Liana MacDonald

Liana MacDonald, a former secondary school English teacher and PhD student, wrote one of our most-read pieces of 2018. She’s now nearing the completion of her PhD, which looked at the experiences of Māori English teachers in our secondary schools.


One of my best memories as a secondary school English teacher was teaching 15-year-olds about the static image. That’s when students take a book or short story that they’ve studied and turn it into an image that represents an idea or message from the text.

Students would always tackle the task with great gusto. For those who didn’t like to read or write, it was an opportunity to do an activity that finally made English seem fun.

At the end of each lesson, there’d be coloured paper, glue, and half-formed static images strewn around my room. But I didn’t mind, because I was riding the high of one hour of happy and productive activity.

One of the important skills to master in the static image is the appropriate use of colour. An entire lesson could be devoted to teaching students that meanings are attached to different hues. For example, red is the colour of love and passion. White can mean purity, innocence and emptiness. And black is mystery, evil and death.

When I look back on these lessons, I can’t help but reflect on how the cultural meanings we’re taught to attach to colour was never a subject of discussion. Students probably walked away from the exercise thinking that the connotations associated with each colour are fact.

It wasn’t until I started studying the experiences of Māori English teachers working in secondary schools, for my PhD, that I began to think about how my students would have carried that information about colour into their everyday lives.

The Māori teachers who took part in my research gave me insights into the role that skin colour plays in state schooling, and cause to think about how I’m positioned by my brownness. Interestingly, although perhaps not surprisingly, it was the fair-skinned teachers who talked about experiencing interpersonal racism. Not one visibly Māori English teacher gave an example of direct racism.

One fair-skinned Māori teacher recalled how a fellow trainee at teacher’s training college, a Pākehā, confided in her that, everyone thinks “I would vote for Labour, but I vote for National because I am sick of all this Māori shit”.

Another fair-skinned teacher spoke of going home and crying after hearing a Pākehā colleague commenting that if Māori students “were able to answer their exams using bro language, then perhaps they would have more of a chance of passing”.

Yes, these racists are teachers. They’re people who could be standing in front of my child when she starts school four months from now. (Although, due to a genetic sleight of hand, my daughter won’t have to worry about being negatively judged based on the colour of her skin — to look at her, no one would guess she’s Māori.)

Other comments from Māori teachers in my study helped me to see the hidden ways in which schools perpetuate racism — and the deeper implications of judging people based on the way they look.

For example, one fair-skinned Māori English teacher spoke about how she was shut out of situations where she wanted to share her Māori perspective:

I’ve always identified as Māori. I’m on the Māori electoral roll, I spoke a lot of Māori growing up, I spent a lot of time on the marae, my mother was chairperson of my marae for some years when I was younger.

And so, my experience is probably a little bit unique in the respect that I am very fair. I mean, I am naturally blonde and yet I am legitimately Māori. So yeah, that has made it really interesting because, at times when I have tried to bring my Māori insights or my Māori perspective into different departments, I have sometimes been blocked by the sense of ‘what would I know?’

And I have found that particularly interesting both at university and in high schools, where I have seen people, who by their own admission speak no Māori whatsoever, have no affiliation, do not know what their tribe is, and yet get promoted into Māori roles because they’re brown.

I have to admit that, while I may have been on the receiving end of negative attitudes because of my brownness, I’ve also profited from being visibly Māori. I’m pretty sure that looking Māori helped me get jobs at each of the three schools where I’ve taught.

However, being positioned as a “Māori” teacher came at a price. With this visible Māori identity came expectations from my colleagues that I was an expert on all things Māori. And I wasn’t. I hadn’t been brought up knowing te reo or Māori tikanga — my Māori father had passed away when I was young, so I’d had a Pākehā upbringing.

As a result, I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t live up to other peoples’ expectations of how a Māori teacher is supposed to behave and be.

I’ve since learned that this is how institutional racism works.

Like other state institutions, our schools are designed to advance a Pākehā way of viewing the world — and that includes a Pākehā view of who we are as Māori and how we fit into the system.

So when we work in schools and other state institutions, we work within the boundaries of socially-constructed narratives that align with the emotional responses of the dominant Pākehā culture.

Thus, we’re taught to silence our lived experiences, to deny the validity of our own personal stories as people who experience life differently because of our colour — especially when these contradict what the institutions say we should be thinking, and how we should be behaving and acting.

Pākehā want to believe that they’re giving Māori and Pācific peoples a fair go, but they want to do this in a way that causes little disruption to their own privileged positions.

Another consequence of being seen as a Māori teacher is that the welfare and, by extension, the academic achievements of Māori students becomes your responsibility, even when they’re not in your class.

Over and over again, participants in the study spoke about how colleagues would approach them with the view: “But you’re Māori, it’s a Māori kid, it’s your issue.”

One Māori English teacher spoke about how she was willing to teach in other curriculum areas because she could see that other (Pākehā) teachers were failing Māori learners. She’d started out as a te reo teacher, but she was tapped for other roles once the school management figured out she had other skills:

… those things only came up because there were no decent Māori teachers in science, in sexual health. Māori kids were getting kicked out of Pākehā classes all the time, so I didn’t want them to miss out, which is why they put me in English too, because they were getting kicked out all the time. Not all of them, but a fair bunch.

It was experiences like this that led another Māori English teacher to conclude that she was being used as a “tool” to help Māori students settle and learn at school.

I recently discussed the matter of distributive justice with a friend who is Sāmoan. He said he takes pride in the fact that he’s not given handouts because of his ethnic heritage. He said he works hard to be successful and doesn’t get extra assistance because he’s brown. In retrospect, I should’ve said: “Actually, you work twice as hard as white people because you’re brown.”

Colour matters. But not in the way we’re taught to think.

It matters because, although we like to think we’ve evolved as a society to the point where we can take cultural and ethnic inclusion for granted, the reality is that we are still, as Dr Martin Luther King Jr once said, judged by the colour of our skin, and treated accordingly.

The challenge is for us to acknowledge honestly how colour and race affect our lives — and for our schools and other state institutions to find ways to incorporate the full range of our lived experiences into the way our systems are run.

(Now that I’m at the end of my PhD journey, I want to take this opportunity to mihi out to one of my supervisors, Dr Joanna Kidman. Thank you for sharing your experience, strength and knowledge to speak out about racism and whiteness.)


© E-Tangata, 2019

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