Should white privilege be taught in schools?

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 16 May 2021, 5:00PM
The Government has initiated a range of strategies to address systemic racism in the education system, but some are concerned it could end up being "divisive". (Photo / 123rf)

Should white privilege be taught in schools?

Michael Neilson, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 16 May 2021, 5:00PM

A student at a Whangārei primary school had to stand up in front of their classroom and say what they had done to acknowledge their white privilege.

Act Party leader David Seymour says this is just one example he's heard from concerned parents about what he calls "racialised education".

But advocates of strategies to "de-colonise" Aotearoa's classrooms say rather than "racialise", such topics actually help dismantle the systemic racism that already exists, and holds back non-Pākehā students, particularly Māori.

Seymour says his example comes from the mainstream school system, and he is taking aim at Ministry of Education programmes to further such teaching like Te Hurihanganui, launched in 2019 with a $42 million budget to address racism in the education system and improve outcomes for Māori learners and their whānau.

The trial programme, run over three years, works at a community level, engaging iwi, schools and whānau in working out what their own priorities were for tackling racism in the education system.

It is just one of numerous "anti-racism" strategies. Outside the Government, the Teaching Council this week launched its Unteach Racism campaign, fronted by film-maker Taika Waititi.

Seymour said discussions around race and inequality were important, but he was concerned topics such as "white privilege" at a primary school level would in itself be "divisive".

"What are teachers supposed to say to a 'white' child who may have no money or food at home, be abused, face a learning challenge, or any other challenge? How is it that their colour makes them privileged regardless of their individual circumstances?"

He cites the Blueprint for Te Hurihanganui, which explains: "Building critical consciousness means reflecting critically on the imbalance of power and resources in society, and taking anti-oppressive action to do something about it for the better. It means recognising white privilege, understanding racism, inequity faced by Māori and disrupting that status quo to strengthen equity."

Seymour said the Ka Hikitia reading list for teachers also contains a key paper which claims that "many whites believe their financial and professional successes are the result of their own efforts, while ignoring the fact of white privilege".

"White privilege may well exist at a statistical artefact but to tell students their colour is more important is a false premise and divisive," Seymour said.

"The Government needs to front up and tell New Zealanders why it is instead allowing such radical and divisive ideas to be taught to our kids."

Te Hurihanganui comes off the back of numerous reports and studies that have highlighted systemic racism in New Zealand's education system, and how it holds back the learning of our children.

Stark examples include how in 2019 NCEA level 2 attainment was 64.1 per cent for Māori, compared to 82 per cent for Pākehā. Meanwhile in Māori medium education, 78.7 per cent of Māori school leavers achieved at least NCEA level 2 equivalent.

Programmes under Te Huirhanganui have been established in Porirua, Te Puke, Southland and Nelson this week, with two more yet to be confirmed, involving early childhood centres, primary schools and high schools working with mana whenua, parents and the wider community to build curriculums tailored to their rohe (area).

Associate Education Minister (Māori) Kelvin Davis said Te Hurihanganui was the "opposite of divisive".

"I think that interpretation is ignorance breeding fear. [Te Hurihanganui] is about addressing systemic racism and building relationships.

Davis said he could not say if white privilege was being taught yet, but the appropriate curriculums would be set by the communities involved, and made relevant to their circumstances.

"We have an education system that is not addressing the needs of Māori, of Pasifika, so this is about tailoring aspects to address that.

"It does mean looking at history, colonisation and its effects, and how Te Ao Māori views can be incorporated.

"David Seymour is making it sound like some subversive thing to indoctrinate children, when it is all about addressing systemic issues."

What is white privilege?

Education consultant Dr Ann Milne said it was "about time" the reality of white privilege was taught in the classroom.

Rather than focusing on the racial aspect, it was more about cultural norms and normalised ways of doing things that privileged certain groups over others, she said.

"It is not about white people per se but whiteness as a system.

"One way to look at it is you are walking down the street and have a $10 note just put in your pocket, for no reason.

"It is something you get just by the nature that everything works for your normal reality, not to do with wealth or anything."

Milne, who is Pākehā, with decades of experience, as a teacher, principal and now consultant, said she had never encountered any pushback from students nor their teachers teaching about white privilege.

She first became aware of the concept when her children, of Māori heritage, were attending secondary school and began encountering everyday racism, and seeing how it held them back.

"[Teaching about] white privilege if anything has been a great conversation starter at the dinner table. We shouldn't underestimate the ability of children to understand these things either, they see them simply as fair and not fair.

"Not teaching it does Pākehā a disservice, and Māori children will continue growing up thinking their position at the bottom of the heap is their fault, rather than the systems that keep them there.

"It is not separatist, it is not racist, it is just acknowledging the system does not work for everybody."

Former NZ Principals Federation president Whetu Cormack was on the board that designed the blueprint for Te Hurihanganui.

Asked if he thought teaching white privilege was racialising the education system, he responded: "The system is already racialised."

His Māori mother was beaten in schools for speaking her reo. And with a Pākehā father Cormack said he's had many different experiences of racism and privilege in his own schooling.

"This is about unpacking that racism, and acknowledging what privileges some have and others do not as a result is just part of that."

Hokonui Rūnanga kaitoko mātauranga Jo Brand is involved with the rollout of the programme in the east Southland rohe.

She said it was "scary but exciting", as the conversation about racism was not an easy one, but was important.

They had 10 institutions involved, from high school to preschools, and each would develop their own curriculums, borne out of hui with mana whenua and the wider community.

"It's involving really basic things like who we are and who we got here, but in a really meaningful way, through to the dream of eradicating racism."

Addressing white privilege in particular was up to each institution, she said.

"It's too early to say exactly what the outcomes will be, but already it has strengthened the relationship between mana whenua and schools and great things will come from this."