Dr Elana Curtis, a public health physician and associate professor at Auckland University’s school of Medical and Health Sciences, is leaving academia after 16 years. Here she reflects on some of the challenges she’s experienced as a Māori academic.
I wasn’t intending to write an ode to my university life. Having recently resigned to focus on my own consultancy business, I would rather slip away, comfortable with my personal decision to move on to new challenges and new freedoms.
But then something happened. I decided to attend an online seminar run by the School of Medicine Board of Research at Auckland University.
The email invite, which had been sent to all staff in the medical and health sciences faculty, said that we’d hear from Alison Jones, a Pākehā professor from Te Puna Wānanga, the School of Māori and Indigenous Education. She would present a critique of the idea of “Māori inclusion”. The seminar summary noted that Professor Jones would “bring new insights to the popular ideas of diversity, equity and Māori inclusion in the academy”.
Harmless enough, I thought. Could be interesting too, as I think it’s important for Pākehā to lead these conversations rather than leaving such heavy work up to Māori. So I joined the call along with more than 150 mostly Pākehā colleagues.
Professor Jones began to discuss the idea of Māori inclusion at the university, which expects Māori to fit into the predominantly white institution rather than the other way round. Then she went on to describe what “indigenisation”, as an alternative to “inclusion”, might mean.
Indigenising the academy, she explained, requires a more nuanced understanding of Māori values such as manaakitanga, whakawhanaungatanga, and the importance of relationships. She said that Pākehā needed to get out of the way, and truly support Māori control and progress.
As I sat at home listening to the Zoom, something happened that I’d never experienced in my 16 years at the university. The seminar was hijacked. First, an angry male with an American accent began yelling swear words over the presenter. A lot of swear words anchored in violence. His camera was on but all we could see was an empty room. We couldn’t see the person doing the yelling.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was witnessing. Oh no, I thought, somebody is having a domestic and doesn’t realise their mute button is off. Oh no, that’s a lot of anger. And then, as a live image of an open toilet showed up on the screen, I thought: Oh no, they’re going to the bathroom and they don’t know their camera is on (someone tell him quickly).
But as the swearing and yelling boomed on, it soon became clear that we weren’t accidentally listening into a fellow colleague’s moment of distress, or observing a Zoom hui faux pas. The toilet was acting as a metaphor for this man’s key message: “I’m sick of this s***”.
And the violence was meant for the seminar. It was deliberate, and it was intended to shout down the debate about how the university should move from Māori “inclusion” to Māori “indigenisation”.
As I sat there, I didn’t just hear the yelling. I felt it deep in my chest. I was gripped with a fear, and overwhelmed by feelings of disgust and sadness. Tears started to fall. I struggled to hold them back as I felt the violence and hate directed towards me as a Māori. I scanned the Zoom screen for other people’s responses — the whole seminar was shocked and silent.
Professor Jones, who’d been doing an excellent job leading a contested conversation, was forced to stop, and the angry man was evicted.
But the hijacking didn’t end there. Somehow a second man entered the Zoom and managed to draw male genitalia across the shared screen. When the presenter asked him to remove his graffiti, his response was: “Nah.” So there was a second eviction and a second lockout while the chair got things back on track.
But, for me, as a Māori academic, it wasn’t over. I’d felt the violence at a visceral level. Nothing could lock out the Māori hate that I’d had to witness. The experience stayed with me well after the seminar was finished, and instead of focusing on the work I’d planned that day, I found myself writing this.
I couldn’t help but reflect that, while the hijacking had taken things to another level, this was also just another day in the life of a Māori academic working within a colonial and patriarchal institution and society.
And when I look back over my academic career, I realise that I’ve had similar visceral responses to numerous situations associated with my academic roles.
Nothing is ever truly neutral for Māori within this institution. Even seemingly harmless committee meetings can be unsafe for us because they’re layered in white privilege where Pākehā values are normalised, Māori voices are othered — and if you’re too articulate, too direct, too confident, your voice is often problematised, particularly if you’re a Māori female.
And then there are the expectations of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided Pākehā colleagues who assume the lone Māori person present will happily begin the meeting with a karakia — because all Māori can do that, can’t they? And even if that Māori person isn’t the one hosting the meeting, that they won’t mind providing a mihi whakatau, preferably followed by a pitch-perfect waiata.
It’s in the declining that you become the problem. When in reality, it’s the asking from a position of stereotyping, cultural essentialism and, at times, cultural appropriation, which is the actual villain.
At the wrap-up of the hijacked seminar, Professor Jones was thanked by the head of the department for her poise and grace in what was a bizarre situation to say the least.
Fair enough, but there was no apology to the Māori witnesses in the Zoom room for the violence we’d just experienced. Even in this liberated space, whiteness was centred and our experience as Māori, which was painful and real, became an invisible backdrop to the craziness we’d all just observed.
Although this seminar stands out as extreme, the everyday racism faced by Māori staff and students at the university functions in the same way.
When I look back on my academic career, there are many things we can be proud of. Our Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme (MAPAS) students now make up over 30 percent of the medical intake on a yearly basis. Our students are excelling despite many of them coming from environments of poverty and social exclusion. We have a pipeline of tertiary academic success that is evidence-based and world-leading. We teach Māori health in a way that allows students to see and understand the role of racism and privilege as basic determinants of ethnic health inequities. Our research is positioned within a Māori worldview that promotes innovative kaupapa Māori epidemiology and qualitative methods.
For all of this, I’m grateful.
I’m less grateful for the lack of progress for Māori (and gender) equity in university promotion processes. These still allow for white male overrepresentation at professor and associate professor level, despite a stated commitment to equity and Māori te Tiriti rights.
And there remain the expectations for Māori service — which is frequently undervalued, yet is pivotal to achieving the equity successes that we’re seeing.
Those of us who fill the academy spaces with our Māori presence, despite these spaces often being unsafe and potentially harmful, often grapple with this tension. We’re always mindful of that service — it’s what keeps us going — because we know that our presence here makes a difference to those following in our footsteps.
But there is a personal toll too, and that will continue as long as the university remains a place where Māori experiences are kept at the margins — rather than at the centre where they belong.
Dr Elana Taipapaki Curtis (Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Arawa) is a Māori public health physician. She has been an associate professor and the director of Vision 20:20 at Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, within the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland. She will be leaving the university in May. She can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org
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