How Mai Chen is ensuring New Zealand’s institutions are doing right by our super diverse population
Aucklanders. We patron our many ethnic eateries helmed by staff from around the globe with gusto. We swipe through an entire United Nations forum’s worth of ethnicities on our Tinders set to a 50km radius. We throw around our ‘melting pot’ city status with pride. Whether we practise what we preach, everyone is well-acquainted with the idea of ‘diversity’. Now there’s another concept on the block you need to know: ‘superdiversity’. Superdiversity is defined as any country where 25% or more of the population was born outside of it. With at least half of Auckland’s population coming from a minority background, on paper we live up to our position as the fourth most super diverse city in the OECD. Aotearoa New Zealand is a certifiable superdiverse. But despite our ‘superdiverse’ status, our legal and governance systems have failed to reflect it. And that’s letting down a lot of people.
Constitutional administrative law expert, Mai Chen, is trying to fix that. Our Features Editor, Grace, had a chat with Chen on the importance of the superdiversity kaupapa for everyone, and how our systems should change for us to maximise their potential for good.
Chen has had a formidable career in the field of public and administrative law: she co-founded one of Aotearoa’s first and best public law firms, authored and contributed to numerous texts, and even taught on the subject at the University of Auckland Law School. Chen has established various organisations to improve gender and ethnic representation and create visibility and a network for Asian professionals. In every arena whether it be academic, entrepreneurial, policy, or professional, Mai Chen is a force to be reckoned with. And since 2015, when she founded the Superdiversity Institute on Law, Policy, and Business, she’s been putting a superdiversity lens on Aotearoa New Zealand.
Chen sees gaps in the way we accommodate for our immense cultural and ethnic diversity. And if there’s any area that sorely needs a reality check on accounting for diversity, it’s our legal system. As Chen says, “equal access to justice requires judges and counsel to be aware that cultural and language factors may affect what the parties are doing and saying and their motivations.” It is critical to put a superdiversity framework around the interaction that involves people from different cultures because things commonly overlooked under one lens may prove significant. There’s a risk of leaving out relevant cultural nuance when there’s a failure to apply a superdiversity framework. “If you don’t have a superdiversity framework, or a viewpoint on what is happening, you might be missing something important.”
Anyone who’s been at law school (or in HR at a law firm during recruitment season) is sick of being told that the law is about people. But it’s true.The law regulates us and our interactions with others and the world around us. In an increasingly interconnected, diversifying world, we need to put social and cultural framework around the law. It’s crucial that cultural and linguistic nuances are understood, taken seriously, and accommodated for in the legal sphere. As Chen explained it, when it comes to misconstrued understandings in court, it “may look like one thing is happening, but when you put a cultural lens on it, actually it might evidence something quite different.”
It’s not just our legal system that needs a superdiversity framework. Chen puts it frankly: “We need to put a superdiversity framework on everything that we do because we’re a superdiverse country.” Chen made an example out of the University of Auckland, and that by applying a superdiversity framework around it you’ll find that the university is a “hugely superdiverse place”, that requires the administration to “accommodate all sorts of languages, all sorts of cultures, and all sorts of religions on your campus.” And even though almost everything about our healthcare system needs to be reworked, we need to prioritise incorporating a superdiversity framework. “The way we talk about health, think about health, about illness [and] mental illness, all of that is very, very different if you put a cultural framework on it” Chen says, “There is extreme shame or reluctance to talk about a range of conditions that Pākehā wouldn’t have an issue with.” And our ethnic communities may be missing out on treatment as a result. Addressing the cultural differences in approaches to health and safety to improve the wellbeing of all New Zealanders is long overdue.
A ‘superdiversity framework’ can sound daunting, abstract, and frankly, difficult to implement. But honestly, it’s pretty practical. Systems need to be proactively working to understand the different and numerous cultural contexts colouring the space. Ethnic communities need to be met halfway, to have their background understood, acknowledged, and accommodated. Otherwise, there will always be conceptual mismatches that will disenfranchise individuals from the system that are supposed to work for them. To Chen, working superdiversity frameworks into all our systems brings only benefits. “New Zealand will be better in reaching out to the rest of the world if we embrace the superdiversity in this country.” After all, she explains, “we are a multicultural country on a bicultural base.” By having these cultural capabilities necessary to properly address the needs of tangata whenua and our super diverse population, Chen says this sets New Zealand up for “doing business and relating to the rest of the world. We should draw on that.”
At the individual level, we should strive towards applying our own microcosmic superdiversity frameworks to our personal interactions. “If you put the superdiversity framework on almost anything” Chen explains, “What it tells you is that IQ is not enough, EQ is not enough.” What we need now, according to Chen, is also CQ: cultural intelligence as a critical competency to succeed in the 21st Century. Chen says what is crucial is to be curious. “You need to be able to reach across cultures and say, ‘Hey I’m interested, where are you from?’ You can’t just presume or apply stereotypes”. That openness to improving your cultural intelligence to better understand different perspectives is essential in a country as diverse as ours. “If you’re not curious, you won’t know the person you’re dealing with” says Chen, “No person who wants to do anything in New Zealand can be really successful without understanding that.” And CQ is like a muscle. You need to work on it if you are going to have and increase your capability.