Recently, a group of 43 Māori and Pacific scholars looked at the racist experiences they faced as postgraduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects.
It’s the latest push from those inside the academy to get universities to examine the racism within their walls.
Two of the research collaborators, Dr Leilani Walker (Whakatōhea, Thai) and Dr Sereana Naepi (Fijian, Pākehā), talked to Teuila Fuatai about the background to the research.
At university, we’re taught to separate ourselves from our research. According to the thinking behind this western method that dominates academia, being removed from the research we do means we’ll be objective and free from bias.
The trouble is that it’s not an entirely honest approach.
The moment you decide to research something, you’re framing it in a particular context. That framing determines the kind of questions you ask and what you decide to focus on.
In Indigenous research frameworks, we don’t want to remove ourselves from our research because we don’t believe you can study something and not have any relationship to it.
In fact, we believe that relationship is fundamental to the research and the knowledge you’re creating.
For instance, for Fijians, knowledge is created in relationship to the vanua (land), and to each other and to the ancestors. Knowledge doesn’t exist without a relationship to something or someone else.
As Māori and Pacific researchers, that worldview and approach frames everything we do. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to hold on to that in western academic spaces. Too often, the push to be “free of bias” and “objective” means we have our own values and beliefs sidelined and dismissed.
Perhaps that’s why our research looking at the experiences of Māori and Pacific postgraduate students in STEM subjects could only happen within the space of kaupapa Māori approaches and Pacific research methodologies.
From the start, we knew our own experiences were important to building the research framework.
Two of our collaborators, Leilani Walker and Tara McAllister, started things off. Here were two Māori scientists in different parts of the country wondering about the racist experiences in their workplaces. Both questioned whether their experiences were weird and wanted to know if anyone else faced similar behaviour.
After connecting, and talking to a few other Māori and Pacific researchers, it didn’t take long to work out that they weren’t alone.
Eventually, that led to meetings over Zoom and the question: What do we do about it?
Our paper builds on existing research into the underrepresentation of Māori and Pacific in STEM. There’s already plenty of quantitative evidence which paints a clear picture of the numbers: not only are we underrepresented, we’re also underpaid.
So far, the general response from policymakers has been to invest in STEM in compulsory education so we get more Māori and Pacific through the pipeline. But that doesn’t tackle the problems that occur once you’re in the system, and does little to address why Māori and Pacific student retention is so low.
Research released at the beginning of last year provides a helpful breakdown of what happens at different stages of academic life. Where are we now? tracks Māori and Pacific students through the university system.
It shows the sciences are better at retaining students into honours level than the social sciences. This changes at masters level, where we see Māori and Pacific students in the sciences drop off.
That decline means something happens at graduate school to make people leave — and we believe a lot of it has to do with the racism you experience in the university system.
So, with the experiences of our 43 collaborators, all of whom are Māori and/or Pacific and have been postgraduate students at a New Zealand university in the past 16 years, we’ve documented the kind of racism that occurs in labs, teams, departments and universities.
We provide insight into how Māori and Pacific postgraduate students in STEM are:
- Isolated because of an ongoing lack of representation, or alternatively, over-representation of Pākehā. This means we often feel excluded, and find it difficult to access mentors and supervisors to develop our research and study.
- Expected to be cultural experts by our non-Māori and non-Pacific colleagues regardless of our level of expertise. Known as performing a “cultural double-shift”, its linked to being the only Māori and/or Pasifika person in a team or department.
- Constantly challenged about our identities and beliefs. It means we’re often minimised and dismissed, and made to feel like we can’t be ourselves.
- Alienated and questioned around whether we really belong in our programmes and workplaces — often because we don’t fit “stereotypical” expectations of Māori and/or Pacific, or are explicitly told we’re only in programmes because of preferential entry pathways and scholarships.
- Used in unethical “box ticking” for funding applications to “show diversity” when we haven’t been asked or have even said no. Some of our collaborators have even been named as Māori investigators on applications when they are Pacific.
We’ve documented our experiences of racism so we’re not gaslit into being told that we’re imagining things, or that we’ve “misunderstood” a person or situation when we call out racism.
We’re also increasingly tired of being told the solution is compulsory education and more Māori and Pacific through the pipeline. We know this isn’t going to fix our lack of numbers.
This research is about saying: “Yes, we do need more Māori and Pacific through the pipeline. But we also need to recognise that something is broken within the university system.” It’s way too easy to blame another part of the education sector and ignore what’s going on in our workplaces.
We’ve also taken a collective, peer-reviewed research format because it’s the safest option. We’ve seen other academics speak out against racism and face legal consequences. Academic freedom protects us when we publish as a collective and it’s peer reviewed. It doesn’t protect you when you’re on your own, and when we share our personal stories.
We know speaking out about racism means that we run the risk of being labelled “difficult” and a “risky choice” for your lab group or a project. Some of our collaborators are still at the early stages of their careers. While it’s important to put all our names to the research, we also wanted everyone to feel safe — so we don’t identify who says what.
As Māori and Pacific academics, we’re not in a space where you can say: “I’ve experienced racism” and people go: “Are you okay?” Instead, they look at the person you said was racist and ask them if they’re okay. It becomes about the kind of support they need because they’ve been targeted.
And even if there isn’t official blowback, we know there are professional consequences. Often you find you’re slowly closed out of workplaces you want to be a part of, and the fields that you’re interested in. Sometimes it’s not even a slow process. You’ll find you’re excluded from department gatherings and professional events pretty quickly.
This is consistent with research showing how the employment setup at universities makes it difficult and risky for students to report discrimination, bullying and harassment. It was examined in the recent paper Elephant in the room: Precarious work in New Zealand universities.
Universities are structured in a way that means, a lot of the time, your PhD adviser is also your employer. That means complaining about your PhD adviser comes with significant professional risks because they’re the person who writes your reference and tells everybody whether or not you’re a good academic.
For example, if you complain that your name was put on a grant without your permission, then you’re directly challenging your adviser and employer. That power dynamic makes complaining very difficult.
The Elephant in the room research found that, of the 256 participants who experienced discrimination, bullying, harassment or felt unsafe in their workplace, 58 percent identified their supervisors and/or senior managers as the source. The same number identified their colleagues.
Eighty percent of participants went on to indicate that fear of repercussions, like being excluded from future work, stopped them from speaking out about their experiences. And 54 percent said they didn’t know where to get support or assistance.
Our research also includes feedback from collaborators who went through official complaint channels multiple times. The time and stress involved, and ultimate lack of a resolution, meant it just wasn’t worth it. One collaborator made three formal complaints in one year alone. Another talked about providing evidence of anti-Indigenous racism and finding no action was taken.
I was sent screenshots from an online forum where one of my colleagues had been posting anti-indigenous rhetoric under their real name. Within our curriculum, we teach about colonisation and Māori [discipline]. As such, I thought it inappropriate that they continue teaching indigenous content. I took it to our bosses who tried to take it higher, and nothing ever came of it.
Some of the feedback discussed how collaborators used their own networks to find out about the racism at different departments and institutions. We see it as a type of protective mechanism. We know the first thing you do when you get a job offer is find someone you know and ask them: “Can you tell me what the situation is?” Because we know there are certain personalities that make it really hard to exist as a Māori or Pacific person. And that’s not just in STEM, that’s across the board.
It’s a kind of cost-benefit analysis where Māori and Pacific acknowledge the inevitability of prejudice, ignorance and discrimination, and that “there are times I will have to bite my tongue because I’m going to have to work with you if I want to have this kind of career”.
We’d also say that bringing our stories together has been one of the most difficult aspects of the research. We knew from our own experiences what was likely to come up, and there were some really egregious stories. But in general, the findings were exactly as we expected them to be.
It’s equal parts disheartening, heartbreaking and anger-inducing.
We know we have our places in the academy because of the progress made by Māori and Pacific scholars who came before us. Going through our research shows there’s still so much work to do. The stories we gathered come with a lot of hurt — even when they’re familiar and expected. They play in your head and pop up at really odd moments. And you’re trying to think about how to tell them in a way that makes change.
We had to remember the wider context of our research. Being able to document our experiences in a peer-reviewed article, and discuss the findings on TV and in the media, wouldn’t have been possible previously. If we’d done this 10 years ago, we probably wouldn’t have jobs to go back to.
For us, this research is part of forcing change. We think it’s extremely disappointing that the experiences we’ve documented strike a chord with so many people.
Since our paper was published on August 8, we’ve had emails from people outside our collaborator group sharing their own stories — from quite senior academics to those at early-career level. While we want Māori and Pacific postgraduates in STEM to know they’re not alone, we also want universities to look after them and fix the racism in their institutions.
We don’t want to present this kind of research to our communities and be told: “Yeah, that’s about right.”
We need our non-Māori, non-Pacific colleagues, those who hold power in departments, institutions and the sector to understand it’s not just about the lack of Māori and Pacific scientists. We have to make sure those who are in the system have support and the means to develop into the researchers they want to be.
We also want to reiterate the call from senior Māori academics that there needs to be a national inquiry into racism at our universities.
Leilani and Sereana are two of the 43 collaborators for Seen but unheard: Navigating turbulent waters as Māori and Pacific postgraduate students in STEM. It has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand and is part of a bigger piece of work looking at the experiences of Māori and Pacific postgraduate students in STEM. The next part of the research looks at positive experiences and practices and is expected to be released next year
Dr Leilani Walker has a background in behavioural ecology and is a lecturer in environmental sciences at Auckland University of Technology. Her father is Māori (Whakatōhea) and her mother is Thai.
Dr Sereana Naepi is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Auckland. She has Fijian and Pākehā whakapapa, and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau with her husband and two daughters. Her research and work focuses on improving outcomes for Pasifika in higher education.
As told to Teuila Fuata‘i. This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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