What have we learnt about racism in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Dr Angel Chan (University of Auckland) and Associate Professor Jenny Ritchie (Victoria University of Wellington)

In our recent publications, we have used Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Indigenous pedagogies of place, and the superdiversity approach to analyse and critique teacher education and early childhood education in Aotearoa and inform pedagogies. These articles aim to promote diversity, inclusion, social justice and cohesion. They also examine the complex relations between Tangata Whenua and migrants, and between biculturalism and multiculturalism. While we have critiqued the assumption of white superiority and the privileges Pākehā have been enjoying, knowingly or unknowingly, the word “racism” does not often appear in our work. This is because 1) ‘race’ is a construct with no basis in science; 2) the various forms of discrimination are interlinked. Someone racist is also likely to be sexist, classist, ableist, anti-Muslim, anti-semitic, and so on – someone who harbours prejudices against anyone different in the way s/he looks (e.g. skin colour), speaks (e.g. accent), acts (e.g. headscarf, turban). These discriminatory attitudes serve to protect one’s self-interest, sense of superiority, power, and privileges.

We write in response to hate crimes/incidents such as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, recognition of racism in our health and policing systems, and the recent Human Rights Commission report on COVID-19-driven racism and xenophobia experiences in Aotearoa. We also highlight some implications for practices. 

Histories of discrimination

Discrimination against Māori and Chinese people in Aotearoa is nothing new. Māori have endured ongoing breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi resulting in the widespread loss of lands and language, exclusion from educational opportunities, and socioeconomic marginalisation. A recent analysis found that the impacts of this historical oppression are ongoing:

The findings support the lived reality of Māori that racial and other forms of discrimination are pervasive, and experienced in multiple domains across the life course, representing a persistent breach of rights. It is critical that other forms of discrimination are measured alongside racism in order to understand and address the realities of multiple discrimination for Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand (Cormack, Harris & Stanley, 2019, p. 106).

The Chinese community in Aotearoa have also faced longstanding racism, as seen in the poll tax (1881-1944) on Chinese migrants and other anti-Chinese policies. Chinese were considered the unwelcome ‘aliens’. The arrival of thirteen Chinese females in New Zealand in 1907 sparked discriminatory public concerns – that there would now be New Zealand-born Chinese children and that these children would be raised in the Chinese way (Ip, 2002).  It was not until 2002 that the New Zealand government officially apologised to the Chinese community for the discriminatory poll tax.

The recent resurgence of racism

The 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks is the biggest hate crime in recent history in Aotearoa. One year after the attacks, sociologist Distinguish Professor Paul Spoonley wrote, “Far-right extremists still threaten New Zealand”; and two years after, Law Professor Alexander Gillespie asked, “How much has really changed?” Ironically in 2021, on the same day of the mosque killings, Newshub reported that a Pākehā man told a family to “go back to China” and referenced the Moriori in an attempt to give the family a sadly misguided New Zealand history lesson.

The recent report published by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Te Kaikiri me te Whakatoihara i Aotearoa i te Urutā COVID-19: He Aro Ki Ngā Hapori Haina, Āhia Hoki | Racism and Xenophobia Experience in Aotearoa New Zealand during COVID-19: A Focus on Chinese and Asian Communities, reveals an emergence of COVID-specific racism, targeted mainly at Asians, particularly Chinese communities. Tangata Whenua and Pacific Islands respondents also reported COVID-19-related discrimination experiences. 

Some racist attacks are perpetrated by non-Pākehā since anyone can be biased and discriminatory. Still, there is a pattern – people targeted and blamed a specific collective group. The late Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall argued that identity is socially and culturally constructed to create boundaries to support inclusion and exclusion. His chapter ‘Who Needs Identity?’ is particularly relevant for cultural workers such as teachers. As early childhood teacher-educators, we ask: ‘What is the role of teacher education and early childhood education in embracing differences, promoting respect, social justice and cohesion, and preventing further hate crimes in the future, similar to those recently occurring in the United States?’

Translating policies into pedagogies for social justice

All registered New Zealand teachers are now required to demonstrate their engagement with the Teaching Council’s Code and Standards, which call us to attend to human rights and social justice. Furthermore, one of the four core values for the profession is PONO: showing integrity by acting in ways that are fair, honest, ethical and just. The Council’s Code of Professional Responsibility requires teachers to promote and protect the principles of human rights, sustainability and social justice, demonstrate commitment to Tiriti o Waitangi, and foster learners engagement in issues important to the wellbeing of society. Actively countering racism and fostering anti-racist attitudes fall within this purview.

Two recent policies from the Ministry of Education, Ka Hikitia-Ka Hāpaitia and Te Hurihanganui contain a strong focus on the need for teachers to address racism. For example, one of the five key outcomes of Ka Hikitia-Ka Hāpaitia is Te Tangata: Māori are free from racism, discrimination and stigma in education. We believe these anti-discriminatory expectations should be applied to supporting all those social and cultural groups that are often marginalised and subordinated. It is not sufficient that teachers be merely non-discriminatory. They need to be pro-active role models in challenging any forms of negative stereotyping, injustice and bullying, and in encouraging children to do the same. Teachers should create an environment where differences are normalised and celebrated for the richness that they contribute to our learning communities.   


Dr Angel Chan is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. Her teaching and research aim at promoting social justice and cohesion by supporting teachers to develop equitable and inclusive pedagogies to work with diverse families. Her research areas include: early childhood education, culture and identity, sociology of childhood, transnational parenting, critical multicultural education, and superdiversity in education settings.

Dr Jenny Ritchie is an Associate Professor in Te Puna Akopai, the School of Education, at Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research and teaching focus on social, cultural, and ecological justice in early childhood care and education.

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