This week I will go out to give talks to a variety of groups—a school, principals, teachers, mana whenua, whānau, and a district health board, about the “white spaces” in our education system and our schools. The message is the same as the one I delivered in previous weeks, months, and years, with one major difference. This week we have been forced as a country, tragically, to face the evil of white supremacy.
In the past 10 days, as we have come together to support and grieve with the Muslim community, other voices, far more powerful than mine, have drawn the parallels in our history to counter the “this is not us” messages and to say emphatically, “this IS us”.
Dame Anne Salmond has written:
Let's not pretend there's not a dark underbelly in New Zealand society. The rest of us have to name it, challenge it when it comes to light, and replace it with better ways of being Kiwi. Those in the Muslim community have suffered a terrible loss and need our love and support. But they are not the only group who are targeted by white supremacists, and there are more ways of killing and maiming people than with a gun.
Dr Moana Jackson says:
It’s particularly important to acknowledge the links between the past and present in this perplexing time because the massacres in Christchurch and the ideologies of racism and white supremacy which underpinned them did not come about in some non-contextual vacuum. They are instead a manifestation of the particular history of colonisation and its founding presumption that the so-called white people in Europe were inherently superior to everyone else.
…If the Christchurch tragedy is to be properly understood, and the risk of further pain diminished, the healing must be based on a recognition that the dark day of March 15, 2019 was, sadly, only one of many dark days in this country’s history. A failure to recognise that fact is not just to misremember history but to erase and silence it.
It was a real coup therefore for my granddaughter, Blake, in her role as producer on the TV programme, Marae, to bring Dame Anne Salmond and Dr Moana Jackson together on the show this morning.
As I listened to their wisdom and their powerful message, I found myself thinking, do I need to strengthen my own words? I talk about racism, about Whiteness, White privilege and supremacy, colonisation and assimilation, about oppression, about naming these and how they are directly connected to our Maori children’s experience of learning and achievement in our classrooms. I talk about urgency and ask how much more time do we need? How many more reports and research do we have to read to show us that racism permeates every corner of our education system? But now, I am asking myself, is that enough? What else can I do?
A young Muslim man on Marae this morning referred to “the balancing act between how Muslim do I want to be vs how non-Muslim do I want to be” in order to keep himself safe. Do we, as principals and teachers, understand that our Maori students face the same dilemma in our schools every day? Do we need Muslim youth, as he did, explain it further for us? He said:
Māori have been saying for the longest time that racism exists in New Zealand, Muslims have been saying that Islamophobia exists in New Zealand, minority groups have been going on an on about this, and I think it’s terrible that this tragedy had to happen for people to come face to face with what we have been living through.
I have watched, listened to, and read this message many times in the last week—posts, articles, and interviews with Māori educators, activists, researchers, and members of parliament, and I’ve heard it strongly echoed by some Pākehā, but how does that translate to change in our schools and our education system that continue to perpetuate colonisation, assimilation and the message that White is right?
Will the wake-up call we have had as a nation to white supremacy, white superiority, and white privilege force Chris Hipkins to revise his thinking about the recommendations of the Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Taskforce? If those recommendations are not adopted will it be due to the powerful lobbying and patch-protection of affluent, predominantly White schools, as opposed to the views of those schools who are closely linked to their Maori communities and can see no place for that alliance to be strengthened in the proposed Hubs? Will our collective raised awareness change our own submissions to these recommendations and the wider Education Conversation? Will it stop the deficit thinking of Communities of Learning with Māori boys’ writing in their sights?
Regardless of which side you come down on in relation to the Taskforce recommendations, my key questions are, do they significantly shift power, do they address white supremacy and racism in our system—and my answer is no, they don’t.
Moana Jackson has spelled out the connection between white supremacy and colonisation. But will we, as those charged with the education of our children, extend that connection between white supremacy and colonisation to our classroom practice?
The sad fact is, we know that many of our teachers are racist. We might not like to think so, but the Children’s Commission/NZSTA research shows it, the Teaching Council’s Give Nothing to Racism project aimed at teachers, confirms it is necessary, as do a myriad of reports and investigations, including the research of the Warrior-Researchers (view video here) at Kia Aroha College. The problem is, we don’t connect that to what we are going to do in our classroom, in our school, in front of our children tomorrow morning.
And yes, it is easy (and often accurate) to think well, that’s not me. I would never do “that”. Certainly, racism in our system is easier to spot and we can feel better if there is space between ourselves and racist practice that comes from “higher up” the education food chain. The personal racism of teachers that the Children’s Commission report exposed is layered on top of, and is a direct result of, the institutional and structural racism deeply embedded in our education system, that allows us to consistently fail our Māori children, and blame them for those results. Embedded, in our stand downs, suspensions, and exclusion statistics, in our definitions of achievement and success, in our belief we, as Pākehā, have a monopoly on advanced, scholarly ("academic") learning- as if this doesn’t exist in other cultures, in our outcomes, in our dropout rates, underpinned by our failed policies like National Standards, officially supported in initiatives like Communities of Learning with their Ministry of Education requirements to use specific targets to qualify for the funding, entrenched in our teacher training, and played out in our pedagogy that negates and eradicates who our children are and continues to assimilate them in our schools.
I can, and do, rattle off that list in most of my talks. I’m not sure if it gets through our consciousness but to teachers out there – today, when you are hard at work planning for tomorrow, and the rest of this week, ask yourself these questions (some of these are adapted from this article) about that topic, that context, you are working on, and how you are going to teach it:
Whose norms, values and worldviews are implicit in this learning? Are other’s norms, values, and worldviews left out? That’s supremacy.
Who are you planning this for – who is the child ‘in your head’ the one that, to quote a teacher in an audience a few weeks ago, “looks just like me.” That’s privilege.
How does your topic reflect its location in the tribal locations of mana whenua relevant to your school, community, iwi, whānau, and in Aotearoa New Zealand? Do you know where/how/who to go to, to seek this knowledge and permission to use it? Why not? If it doesn’t, that’s supremacy.
How was this context/topic/NCEA standard chosen? Whose knowledge counts? Supremacy.
How do Māori learners have agency in this learning? Does it legitimate their experiences, realities, and cultures? How?
How does your choice of content teach Pakeha children about injustice, power, and privilege?
How is your choice of content and delivery intentionally anti-racist?
And while all of the following questions might not apply to tomorrow’s lessons and activities, in your longer-term planning and thinking:
Does your teaching practice critique and analyses societal conditions and attitudes through a Māori lens? (Where do you go for this understanding?)
Is your classroom/school a space that legitimates Māori language, Māori histories, Māori realities, a Māori worldview, without it being judged, sanitised, or reshaped?
Do you build and continually develop authentic relationships that are reciprocal, mutually beneficial, and are built on trust, advocacy and respect (not on you advising parents how to act to help their children fit the school)?
Does your curriculum names issues that impact on Māori without sugar-coating them for our Pākehā benefit (White Fragility)?
Have you identified, and are you working to eliminate, covert White spaces for Māori learners? (see this blog post for almost 100 of them - and my list is growing!)
Are you sure you are not reproducing white colonial methodologies and practices or holding them up them to be ‘norms’ or standards? That’s supremacy.
Do you advocate support for sovereignty, tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake?
Those questions are just a start. It is simply not good enough for us to say they are too hard, we don’t know about this, it wasn’t in our training or, to hear the argument I hear most often, our community (meaning our Pākehā parents) won’t like it. I wonder if that might have changed since last week?
The bottom line is, if this was, for example, a new curriculum we were required to teach—like the new digital technologies curriculum—we would make it our business to source professional development and the learning we need in order to make the changes in our practice. Articles like this one, written in the aftermath of a white supremacist event in the USA are available, and help us learn from the actions of others.
And don’t get me started on those terms like “culturally responsive,” culturally relevant,” or ”cultural capability” because it should be glaringly obvious that a tweak here and there and more rhetoric in more official documents to “respond” to culture do not teach us about white supremacy and privilege, do not challenge our racism, and are nowhere near what we need!
Which brings me back to the wider Education Conversation – while I am pointing the finger at what happens in the classroom, because I have more faith in our teachers and principals to change that, how do our Ministry of Education, ERO, NZQA, NCEA moderators, Boards of Trustees, all answer all of the questions above. How does our ridiculously inadequate Ministry of Education PLD accreditation process (yet another example of our racism) address them?
We need to be looking towards pedagogies that intentionally critique, in fact are brutally honest about, our existing systems, that perpetuate and foster linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation, that critically enrich strengths rather than replace deficits and that deliberately de-centre whiteness and offer potential for challenging and dismantling racism and oppression. Those are all elements of a critical, culturally sustaining pedagogy that Paris and Alim (2017) claim, “exists wherever education sustains the lifeways of communities who have been and continue to be damaged and erased through schooling." That’s the very work that Kia Aroha College in Otara, has been engaged in for the last two decades so I know it can be done.
My point, to teachers and principals though is that our children simply cannot afford to wait for our systems and structures to get in line. We are the ones who can create different spaces if we really want to.
Steinberg and Kincheloe (2001, p.17) explain that the power of white supremacy lies in its ability to erase itself, resulting in what they describe as “white nothingness” that is “one of the most powerful nothings we can conjure.” It is this invisible but all-powerful white nothingness that most of us were oblivious to, that happened because too many of us looked in the wrong direction, that shocked and forever saddened us as a country this week.
But this evil does not have to come in the shape of a gun. It is the same whiteness that creates the white spaces in our classrooms where we are all complicit. As the distinguished guests on Marae this morning explained, this is already painfully obvious to those in our society who experience racism on a daily basis, but not understood by most ‘mainstream’ New Zealanders:
When you are the victim of racism then you understand it through bitter experience. If you are in possession of a set of internalised beliefs that you are superior, even though you may not acknowledge those beliefs, but you act on them in a way that someone else perceives as racism, you actually don’t suffer the pain of racism… so you are immune from the hurt of racism. (Dr Moana Jackson)
If you are in a comfortable majority, you really don’t know what privilege that gives you, because you don’t get the daily reminder that your ancestral legacy is less worthy, or that your ancestral language is something that’s worthless, or that the ideas of your ancestors might have nothing to contribute to society. People in a position of privilege, and I know about this because I was born into it and I live in it a lot of the time, and it suits people. (Dame Anne Salmond)
At the end of a talk a while ago, and audience member came up to ask a question I hear often. Obviously moved, she said, “I really want to make change, but where do I start”? We start with the deep reflection about ourselves, as Moana and Anne said this morning, with our history, with our attitudes about our superiority that have zero basis in fact, with being prepared to challenge ourselves and to take on the new learning we need to decolonise our classrooms and our teaching practice.
We can change this, starting with that plan for this week!