin America and the Pacific.

She completed her BS in Public Health and Latin American Studies at Tulane University, and her MPH at the University of Auckland. She is a prospective PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, hoping to analyse the diagnostic delay of endometriosis and gynaecological cancers.

Her research interests include women’s health, gender-based violence, global public health and international development.