Accounting for Racism

Maori targets of racism provided detailed analyses of the ‘why’ of racism (Pack et al., 2015a). They provided extensive background to their experiences of racism in both its blatant and subtle versions. Their answers to the question of why this occurs drew on four key discourses: ignorance, superiority, the media, and institutional racism. Multidimensional Pakeha ignorance included ignorance of Maori people, Maori culture, and ignorance of racism itself. Pakeha were constructed as simply unaware of the subtle daily actions which might be seen as racist such as expecting to be served at a shop counter first or Pakeha men expecting to go through a door after a Pakeha woman but before a Maori woman. This lack of awareness enables racism to go unchecked. Being unaware of racism was exacerbated by what participants referred to as a sense of superiority, constructed implicitly in terms of unspoken Pakeha assumptions that Maori were inferior in terms of intellect, culture, and morality.

There was talk of being categorised on the basis of skin colour and thereby regarded as less deserving. A notable feature of this superiority was cultural imperialism stemming historically from the forces of colonisation and the construction of indigenous people as needing Europeanisation (Te Hiwi, 2008). The discourse of superiority legitimates marginalisation by individuals working within social structures and institutions which are considered next.

Media reports were said to be slanted towards presenting negative news about Maori, overuse of the word ‘Maori’ in association with crime reporting, and a lack of focus on positive achievement. Examples included an imbalance with over bloated reporting of legal offences involving Maori while under reporting of successful Maori role models. This bias renders Maori achievement invisible within mainstream media and contributes to the perpetuation of negativity, stereotypes, and prejudice. Furthermore, similar negativities are apparent on social media (Johns & McCosker, 2014). Cultural imperialism is strongly implicated in the final discourse: institutional racism. Colonisation includes the hallmarks of a ‘superior’ civilisation, for example, new technology, language, customs, and practices being imposed on the colonised (Robertson, 2004). Among the customs and practices are institutional practices which span critical areas such as health, education, housing, and jobs. Such a colonial hierarchy disempowers Maori aspirations and reflects on a country in which the dominant culture maintains colonial structures.

The two discourses which are most surprising are ignorance and superiority with the combination being particularly powerful. Pakeha ignorance is fuelled by media accounts which feed into negative stereotypes of Maori. An analysis of Pakeha racism as being caused by ignorance and misinformation holds the promise of racism being reduced through education and more balanced reporting. Collectively, these discourses construct negative positionality for Maori. Media continue to highlight negative stereotypes, the institutions managing health, education, housing, jobs, and justice work in the shadows of hierarchical colonisation, and Pakeha assume their privilege and superiority are deserved and remain blithely unaware of the lived realities of racism. Most negatively, Pack et al. (2015a) suggest this may work towards the sustained constriction of Maori aspirations and a reluctant acceptance of poor outcomes in employment, health, and justice, along with a counter-productive suspicion of Pakeha. More positively, there is the hope afforded by educational interventions and greater visibility of positive reporting of Maori achievement.

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