Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

White Mothers, Brown Children: Ethnic Identification of Maori-European Children in New Zealand

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

White Mothers, Brown Children: Ethnic Identification of Maori-European Children in New Zealand

Article excerpt

Studies of multiethnic families often assume the ethnic identification of children with the minority group results from the minority parent. This study examines an alternate view that mainstream parents also play an important role in transmitting minority ethnicity. It explores this argument using data from New Zealand on the ethnic labels mothers assign to their Maori-European children. It finds that European mothers are just as disposed as Maori mothers to designate their child as Maori, either exclusively or in combination. Two explanations, grounded in ethnic awareness and gendered inheritance, are proposed. Although neither satisfactorily predicts maternal designation decisions, the readiness of European mothers to identify their child as Maori underscores their role in diffusing Maori ethnicity.

Key Words: ethnic identification, interethnic marriage, intergenerational transmission, Maori ethnicity.

For parents who have partnered with someone from a different ethnic group, one of the fundamental decisions they face is how to ethnically identify their child. In theory, this decision should be straightforward: Simply identify the child in a way that reflects both parental backgrounds. In practice, designation decisions are far more complex. Many of the ethnic labels assigned to multiethnic children do not faithfully reflect their ethnic heritage but are shaped by processes and constraints within and beyond the bounds of family life.

Recognizing these complexities, social scientists have generally eschewed making sweeping statements about ethnic labeling processes, focusing instead on the dynamics mat occur within specific kinds of interethnic partnerships (Qian, 2004; Tafoya, Johnson, & Hill, 2004). Even so, two assumptions about the intergenerational transmission of ethnicity have consistently transcended the peculiarities of time and place. One is the notion that minority parents are the sole bearers and transmitters of minority ethnicity. The other is the notion that mainstream parents are less invested than their minority partners in decisions about how to ethnically identify their child. The pervasiveness of both assumptions are reflected in how parent-child studies try to account for the influence of the minority parent on designation decisions but pay relatively little attention to partners from the dominant group (liebler & Kana'ianupuni, 2003/2004; Roth, 2005; Saenz, Hwang, & Aguirre, 1995; Xie & Goyette, 1997).

As a counterpoint to the literature, this article explores whether mainstream parents also act as agents of cultural continuity vis-à-vis the decisions they make about their child's ethnic identification. It examines this question within the context of Maori-European intermarriage in New Zealand using data on how mothers ethnically identify their children. New Zealand is an ideal empirical context in which to consider this broader theoretical question. To treat parental labeling decisions as reflective of how parents actually view their child requires the necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition that genuine choices exist. Exercising "ethnic options" means more than simply having the opportunity to select from one or more ethnicities on a form; it also entails the legitimization of identification choices (Davis, 1991). Historically high rates of Maori-European intermarriage and a legacy of multiethnic data collection mean New Zealanders have long had the choice to acknowledge tiieir child's mixed parentage for purposes mandated by the state (Brown, 1983; Pool, 1991). Designation decisions in Maori-European families are thus more likely to reflect parental orientations at a given point in time than bureaucratic constraints or a history of prescriptive racial identification rules.

By examining the ethnic labels assigned to Maori-European children, this article explores whether European mothers play a role in the intergenerational diffusion of Maori ethnic identity. …

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