How Racism Underpins Our Education System

Dr. Liana MacDonald (Ngāti Kuia, Rangitāne o Wairau, Ngāti Koata) is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington and focuses on research on institutional racism in colonial education.

OPINION: Race, decolonization, Maori inclusion, transformation, culturally responsive and sustainable pedagogies, equity, white privilege, white fragility, racism.

Many of these words were foreign to most teachers five years ago. Today is a different story.

These are terms that you become more and more familiar with, so much so that another term – “buzzword” – comes to mind.

The buzzword may seem like an unusual descriptor for a language that has such heavy connotations, but I think the label is properly applied if the bulk of the work required for systemic change does not follow.

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Race is a social construct that divides people into groups.

Our whitestream (aka mainstream) education system does this all the time, when referring to different ethnic groups like Maori, Pacific Europeans, Asians and New Zealand Europeans/Pākehā.

Traditional education is built on a racist system, writes Liana MacDonald.

Victoria Johnson / Stuff

Traditional education is built on a racist system, writes Liana MacDonald.

Racism is the systematic subordination of one or more groups to another.

Our education system does too, but – perhaps unsurprisingly – little support is offered to help teachers understand how Ministry of Education policies, curriculum and school administration are also complicit in racism.

I’ve noticed that most discussions about education and racism tend to center around racist individuals and unconscious biases, where systemic transformation can somehow be achieved by fixing a few bad apples, or overcoming or ” disempowering” personal characteristics or beliefs about race in society.

While some aspects of racism may be unlearned, it is much more difficult to see oneself as participating in a colonial system of racial domination that continues to serve the status quo.

I grew up in Blenheim, and from where I was positioned, it felt like a tale of two cities.

The wealth of farming and vineyard-owning families was matched by those who literally lived across the railway lines from Blenheim, where the people who harvest, mow and sweat for the wealthy or receive money from the government.

Blenheim's leafy vineyards may represent its prosperity and wealth, but Liana MacDonald had a different view of the town growing up there.

BRYA INGRAM/STUFF/Marlborough Express

Blenheim’s leafy vineyards may represent its prosperity and wealth, but Liana MacDonald had a different view of the town growing up there.

At the girls’ school I attended, the line between those who owned land and those who worked for the wealthy was finely drawn.

It was never something that was talked about, but everyone knew who came from wealthy homes despite it being a uniformed school.

Privileged girls seemed to wear their skirts a little longer, had custom shoes from the Last Footwear Company, and went to parties with like-minded boys.

Another way we differentiated ourselves was through streaming.

In years 9 and 10, students were placed into classes based on their perceived academic intelligence. Of course, it was never articulated in such stark terms, but everyone knew who was in the accelerated class (the A-band) and who was in the cabbage class (the C-band).

Although these terms were thrown around as a joke, it was hurtful to sit in the undercurrent; to know that you have been judged and deemed insufficient.

stacy squires

Te Matau Flanagan talks about overcoming negative school experiences.

Then the pain fades in favor of accepting an academic process that is secretly designed to predetermine your limits, expectations, and opportunities in life.

Such practices are often hidden under a veneer of kindness. In my school, it was the norm to be nice, and if you weren’t always nice, there was probably something wrong with you. Most likely you were in band C or were brown.

Some students hit the trifecta and were all three. They have generally disappeared from school existence by the end of the 11th grade.

Although calls have been made by various organizations to stop streaming, the practice still thrives between schools (if not within them) as the communities we come from, the stories we carry and the cultural, economic and social capital play a important role in academic success.

Dr. Liana MacDonald is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington and focuses on research on institutional racism in colonial education.

Provided

Dr. Liana MacDonald is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington and focuses on research on institutional racism in colonial education.

Unfortunately, kindness and good intentions aren’t particularly helpful in challenging institutional racism.

Radically changing a system that has supported a group of people so well for so long will inevitably be difficult and uncomfortable.

Learning about our colonial history and recognizing its positioning within a colonial system is an important first step.

But to bring about real change, the Ministry of Education, the Board of Education and teachers’ unions must also provide resources, staff and support school leaders and educators throughout the process. abandonment of curriculum and educational space to the perspectives and interests of the communities they serve.

It is time to listen, recognize communities’ own definitions of educational success, and then act in ways that mitigate the colonial underpinnings of the traditional education system.

  • This article is based on a keynote speech Liana MacDonald gave at Ko wewewetea, ko Māui ahau!, an education symposium hosted by iwi in Whakatū/Nelson on October 21.