On Wednesday of this week I had the privilege of attending the first screening of a series of short videos put together by the “I, too, am Auckland” team. Inspired by the “I, too, am Harvard” project, “I, too, am Auckland” is a student-driven initiative which gives a platform to Maori and Pasifika students who are still subject to racism and whose presence at university is still contested.
These days the racism is subtle and often unintentional meaning that, while it continues to alienate Maori and Pasifika students, it can be harder to address, particularly in the moment. A common example, described in the videos is how tutors seem surprised when Maori or Pasifika students continue attending tutorials. Another example, which I have experienced several times, is when anything Maori comes up in conversation and, being in the minority, the group turns to you to speak on behalf of your entire race on a topic of which you may only have a very superficial understanding. It feels extreme to bite back when this happens because the microaggressor never intended any harm. Nevertheless, you have been compartmentalised and your cultural background reduced.
No argument, this sort of thing isn’t as bad as “We don’t need to worry about the Maori because they’ll drink/drug themselves into extinction soon” (real words said by a real New Zealander. [Side note: Being Maori/Pakeha/Thai I generally get passed off as half-Asian/sometimes Middle-Eastern which often makes me privy to statements which people wouldn’t actually have the balls to say in front of Maori or Pasifika]). No, it’s not as bad as “Maori are [expletive]”. But it requires greater explanation as to why it is hurtful and it’s difficult to explain that: the problem isn’t the one time someone compartmentalised you, it’s how it just keeps happening.
Which is why these videos are important; they demonstrate the ubiquity of these experiences and show how, little by little, Maori and Pasifika students are ground down and alienated within our dear tertiary institution. The result is students recede into themselves and gradually begin to drop off the radar.
There are three videos – two of which are live on youtube. The first catalogues the experiences of Maori and Pasifika students, the second (which hasn’t been put up yet) deals with perspectives on targeted admission schemes, and the final looks to the future.
Watching these videos in the Fale Pasifika and surrounded by (largely) Maori and Pasifika staff and students was…emotional but also unsatisfying. The observations made by students and staff in these videos got laughs and nods but that was all. There was collective understanding and empathy but there was no surprise.
As I see it, there are two audiences for these videos:
a) Maori and Pasifika students who may not realise that their experience is common and need reminding that they, too, deserve to be at university and
b) everyone else.
These videos are important because they are evidence of the Maori and Pasifika tertiary experience. I realise it might be uncomfortable to accept that the life as a minority at the University of Auckland is at odds with our self-perception as a highly accepting and multicultural society. It’s easy for me. I both empathise with these students and recognise the way I have largely skirted notice by hiding in my pale skin and Asian features. I worked in the Tuakana program for several years (a mentoring scheme which provides support to Maori and Pasifika students within different departments) and have experienced the way the general student populace (and some staff!) dismiss our work and our students. I care because I am Maori. But that shouldn’t be a pre-requisite.
I’m getting tired of the way I and my own father (who founded the Tuakana program and gave the keynote speech at the event) have to explain the importance of young Maori and Pasifika in economic terms. Apparently we cannot expect people to sympathise without some degree of self-interest.
I get angry about this but only because we can do better (and I do mean “we”. I’ve come from a privileged background and there are a few residual prejudices I haven’t quite winkled out yet). We need acknowledge these experiences without trying to make excuses. We need empathy, not sympathy and we need to understand the difference between “equity” and “equality”.