It’s still racism: Benevolent racism harming Māori students

Dr Melissa Derby, Auckland University of Technology

‘Racism’ is a term we hear often these days, including in the context of NZ classrooms and in the wider education system. To some extent, the interpretation of the term ‘racism’ seems to shift depending on the context and characters in play. In essence, the debate over the meaning of the term seems to rest on the issue of power, and who has it. This, it is often argued, determines who is able to ‘be racist’ or not: for example, it is sometimes claimed that because Māori do not ‘have power’, they cannot be racist.

In recent times, and for very good reason, many New Zealanders have engaged in serious and long overdue conversations about ‘casual racism’, and the impact it has on those groups on the receiving end of it. This blog post aims to shed light on a lesser-known, and arguably more insidious phenomenon – that of ‘benevolent racism’ – and in particular, how I observe this form of racism impacting on Māori students and their quality of education.

What is ‘benevolent racism’?

Benevolent racism can be a comparatively insidious phenomenon, where well-meaning members of the dominant culture seek to help those of marginalised groups. [Note: I am not a fan of the binary, often inaccurate, and oversimplified terms ‘dominant’ and ‘marginalised’, but I use them in this piece for ease of understanding. Unpacking these terms, though, belongs in another blog!]

Benevolent racism, like casual racism, doesn’t necessarily come from a deliberate intention to do harm – but it does harm nonetheless. The act of the ‘dominant’ offering assistance to the ‘marginalised’ can reinforce underlying and stereotypical assumptions about the agency and ability (or lack thereof) of marginalised groups to adapt, respond, and achieve on their own accord and merit. Power dynamics may be further entrenched through the implicit message that marginalised groups need the help of the ‘more powerful’ dominant group in order to achieve their various goals. Furthermore, a culture of dependency could be perpetuated, where the marginalised group necessarily relies on the dominant group for the help they provide.

An example of benevolent racism in our education sector

I would now like to share an example I have personally experienced – a situation where I saw benevolent racism at play in NZ education. Although this example happens to come from a tertiary setting, benevolent racism can also happen in school or early childhood settings.

Recently, it was suggested by a Māori academic that Māori students at university need to “be awhi-ed [helped]” and not “taught how to write and reference” in a coherent, sophisticated, and accurate manner. The implication was that Māori learners were incapable of meeting standards of academic rigor on their own merits, and that therefore they should be given an A-grade in order to make them “feel awhi-ed”, whether they met an A-grade standard or not. When some colleagues tried to insist that Māori students should be expected to adhere to the same basic academic conventions as other students, it was further suggested that “our Māori students would find it too hard, and would be put off learning”. Those of us who are committed to encouraging Māori students to reach as high a standard as possible in their academic pursuits were labelled “Pākehā in our thinking”, as if to be concerned about quality and excellence is not a Māori trait. To put the final nail in the benevolent racism coffin, the academic insisted Māori students should not be made to hand work in on time, because “Māori students come to university disadvantaged, and asking them to hand work in on time isn’t fair”.

The racism in such statements is extraordinary, and it alarms me to see acts of benevolent racism committed by our own; that is, by Māori, to Māori. While there is value in understanding the circumstances that have influenced the lives of students, it is not acceptable to assume that a student’s ethnicity necessarily defines their past experiences, nor their ability to achieve in education.

The notion of benevolent racism can do a lot of damage to those on the receiving end of it. To adopt these sentiments would see Māori students short-changed on a decent education, which is counter to historical and contemporary cultural imperatives concerning teaching and learning.

Excellence is a Māori trait

In order to offer some historical and cultural context to approaches to education and learning in Te Ao Māori, it is useful to consider the insights offered by the practices of traditional whare wānanga. At whare wānanga, systems of knowledge transfer and skills acquisition were refined over generations. Students had to have the mental aptitude and diligence to retain vast amounts of information, transmitted in oral form. Accuracy was paramount. To alter or question the knowledge was viewed as an affront to Tāne, the god whom Māori contend obtained knowledge for humankind.

In wider traditional Māori society, it was crucial to the survival and success of the tribal group that children developed a positive attitude to work. Among others, this work involved activities such as the gathering, harvesting, and preparing of food; weaving; carving; and learning skills associated with warfare. The practices in traditional whare wānanga and wider Māori society are evidence of the high standards that Te Ao Māori has always associated with education and learning, and the regard held for various forms of knowledge, and the pursuit and transmission of it.

In contemporary times, research indicates that Māori students continue to value high expectations and standards. This finding is evidenced in prominent studies such as Te Kotahitanga, Ka Awatea, and He Kākano.

Together, these historical and contemporary examples illustrate that excellence is a cornerstone of Māori learning. As such, why are some Māori suggesting we must discard high standards and expectations for our Māori students?

So while we are all being encouraged, and rightly so, to call out casual racism, I implore us to also call out benevolent racism. Māori students are just as capable of achieving in their education as anybody else, and to suggest otherwise is racist, plain and simple. The perpetuators of benevolent racism may claim to have good intentions, but benevolent racism is, after all, still racism. It has the potential to be just as damaging to Māori learners as more common and explicit forms of racism.

As for the academic in question, I am glad this person will have long since retired by the time my own Māori son enrols at university. My son is not taught that standards need to be lowered in order for him to achieve; rather, he is taught to pursue excellence in all that he does. This worldview is encapsulated in the whakataukī:

Whāia te iti kahurangi; ki te tūohu koe, me he maunga teitei.
Reach for the highest heights; if you bow your head, may it be for a lofty mountain.


melissa derby2Melissa Derby (Ngāti Ranginui) recently completed her PhD at the University of Canterbury, which formed part of A Better Start National Science Challenge. She has also recently returned from a Fulbright-Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga fellowship in the USA. Melissa is a member of the New Zealand Psychological Society, and the New Zealand Association for Research in Education. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Victoria University of Wellington. She graduated with a Master of Arts with first class honours from Auckland University of Technology, and her thesis made the Dean’s List for Exceptional Theses. She also holds a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Studies from Columbia University in New York. Her scholarship has been recognised through a range of awards, including a Whāia Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Doctoral Excellence Scholarship from the Māori Centre of Research Excellence, a SAGE Young Writer’s Award, and the Brownlie Scholarship, which is awarded to the highest ranked doctoral scholar at the University of Canterbury.


Enjoyed this piece? Check out some of Melissa’s other Ipu Kererū posts below:

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