(Photo: Massey University)

Just over a week ago, the inquiry into institutional racism at Waikato University found that there was a case for “structural, systemic, and casual discrimination” at the university. A taskforce will now be set up to address those issues. 

Here, two Māori doctoral students say students are experiencing racism, too, but with less power and their careers on the line.


We’re two Māori scholars from different universities. After spending most of the last 10 years as university students, we weren’t surprised by the recent reports of institutional racism at Waikato University. 

As doctoral students, we’re completing the highest level of academic degree. Students like us are tomorrow’s lecturers, professors, researchers, government advisors, community, health and legal leaders. 

And yet, as apparently has been the experience of leading Māori academics at Waikato University, we’ve both encountered racism at our universities. 

At uni, we’re expected to be good, quiet Māori who should feel thankful just to be given a seat in the class. 

Often, we’re asked to provide an opinion or perspective on behalf of all Māori

But, at the same time, we must never challenge the system too far — or in a way that could reflect poorly on our lecturer, professor, or institution. Or show that we may have more knowledge than our teachers. And, definitely, we must never correct them, especially not in front of other students.

Māori students throughout the country aren’t immune from the treatment the Waikato academics are speaking out about. We all have stories of racism at university. 

The difference for us is that we have less power and protection than the staff, and we have to choose whether to put our careers at risk before they’ve even started. 

In some ways, hearing the staff experiences has helped validate our own experiences. It’s been reassuring to know that it’s not just us who’ve been treated this way.

But, overall, it’s been beyond disheartening.  

We’re tricked into thinking that if we do everything “right” — produce papers for publications, get grants, teach well, become a senior lecturer, then a professor — we’ll have some power and protection within the institution. But it’s clear from recent events that we shouldn’t count on this. 

As Māori students, we’ve sat in classes and been forced to defend deficit statistics about Māori and correct incorrect versions of history in front of our class and teachers. In doing so, we’ve been labelled “troublemakers”, “overly political”, and “unprofessional”.  

Then we’re expected, at times, to be the expert on all things Māori, as many of our lecturers and tutors don’t have this knowledge. 

We’ve struggled to find a space where we can be Māori and feel safe within these institutions. 

We’re asked by senior staff members to educate them on Māori cultural practices and language, especially when they have a speech, or they’re hosting visiting dignitaries, or have Māori engagements to attend.

Yet we’ve heard both staff and students question whether Māori are intelligent enough to be at university — or whether we’ve succeeded only because of “Māori privileges”. It’s not uncommon, either, to be viewed as the “exceptional” Māori, or be greeted with surprise when people realise you’re a straight-A student. 

We’ve been forced to defend and explain equity schemes, scholarships, and programmes designed to address the inequity Māori experience because of colonisation. 

We’re pigeon-holed as “Māori” academics and invited to discuss only Māori issues, even though we’ve gained the same western knowledge as other students and we’re quite capable of speaking on many non-Māori topics within our fields.

Even when you complete your degree and gain entry into postgraduate studies, the challenges continue. If we want to do research that aligns with a Māori worldview, we can expect to have additional challenges and a higher workload because our degrees aren’t designed to support this research. 

Because of the western-dominated approach, we’ve seen Māori students struggling to get support for their research projects (despite their importance) and having little or no choice when it comes to finding supervision. Once they overcome that hurdle, many students then struggle to find markers who understand their research enough to give worthwhile feedback. 

In assignments and research, and with academic publications, we worry about how our work will be received by non-Māori academics if our work challenges the norms of our disciplines. Again and again, we have to justify Māori ways of thinking to match a western-dominated curriculum — and then worry that we’ll be marked down or penalised some other way for doing so. 

In effect, we’re made to fit within the boxes of western knowledge, and feel we have to modify ourselves to the system rather than the other way around. 

Yet, despite this treatment, we’re often called on to be our department’s poster children for Māori student success.

Māori students in professional training programmes, such as medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy and so on, struggle with the dominant western-based approach to training, knowing that these approaches don’t work in the communities they come from. 

As Māori students, we often have two awkward options. Do we speak up and advocate for our communities — which has the bonus of educating our classmates? Or do we stay silent and continue to be well-liked by our Pākehā departmental staff? 

This tension becomes worse when we’re “taught” cultural competence by Pākehā academics who are out of their depth on this issue. 

There’s little support and understanding of the impossible position we’re put in. This daily, institutional racism is not only hindering the growth of students and future academics, but the growth of entire disciplines.

This list of concerns by no means covers the many ways that Māori students encounter institutional racism as they pursue their degrees. 

It’s very clear to us that it’s easier and less stressful to leave your culture at the door and turn your back on your community. And it’s tempting as well to focus on non-Māori research or conduct research which fits the institution’s view of Māori. 

Universities are seen as the “critic and conscience of society” with a critical role to play in shining light on important issues and providing ideas to lead our society to a better future. 

But, if that light and those ideas are suppressed and exclude Māori views, why would a young Māori scholar want to pursue a career in this space? 


© E-Tangata, 2020

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