The Conch is a space for Pasifika students at the University of Waikato. (Photo supplied)

In late March, Māori and Pacific students once again became the focal point of racial political discourse. This time, the deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, likened designated areas for Māori and Pasifika at the University of Auckland to alt-right racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile Act MP Dr Parmjeet Parmar criticised these spaces as promoting “exclusion and separation”.

But as members of the Working to End Racial Oppression research team argue here, such inflammatory remarks ought to be carefully unpacked.

 

The political reaction we’ve seen to Māori and Pacific safe spaces is a lazy attempt to disregard the context of why they are needed in the first place. It ignores the broader context of institutional racism within our tertiary institutions including universities.

If politicians wish to be strong advocates for promoting diversity and inclusion in universities, and did a bit of research on the subject, they would pay attention to decades-long evidence on the marginalisation of Māori and Pacific students in universities. Such research isn’t hard to find. It’s been collected by prominent scholars such as Professor Leonie Pihama, Professor Joanna Kidman, Dr Tara McAllister, and Dr Sereana Naepi.

Moreover, in recent years, the University of Waikato (in 2020), Unitec (in 2021), and the University of Otago (in 2022) have all faced claims of systemic racism. This tells us that universities are still far from being “inclusive”, “equal” or “diverse”. Instead, they can perpetuate isolation and a low sense of belonging for Māori and Pacific students in largely white learning environments.

An independent review into public claims about racism at the University of Waikato — the Parata-Gardiner report — noted that the university advantages individuals who can conform to western norms. It found that well-intentioned references to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and commitments to bringing in te ao Māori are insufficient to redress the intergenerational effects of racism.

Te Whare Akonga o Te Akatoki is a space for Māori students at Canterbury University. (Photo supplied)

Identity-based spaces are commonplace in universities in Aotearoa and overseas. They provide a safe environment for marginalised groups to seek support and guidance through the challenging university period and share common experiences. They are places where their identities can be celebrated rather than merely tolerated. For example, the University of British Columbia in Canada hosts a Black Student Space that allows Black students to connect with each other, recharge, host events and sessions, as well as build community.

Populist right-wing politicians and media are now using such areas to continue attacking Māori rights. Dr Parmar, for example, intentionally deployed the racially-fuelled terms “separation” and “segregation” to describe the allocation of safe spaces for Māori and Pacific students. She said they can send wrong messages that these students are more “special” than others.

However, the same line of thinking wasn’t applied to the creation of spaces for other identity groups such as women, LGBTQIA+, religious minorities, and international students. She further suggested that Māori and Pacific spaces may exclude Pākehā and tauiwi students who may then experience discomfort or feel unwelcome in a supposedly inclusive university. The hyperfocus on “race” is an example of the enduring project in Aotearoa to defend western norms and whiteness.

But “segregation” in the context of excluding non-Māori and non-Pacific students from culturally-specific spaces isn’t the same as maintaining a separate space for Māori and Pacific students on predominantly white campuses. Māori and Pacific students who choose to use the spaces may do so to be free from the racism they encounter in the rest of the university.

We’re also concerned with the perpetuation of the “model minority” myth which is upheld through Dr Parmar’s rhetoric. As an Indian immigrant, she tells us that we should not think about “race” because we live in an egalitarian and multicultural society.

This myth perpetuates the racialised narrative that Asian New Zealanders are more successful because of their strong work ethic and perseverance in the face of injustice. In reality, it reinforces harmful stereotypes and overlooks the shared systemic barriers that Asian students face alongside Māori and Pacific students. The model minority myth is weaponised by those who benefit from whiteness. Stereotypes about Asian people are used to sow racial division among marginalised groups. The model immigrant argument reinforces a far-right attitude that’s grounded in neo-liberal thinking which holds that success is simply about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”. Such individualistic thinking does not recognise cultures where the focus is collective.

Students at a fono in The Conch, a Pasifika space provided at Waikato University. (Photo supplied)

Dr Parmar’s argument that providing culturally affirming spaces is detracting students from opportunities to learn from other cultures ignores how whiteness is normalised. For students of colour, including Māori and Pacific students, the provision of culturally affirming spaces is crucial because our society continually denies that white supremacy exists. One could argue that it’s easier to provide safe spaces than pursue genuine fulfilment of Tiriti obligations. A meeting room is minuscule when the university doesn’t pay rent to local iwi and hapū.

Universities cannot prioritise discussions of ‘equality’ over ‘equity’ while they remain predominantly influenced by Eurocentric scholarship and continue to use western indicators to measure academic success. Having a dedicated Māori and Pacific space is merely a preliminary step toward creating a culturally-inclusive environment for students, while universities continue to identify and engage with solutions to bridge Māori and Pacific educational inequities and honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

This is not segregation on our nation’s campuses. Rather, Māori and Pasifika students have a space where they can have some small reprieve from an environment that denies their right to self-determine an optimum learning environment.

 

Hemopereki Simon (Tūwahretoa, Te Arawa, Waikato-Tainui, Hauraki and Mataatua) and Dr Kyle Tan (Malaysian Chinese immigrant) work as research fellows for the Working to End Racial Oppression (WERO) programme.

Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki (Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Mahanga) is an associate professor at Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao at the University of Waikato. She is the science lead for WERO.

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