Whose story counts? Enacting a state narrative of biculturalism in New Zealand education

Dr Liana MacDonald, Victoria University of Wellington

Bicultural policies were formally adopted by New Zealand state institutions in the 1980s as a means for Māori cultural inclusion. Since then, limited understandings of ‘biculturalism’ have been applied in both policy and practice to promote Māori culture and enhance race relations, although these efforts have not resulted in the systemic changes that are truly needed to benefit Māori. This blog post considers the role of New Zealand schools in this effort. I hope to highlight that this is a significant area of concern and suggest what is needed for us to move forward.

Official interpretations of biculturalism were based around one historical event – the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 – to advance a sanitised version of colonial history. This government-sanctioned narrative of biculturalism supported Pākehā to imagine themselves as partners with Māori in the nation-making enterprise. Yet, it was the New Zealand Wars and subsequent land and cultural displacement that set the tenor for the social and economic disadvantages experienced by Māori today.

Schools are sites that generate strong redemptive narratives about harmonious race relations – that is, narratives that present a positive or ‘feel good’ picture about race relations in New Zealand. These narratives posit that Māori and Pākehā have moved beyond a troubled colonial history and can move towards an unfettered future. The English learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum for English Medium Schools refers to developing students’ “awareness of New Zealand’s bicultural heritage”, while the Social Studies learning area states that students should “explore the unique bicultural nature of New Zealand society that derives from the Treaty of Waitangi”. However, little is known about how these statements are practiced in the classroom.

My research: How state narratives are enacted in NZ classrooms

My PhD sought to address this gap through two phases of data collection. I interviewed nineteen Māori secondary school teachers of English and followed up with classroom observations. In the course of the research I saw how everyday classroom interactions sustain a view of biculturalism that upholds state versions of the Treaty narrative but undermines Māori realities. Three key traits of this state narrative are set out below.

Racism framed as an individual problem

Education policy in New Zealand claims that ethnicity and culture is enough to bridge the achievement gap (see also here) between Māori and Pākehā youth. This approach directs educators to view schooling success or failure as being attributable to the decisions and actions of individuals. School institutions thus appear to be culturally and racially neutral and it is the teachers and/or students that need to be fixed.

In my study, notions of racism were attributed solely to individual bad attitudes and actions. For example, one teacher described institutional racism as “about a person who works for a different agency and then uses that position as a platform to practice their own beliefs”. While this is one form of racism, another (and what we more commonly mean by the phrase ‘institutional racism’) is the way that institutional policies and hidden cultural biases subordinate and maintain control over group(s) through ongoing series of actions or norms that get reproduced or posited over time. The perception that racism is only an individual problem therefore directs attention away from critiquing interpersonal interactions and how these generate a particular narrative about the terms of existence for Māori and Pākehā in today’s society.

Neutralising difficult ground

Classroom observations in my study revealed that difficult ground – such as discussions that involved strong themes about colonisation, racism and biculturalism – was often neutralised by teachers and students adopting an upbeat and non-judgemental tone in class discussions. Teachers spoke about regulating the tone of their voice so that it was “temperate”, didn’t appear “biased”, or the ideas were presented “neutrally for non-Māori”. For example, one participant said,

“I try to be neutral for my students who I’m teaching, so that they know that this is what I think, these are some of the ideas in the text.  I think some of my students might see me… especially non-Māori might see me as if we’re learning a Māori text, [and think] well of course you’re gonna say that about the Māori text or about Māori.”

Neutralising difficult ground in these ways supported Pākehā students to feel like they could talk about Māori and Pākehā race relations without feeling like their (Māori) English teacher was attributing blame to them personally. Violent colonial histories are thus avoided to keep students happy, sustaining the notion of racial harmony rather than genuinely examining how students are implicated in power relations that oppress Māori.

Imagining progressive bicultural relations

The upbeat or neutral emotional tenor of classroom interactions was also supported by pedagogical approaches that uncritically validated the personal responses that Pākehā students applied to text. Observation and interview data revealed that Pākehā students were either drawn towards articulating a sanitised view of colonial violence or were heavily invested in the belief that racist behaviours and attitudes exhibited by previous generations of Pākehā are disappearing and that the social conditions for Māori are improving. As one Pākehā student said,

“I feel as though we were quite a selfish group of people when we came and then we didn’t realise what we were doing um, and that actually it really made us click into saying ‘hey, right, okay, we need to change this’ as well.”

A belief in progressive bicultural relations was similarly seen in classroom settings of the three Māori English teachers who taught predominantly Māori students. For example, one teacher indicated to students that bicultural relations have progressed because Māori are less willing to accept Pākehā intrusions.

“As Māori, we were a lot more accepting of things [in the past] than say what we are now . . . I think we are now more inclined to question ‘Why do you want to come and take a photo of my Nan now?  What do you going to do with it?  Are you going to make money off it?'”

However, claims of social and economic advancement are questionable when Māori continue to be over-represented in poverty, prisons, suicides, poor health outcomes and homelessness, yet under-represented in universities (see also here) and leadership positions in government departments. The everyday enactment of a narrative of harmonious bicultural relations in schools is a significant means in which state institutions may protect the collective interests and comfort of Pākehā instead of highlighting the urgent need for change in NZ society.

Flipping the script: Introducing difficult knowledge

The sanitised state narrative of biculturalism that takes precedence in our secondary schools is not a ‘given’. Truly equitable race relations may be possible through new bicultural narratives that weave ‘difficult knowledge’ into the fabric of the structures of settler-colonial education. Difficult knowledge recognises that the widespread current public perceptions of national identity are incomplete, factually inaccurate and fail to account for the historically inherited cultural bias embedded in the systems and structures of society.

Stories of historical violence, unending suppression and entanglement need to take centre-stage if schooling in Aotearoa truly claims to be ‘culturally responsive’. In this regard, it is imperative that educators honestly account for versions of biculturalism that acknowledge a lived Māori existence moderated by race, rather than emphasising a version that is designed to accommodate Pākehā sensibilities.


Enjoyed this post? Another blog post based on Liana’s PhD research is also available here:  Institutional silencing, racism and New Zealand schooling


Liana squareDr Liana MacDonald recently completed her PhD about silencing and institutional racism in settler-colonial education. The research applied a macro-level lens of analysis to argue that a Settler Contract sustains white/Pākehā supremacy in New Zealand society through an education system that silences the meanings and effects of colonisation. The research helped her resolve personal tensions experienced as a Māori student and (much later) as a secondary school English teacher working in three culturally diverse environments. Liana is currently a Research Fellow for a Marsden project titled: He Taonga te Wareware: Remembering and Forgetting New Zealand’s Colonial Past.

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