Is unconscious racism hard-wired into Aotearoa New Zealand society?

post by Annie Summerfield 

Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand (Aotearoa), disproportionately feature in the country’s most negative statistics across social, economic and political platforms.  Whether the disparities are in the areas of crime, education, health, homelessness or socioeconomic disadvantage, Māori feature strongly.  With Te Aniwa Hurihanganui reporting Māori youth are particularly at risk for committing suicide  , Sarah Monod de Froideville reporting on the over-representation of Maori in the youth justice system , and Māori being significantly more likely than non-Māori to be placed in state care, and to experience homelessness, for example, this arguably suggests the problem is not with Māori but, rather, as Dr Ian Hyslop points out, a result of institutional bias . 

In the absence of being able to prove institutional bias towards Māori exists in Aotearoa, however, these claims are frequently dismissed as “radical ideas thrown around by disgruntled Māori and floaty academic types” (Monod de Froideville, 2018, p. 1).  However, “deficit theorising”, a term which positions a person’s home environment and cultural background as the explanation for disparities across social, economic and political platforms, is frequently reserved for Māori.

Smith (2013) argues “public and political discourse is shaped by a refusal to see poverty, racism, discrimination and marginalisation.  A refusal to acknowledge a problem of widening disparities.  A refusal to act systemically in addressing systemic problems” (p. 230), which makes it impossible to convince others to care enough to challenge the status quo.  Andrew Judd, former mayor of New Plymouth and a self-confessed “recovering racist”, argues Pakeha defensiveness results from knowing, at some unconscious level, Māori are continually wronged.  The colonisation of Aotearoa has resulted in Māori forfeiting their land, their language, and their identity yet, as Andrew Judd cites, Māori culture is proudly “rolled out to the world when it suits us but we don’t truly embrace it

It was interesting to read, in an article which appeared on the Radio New Zealand website, that the Ministry of Education recently acknowledged racism and discrimination towards Māori students exists in the education system and has promised a ‘step change’ in attempting to challenge teachers’ unconscious bias towards Māori students .  The academic literature is saturated with research that consistently demonstrates teachers apply deficit theorising and unconscious racism in explaining the disparities that exist between Māori and non-Māori students (see, for example, Bishop, O’Sullivan, and Berryman, 2010; Thrupp, 2014).  The Ministry of Education has committed to work with Māori to develop a programme by the end of 2018 which will be partly based on the Te Kotahitanga project which, despite being a phenomenal success between 2001 and 2013, was axed in 2013 due to a withdrawal of funding, according to Mike Williams, President of the Secondary Principals Association .

Unconscious racism is not confined to the teaching profession or the education system.  It can be found across all sectors and groups in society.  It can be recognised in derogatory comments or “jokes”, or in congratulating Māori on their success, voiced by “ordinary” people who would be mortified if challenged on being racist towards Māori.  Lizzy Marvelly, a reporter for the NZ Herald, makes a valid point that, where racism is acknowledged, it is frequently followed up with comments, for example, “we’re not AS racist as apartheid in South Africa” Unconscious assumptions and understandings are shaped by cultural background, education, social and political ideologies and life experience.  Even social workers “do not exist in a vacuum; rather they are influenced by, and influence, society and, much like other citizens they are affected by how the media presents information” (Beddoe & Joy, 2017, p. 72).  Dr Ian Hyslop argues social workers in Aotearoa have a responsibility to identify the causes of inequality and injustice in Aotearoa and to challenge the status quo “by calling into question the construction of Pakeha as normative” .

With one in three Māori today under the age of 15 years, the demographics of Aotearoa are changing.  It is time to challenge the broader picture which arguably points to structural or institutional racism towards Māori.  Laura O’Connell Rapira, herself a young Māori woman, believes “it’s hard for kids to believe they can grow up to be what they can’t see”  Unless or until “Māori culture and identity are valued and welcomed into the very centre of the way we do things in this country, nothing will change.  Māori will continue to be perceived as a resented minority, a problem to be managed” (Muriwai, Houkamau, & Sibley, 2018, p. 130).  “We, as Pakeha, reinforce the white privilege, by allowing current patterns and inequalities to happen, by saying nothing, doing nothing or seeing nothing” (Crawford, 2016, p. 84).  It’s time to stop using ignorance as an excuse to treat Māori as the “underclass” in Aotearoa.

Bryce Edwards, a lecturer in politics at Victoria University, succinctly sums up the inequalities between Māori and non-Māori in Aotearoa … “That Māori face severe disadvantage in New Zealand is a given.  The debate really lies in how to deal with this inequality and deprivation.”


Beddoe, L., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(1), 65-76. Read in full here.

Bishop, R., O’Sullivan, D., & Berryman, M. (2010). Scaling up education reform: Addressing the politics of disparity. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press.

Crawford, H.S. (2016). A Pakeha journey towards bicultural practice through guilt, shame, identity and hope. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(4), 80-88. Read in full here.

Muriwai, E., Houkamau, C.A., & Sibley, C.G. (2018). Looking like a smoker, a smokescreen to racism? Māori perceived appearance linked to smoking status. Ethnicity & Health, 23(4), 353-366.

Smith, L.H. (2013). The future is now. In M. Rashbrooke (Ed.), Inequality: A New Zealand crisis. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books Limited.

Thrupp, M. (2014). Deficit thinking and the politics of blame. In V.M. Carpenter, & S. Osborne (Eds.), Twelve thousand hours: Education and poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Dunmore Publishing Ltd.


Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

One thought on “Is unconscious racism hard-wired into Aotearoa New Zealand society?”

  1. Really enjoyed this post Annie! You covered so many different, yet sad issues facing tangatawhenua today. What really spoke to me is the cultural appropriation and the innapropriate use of maori culture when it suits the government. E.g all blacks, air NZ. Yet what moves are we actually making to uplift the maori population and revive the culture? This issue is very close to my heart, being a product of colonisation myself. Thank you for your words, very well written and a great read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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