Patrick Thomsen: The racial divide in our education system

by Patrick Thomsen
Sun 6 Nov 2016
8 min read
28
The NCEA final exams that are about to take place in a few weeks will, for a large proportion of students, mark their first step into adulthood. The exams are an opportunity to forge pathways towards careers and lifestyles that they may have coveted since they first watched a Taylor Swift music video. 
 
But, for many Māori and Pasifika students, the jig is already up, writes Patrick Thomsen.
 
 
No one in New Zealand openly says that Māori and Pasifika students are good-for-nothing, lazy, lacking creativity, blights on society — no one besides people on Twitter with eggs as their display pictures, anyway. 
 
That kind of overt, confrontational, in-your-face, Trump-esque racial profiling isn’t the Kiwi way.
 
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own brand of systemic racial profiling.
 
It exists in our history, and manifests itself in the clearly ethnically-divided suburbs of Auckland. It sits in the passenger seat of our observations in differences between our hyper-diverse Queen City and her mostly prosperous farming hinterlands. It hums quietly in the background of Wellington’s bee-like halls of political power. It guides subtly the indignant responses on talkback radio lambasting proposals to commemorate the New Zealand Wars. Significantly, it runs like malware in the background of our education system.  
 
And it leads to the unintended racial segregation that underpins our society.
 
My first encounter with the underlying currents of racial segregation in New Zealand surprisingly came in a much more overt form than most would expect. It was a winter evening in 1991, I was barely seven and my family had not been living in our rented home for very long. But I recall many details about that night. It was cold. It had been raining, like it always does in Auckland at that time of year, and the smell of wet concrete still wafted through the air. 
 
I’d been lying on the couch that sat next to our living room window facing our front yard, when my mum called out that it was time for bed. It was 8pm: the baby goodnight kiwi had just come on TV. My sister and I got up and went over to give Mum the routine kiss good night. And, as I leaned over her, a piece of clay-like rock came crashing through the front window, showering the couch I had just been resting on with shards of glass. We heard teenagers calling out: “Go back to the islands!” followed by something muffled and the unmistakable sound of a car screeching away. 
 
We had moved into a part of Manurewa that had no other “Islander” families living there. It was, and still is, the most colour-challenged part of South Auckland. When our sixth form history teacher taught us about Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass in Nazi Germany, it was the image of my front window smashing in as a seven-year-old that helped me recall every detail of that historical event.
 
I stood there in shock, jumped into my mother’s lap and looked at the pieces of shattered glass. I remember thinking: We don’t belong here.
 
This incident began a journey for me that, in many ways, has still not been resolved. Despite being born, raised and educated in New Zealand, and calling myself a New Zealander — at times, I still feel unwelcome. I feel like I don’t belong.
 
Going to school was a little different though. Manurewa in the ‘90s was a diverse place. White-flight hadn’t taken hold, and I went to school with people who traced their ethnic heritage to all corners of the globe. Going to St Anne’s primary school in Manurewa is still the most pleasant experience I’ve had in any educational institution in New Zealand.
 
As a good Catholic boy, I found myself in the mid-90s at De La Salle College for my intermediate and then high school years. Throughout the 1990s though, significant structural changes were beginning to come to fruition. The New Zealand neoliberal experiment set in motion in the 1980s by the fourth Labour government had begun to take its toll on our communities in South Auckland. 
 
Significant cuts to education, health, and welfare spending, which became vital as the economy struggled to overcome the woes of restructuring, had real impacts on the ground. 
 
My neighbourhood became noticeably poorer, and noticeably browner. At school, when I began as a Form 1 student at De La Salle College in 1995, the mix between Polynesian students and non-Polynesian students was very even. By Form 5, as I prepared to sit my School Certificate exams, we had become over 90 percent brown. White-flight had well and truly taken hold. A lot of my peers’ parents had abandoned the idea that getting an education in a South Auckland school was valuable for their kids. 
 
My mum thought about sending me to St Peter’s in Newmarket too, where a lot of the other kids had gone. But I didn’t want to leave my friends.
 
It was at De La Salle College where I began to thrive as a writer. My fifth form English teacher, Trevor Lauten, is the single most influential educator I’ve had in my life. He taught me how to write an essay — and with his guidance, I gained a perfect score in the School Certificate writing sections. 
 
But around me, a lot of classmates were dropping like flies. By the time I reached the sixth form, there were barely 20 of us left from a class of close to 100 third-form students. 
 
Many didn’t even consider an academic track as an option for them. They rationalised it this way: Our families were poor. We needed to help them now, not 10 years down the track after we graduated with a piece of paper that basically said “we survived Palagi education”. 
 
I was lucky. My mum and family, despite surviving on the smell of an oily rag and contributions from part-time work (all of us kids worked) never allowed me to deviate from my education. 
 
But it was clear that the system was failing Pacific students. In my neighbourhood, I saw a lot of talent go untapped. And often it was because educators couldn’t connect in any meaningful ways to these students — and to how they best learned and absorbed information.
 
So it made sense when, in the late 1990s, the government set out to redesign the education system. Not only to lift Māori and Pasifika achievement, but to complete the neoliberalisation of Aotearoa.
 
With NCEA, we got a system that was supposed to reward non-conventional ways of learning. No longer would “traditionally academic” subjects that were rooted in classroom textbook knowledge be the only basis for measuring educational competency. Individual grades were taken away. No more As, Bs or Cs. As such, there was no failing. Just “not-achieved”. 
 
But, rather than focus on diversifying content and changing the way we teach to better resonate with all students, it seems we’ve basically funnelled students who are not passing academic subjects through to the “too hard” basket.

Back in September, an investigative report by Kirsty Johnston in the New Zealand Heraldwhich attempted to understand why NCEA had led to such a large increase in overall pass rates — ended up revealing something far more problematic.

It showed that while wealthy Pākehā high schoolers were studying science and Shakespeare, Māori and Pasifika students were more likely to be learning how to make coffee and operate grills. 
 
And when Māori and Pasifika students did take academic subjects, their pass rates lagged dramatically behind their white and Asian classmates. 
 
In many ways, this wasn’t all that surprising. These gaps have always been a feature of our education system, and successive governments have invested heavily in trying to close them. 
 
But the report also found that Māori and Pasifika students were more likely to be enrolled in vocational subjects that didn’t give them any credits toward university entrance, meaning that a whole slew of Māori and Pasifika students may not even have the option of attending university. 
 
This isn’t an insignificant detail. Not only does it unjustly limit access to higher education, it’s also hugely damaging to lifetime earnings. Completing university is statistically shown to increase annual pay on average close to $10,000 per year, as compared to someone who exits with the highest possible qualification at high school level. This figure rises exponentially as a person earns higher qualifications.
 
NCEA now just appears to be functioning as a system of educational racial profiling, enabled by a policy that was meant to close income-based inequality. 
 
This isn’t to disparage careers in the service industry. But the classist undercurrents of such a system can’t be ignored. Nor can the racial nature of such segregation in our education system.
 
Māori and Pasifika people in New Zealand are profiled every day. My friends and I can tell you about the hilarious time we went to King’s College for a debate, and when we went to pass through the front gate into the country’s most exclusive learning institution in our number ones, the person in the security bay surreptitiously tried to scurry us along. He assumed we were trespassing, trying to cut through the school grounds to get to the other side (presumably to the Otahuhu bus depot), and told us we’d have to take the long way around. To which one of my sassier friends coolly replied: “We’re here for a debate, thanks.”
 
Just this week, Efeso Collins, Manukau’s newly elected representative to the Auckland Council, had his family turned away from the VIP area at his swearing-in ceremony. He took his oath to serve the people of Manukau and Auckland, while his family was told by a white usher that they didn’t belong there. 
 
Discourse matters. The ways in which we communicate our views on other people come not just from direct words and actions, but through the subtleties of assumptions. These assumptions are built into our social mannerisms and particular expectations of what we believe others should be. And when we encounter people who don't fit into this, we try to re-box them into a frame that fits our preconceived ideas about what we think they should be. 
 
The discourse that shapes our society, and affects the way the education system treats us, is wrapped up in symbols that represent us as the cliché sporting star or entertainer persona. If not in these guises, then the only other thing we’re good for is productive labour. This discourse, therefore, ultimately segregates.
 
Yes, our people are blessed with qualities that make us excel in these fields, but we’re also capable of leadership, running successful businesses and even academia. It’s a field that I now find myself wading blind through, bereft of role models. I’m carving out a space in a discipline that doesn’t welcome me because I represent a threat to the status quo.
 
Finding my way here was accidental. Even after I completed my undergraduate degree from the University of Auckland in 2005, I had no designs on academia. I wanted to travel, and I did, moving to Korea and living the type of life that I could never have imagined was possible from my little room in Manurewa all those years ago. Now that I’m in Seattle at the University of Washington, I’ve been able to reflect on my own journey through the New Zealand education system.
 
My story is unremarkable. I’m the youngest of four siblings who all completed their bachelor’s degrees. My sister and I, now both holders of MAs, are racing each other to be the first to complete our PhDs. 
 
What is remarkable is that my mum raised us solo with my aunt and uncle as equal parents, on incomes that barely reached triple figures in a week. None of them went to university, but they sure knew the way to get us there.
 
The challenges Māori and Pasifika students face in succeeding in New Zealand’s education system are vast. They’re not only grappling with systemic issues related to historical deprivation and family pressures. They’re also forced to navigate powerful, yet insidious discourses and assumptions that make their success firstly unlikely and secondly a novelty.
 
Succeeding against all these odds take more than well-meaning allies and positive thinking. It takes hard graft and a team of people behind you. 
 
One thing that makes being Māori or Pasifika — and for me, Samoan — so invigorating, is knowing that our support networks are there. We just need to make sure we don’t become estranged from them. 
 
 
Patrick Thomsen was born and bred in Auckland. He holds the chiefly title of Seutaafili from the village of Tauese in Samoa. He has a BA majoring in political science from the University of Auckland and an MA in International Studies from Seoul National University. He’s currently studying for his PhD at the University of Washington in the US.
 
 
 

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