Pākehā Educators: What is the role of our Cultural Identity?

Dr Diana Amundsen, University of Waikato

Questioning my Cultural Identity as a Pākehā Educator

Pākehā New Zealanders – have you ever wondered about what this terms means to you? Here, I am blogging to share my experiences as a teacher, education facilitator and university researcher. To understand a personal journey, which prompted me to deeply question my cultural identity as a Pākehā New Zealand educator, I have been meta-analysing my professional experiences for a number of years.

Initially, when I was invited to work across kaupapa Māori tertiary education spaces for my PhD research, I knew it was an honour that came with both privileges and responsibilities. But I under-estimated how those unexpected moments of struggle, discomfort and vulnerability I encountered would open up new and deeper understanding of myself as a Pākehā educators and researcher. Little did I know that engaging closely with Te Ao Māori would lead me to redefining and then confidently claiming my own Pākehā cultural identity in ways I never expected.

Māori Transitions into Tertiary Education

The journey began during my PhD research, when I tracked the lives of 20 Māori students enrolled in a university, a polytechnic and a wānanga for approximately two years. Meeting with these adult students on a regular basis, I came to intimately know and understand both their success and challenges as they transitioned into three different types of tertiary education environments. Ultimately, I argued in my thesis that our education system rests on inequities for Māori. Therefore, if we identify as a Pākehā New Zealander, we must use our privilege to foster more equitable social structures. Many experiences encountered by Māori students in my study were inequitable and imposed unfair barriers for effective transition experiences. Equitable social structures would be beneficial for Māori transitions into tertiary education environments, particularly in light of the present Covid-19 context requiring many students to learn online from home.

Reflections about Decolonisation

I did not set out to investigate my own self-perceptions of being Pākehā during the doctoral research process. Although I was acutely aware that it was a cross-cultural study where I was a Pākehā and the participants were Māori, our focus was on exploring their personal transition experiences to capture their ‘student voice’ perspective. After my doctoral research, I later undertook a reflective study to try and understand what I had experienced and how my interactions with Māori students and their lives had changed me. I wrote about my reflections in an article called, Decolonisation through Reconciliation: The Role of Pākehā Identity.  Using a trans-theoretical model with six stages of change, I unpacked the steps of what I went through, and described my understanding of what emerged in the process of re-defining my Pākehā cultural identity. In the article, I discuss my rationale for engaging in research with Māori, and then outline approaches I adopted to appropriately engage in Indigenous research as a non-Indigenous researcher. I conclude that we have a responsibility as a Pākehā educator and researcher to take deliberate and conscious steps to decolonise through reconciliation and dismantle disturbing and prevailing prejudiced attitudes.

Are Māori and Pākehā Fates Intertwined?

I suggest that the identities (and fates) of Pākehā and Māori are intertwined. To move forward, we need to reflectively work together to shape current and future cultural identities, politics and economics. This process may be painful as it necessarily traverses self-critique, self-negation and self-rediscovery if we are to move to a more dignified social structure and organisation of education. In light of the Covid-19 context, we have many opportunities to re-define what our pathways together could look like. Education needs a decolonising reconciliation approach to address the reality of ongoing disparities between Pākehā and Māori. Part of our challenge as Pākehā educators to participate in a process of action and change is to begin nurturing a habit of listening to our discomforts. It is an unlearning as much as a relearning to orient our approach away from avoidance. It may be less about making quantum leaps and more about making small but purposeful steps. Pākehā need to do more to ensure that Māori ways of knowing and being are embedded within our education framework. Evolution of Pākehā identity is a continuous process of Pākehā situating themselves in relation to Māori and within wider Aotearoa society.

Final Thoughts

As I describe in my article, a sense of mutual burden remains from the colonial past. Some Māori feel and experience cultural marginalisation while some Pākehā worry that Māori will gain undeserved advantages at their expense. Nonetheless, such concerns disguise an underlying and mutual respect between Pākehā and Māori. This genuine respect is reflected in the acknowledgement that there are positive aspects of Māori and Pākehā identity which help to shape each other, further intertwining our fates and identities. My journey as an educator and researcher continues, as does my continuous reflection of what it means to confidently claim being a Pākehā New Zealand educator.


Acknowledgements:  The research on which this blog post is based was published in the MAI New Zealand Journal of Indigenous Scholarship  and Dr Diana Amundsen’s doctoral thesis.  


Diana FaceDr Diana Amundsen is a lecturer and researcher in the School of Education at the University of Waikato. Diana specialises in the field of adult learning and development and lifespan development. Diana’s research interests span adult education and development with a particular focus on transition experiences of marginalised groups. Currently, Diana’s research focus is around working with transitions in the lives of older adults, positive ageing and longevity issues.

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