Social work: The colonial project lives on through us

post by an Unwilling Coloniser 

Sitting opposite to a whanau in distress, my stomach churned as my colleague asked me to put a cross through the square on my page. I looked at the square, it looked back at me. It wasn’t just a square; it was a husband, a father, a grandfather. I glanced up at the family and felt shame. The identity of their loved one was suddenly subject to the nasty strokes of my insistent blue pen.

I reflected on why a tool for social workers to trace whanau whakapapa included such a dismissive symbol to represent the death of a significant person; an ancestor. For Māori, the presence of their ancestors does not vanish after death, nor does their tapu or mana cease to exist (Edwards, McManus & McCreanor, 2005). Why then, were well-meaning, but detached, Pākeha social workers given the authority to obliterate the presence and mana of deceased whanau for the purpose of our neatly arranged genograms? The answer to that question lies in what Razack (2009) terms as the “stain of colonialism.”

It is no secret that the theoretical underpinnings of social work has been devoid of indigenous knowledge, methodologies and tikanga (Ruwhiu, 2009). The secret that remains, however, is that contemporary social work is still very much steeped within the dark, cruel world of colonialism. In a somewhat radical move, the International Federation of Social Work addressed the issue of colonialism in their commentary notes for the global definition of social work. It states that “social work seeks to redress historic Western scientific colonialism and hegemony by listening to and learning from Indigenous peoples around the world” (IFSW, 2014). This is a worthy cause. However, I must regrettably insist that this task remains impossible while the profession itself is plagued with the same colonising attributes it seeks to redress.

The Western construct of the genogram, often implemented without appreciation or respect for te Ao Māori is just one example. The targeting and policing of Māori whanau within our child protection system is simply another. The practitioner’s mandate to help Māori navigate a fundamentally unjust system, without the ability to challenge it within the boundaries of our own profession; well that must be the icing on the coloniser’s cake. The unfortunate truth is that we do not have to look far to see how mono-cultural values and systems continue to be forced upon tangata whenua under the guise of social work. By way of loyalty to the State, enforced or otherwise, social work practitioners are complicit within the colonial project. Indeed, our role in the systematic monitoring and intervention in the lives of indigenous Māori, enables the control and oppression of colonisation to live on.

As a Pākeha, it is hardly my place to suggest what ought to happen for the decolonisation of social work practice to occur. It is only right that the decision making process stays firmly in the hands of those who are most impacted by the stubborn stain of colonialism. But from my Pākeha perspective, what I will say is this: we cannot genuinely claim to practice bi-culturally, when we do so within a mono-cultural system. Māori have been forced to live in a mono-cultural world since the invasion of my British ancestors. While I can turn my shame into reconciliation, and justice, I cannot truthfully claim to adhere to the same level of bi-culturalism that tangata whenua have learned to accept. My upbringing, education, world-view and spirituality has been shaped by a mono-cultural narrative that has robbed me of this experience. Te Ao Māori is a world I eagerly strive to embrace, but it will remain out of my grasp until the mono-cultural world of Aotearoa is subversively turned on its head.

So where to from here? Ian Hyslop hit the nail on the head in his blog racism and social work: we need to listen (Hyslop, 2016). Emerging social workers, particularly Pākeha, we must listen to what Māori are telling us about their experiences of being social work subjects. We must acknowledge the colonising features of our mahi and fight them with the force of an unrelenting warrior. We must challenge the mono-culturalism of the system. We cannot, and must not, let the colonial project live on through us any longer.


Edwards, S, McManus, V, & McCreanor, T. (2005). Collaborative research with Maori on sensitive issues: the application of tikanga and kaupapa in research on Maori sudden infant death syndrome. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 25: 88-104. Read here

Hyslop, D. (2016, January 5). Racism and social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: a pākehā perspective [Blog post]. Retrieved from

International Federation of Social Workers (2014). Global definition of social work. Retrieved from

Razack, N. (2009). Decolonising the pedagogy and practice of international social work. International Social Work, 52(1), 9–21. doi: 10.1177/0020872808097748.

Ruwhiu, L. (2009). Indigenous Issues in Aotearoa New Zealand. In M. Connolly & L. Harms (Eds), Social Work: Context and Practice (2nd ed.) (pp. 107-120). Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Author: socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand

One thought on “Social work: The colonial project lives on through us”

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I agree wholeheartedly with your point of view. Really loved “We must acknowledge the colonising features of our mahi and fight them with the force of an unrelenting warrior”…I’m ready to fight as a warrior…

    Liked by 1 person

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