Institutional silencing, racism and New Zealand schooling

Liana MacDonald, Victoria University

Photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

New Zealand secondary school institutional structures operate in elusive and complex ways to silence racial critique. The process is so entrenched in everyday teaching practice that it occurs without conscious thought, yet the mechanisms of schooling have been carefully structured in ways that support New Zealand society to remain culturally and historically ignorant of our colonial past – in particular, of the violence inflicted on Māori communities through the dispossession of land, language and culture and the ongoing consequences of those actions in the present day. Such ignorance relies on colourblind perceptions of racial injustice, thus disguising the real reason why it is Māori, and not Pākehā, who struggle with issues including:

Institutional silencing in schools protects current racial power arrangements and will continue to marginalise and negatively affect Māori as long as such structures remain in place.

The disappearance of race

The New Zealand education system was established at a time when it was accepted that indigenous peoples were ‘savages’ and in need of ‘civilising’. Such ideas shaped the way that Māori students were taught. Fast-forward to today and very few secondary school educators would conceive that issues of race and racism are part of the everyday schooling experience of New Zealand youth (see here for a research-based discussion about the way that New Zealand peoples’ reluctance to talk about race leads to racial microaggressions).

A consequence of the perception that race no longer matters is that harmful historical grievances are swept away by the belief that equal opportunities exist for everyone in society.  Nowadays, there are strong calls to view race as a social construction to explain why and how different groups of people have access to power and privilege in society. In line with this, mounting educational research in NZ (e.g. here, here and here) and internationally (e.g. here, here and here) examines mundane classroom interactions to show that racially marginalised teachers and students are affected by issues of race, thus challenging colourblind perceptions of racial inequality. My PhD study similarly investigates whether issues of race are relevant in English language classrooms and the extent of racial silencing in New Zealand school institutions.

The research design 

I examined the phenomenon of institutional silencing and racism through the experiences of Māori secondary school English language teachers, with a particular focus on the way these teachers taught New Zealand literature. I interviewed 21 teachers about their experiences and I observed the classroom interactions and teaching practices of four of the teachers as they taught New Zealand texts to a senior English class.

My results: An institutional culture of silencing

The Māori English teachers in my study described prejudice and discrimination from colleagues and non-Māori students about Māori worldviews and perspectives. The teachers also identified a number of ways that Māori are disadvantaged by institutional structures. For example:

  • The range and suitability of texts that include Māori perspectives and worldviews are limited
  • School ethnic labelling systems reinforce negative stereotypes
  • Students who transition from a Kura Kaupapa (Māori-medium) to mainstream school environment are not well supported.
  • The teachers themselves reported feeling culturally isolated and sometimes struggled with the expectation that they take responsibility for everything Māori on top of a standard workload.

Some teachers recounted feeling positioned to be a certain ‘type’ of Māori: an expert on all things Māori, not Māori enough for the requirements of the school, or not qualified to teach English. Analysis of classroom practice showed that in the process of referring to a Māori perspective or worldview, what it means to ‘be’ Māori was often conceptualised in fixed and dehistoricised ways.

My classroom observations showed that teaching practices and classroom interactions sustained racial silencing. For example, pedagogical approaches used in one class with predominantly Pākehā students supported the students to avoid feeling emotionally uncomfortable and politically implicated in colonial racism. Keeping the tone of the lesson upbeat and ‘safe’, uncritically responding to the students’ personal responses to text and avoiding deep discussions about historical racial injustice supported the perception that New Zealand was ‘over’ racism. The students also demonstrated little awareness of the ongoing negative consequences of structural racism to Māori in society today (for example, see here, here, here and here).

The three teachers who taught classes of predominantly Māori students were also vulnerable to institutional silencing. One of these teachers used New Zealand literature to delve into Māori and Pākehā race relations and historical and racial tensions; however, in doing so, other aspects of the teaching programme became constrained by time pressures. In addition, the time it took for two other teachers to build relationships or implement other features of culturally responsive pedagogy minimised the time available to develop the skills and content knowledge required for academic success. When students were observed to be struggling with reading or writing, the teachers indirectly attributed this to a student or cultural deficit rather than teacher practice, a lack of time or curriculum constraints.

In addition, education policy directives that emphasise NCEA academic achievement and a predominantly Eurocentric curriculum, supported all teachers to reinforce a colourblind perception of society.

What this means: A case for institutional racism

Although classroom discussions in this study about Māori personhood were not necessarily negative, the findings raise questions about the implications of:

  • what we teach our students about what it means to be Māori in society,
  • how this creates mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion for Māori youth,
  • how teachers are positioned by the institution to relay knowledge in particular ways, and
  • what groups of people stand to benefit from silencing.

Furthermore, the study shows that racialised structural impediments to Māori academic success – such as policy, curriculum, pedagogy, school space and time – are largely invisible to teachers, even those whose ethnic or cultural identity aligns with that of their students.

Because slavery and outward showings of racial discrimination (such as those that were prevalent during the establishment of New Zealand schools) have disappeared, many people think that racism has disappeared too. The findings of my study, however, show that classrooms are highly racialised spaces. Institutional silencing may be understood as an ongoing series of actions or norms that work to disadvantage Māori and privilege Pākehā group interests. It is primarily for these reasons that I argue that the New Zealand education system is institutionally racist.

Liana square.jpgLiana MacDonald is of Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne and Ngāti Koata descent. She has ten years’ experience working as a secondary school English teacher across three diverse teaching contexts. She is now in the final stages of her PhD, in which she investigates institutional silencing and racism through the lived experiences of Māori secondary school English teachers


  1. Those interested in this post may also like the following article in the latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies:

    “Scholar Outsiders in the Neoliberal University: Transgressive Academic Labour in the Whitestream” by Joanna Kidman and Cherie Chu.

    The journal editors comment that:
    “Kidman and Chu have written a provocative narrative for anyone working within tertiary education institutions that serves also as a clarion call for systematic educational change. The authors interviewed Māori and Pacific senior scholars across 9 universities and Wananga in New Zealand and present some disturbing – but not unexpected results – for those who experience the subtle cultural biases from
    within tertiary educational institutions on a daily basis. Through their interest in the role of ‘scholar outsiders’, Kidman and Chu explore in a novel way the familiar internal institutional expectations of being ‘an academic’ combined with the external demands faced by universities. This article foregrounds restrictive social and institutional expectations on Māori and Pacific senior scholar development and identity; at one point the authors note that ‘‘In general, and with only two exceptions, Māori faculty were more likely to experience intellectual, social and professional isolation in departments where there were few or no other Māori


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