1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Tracey McIntosh

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Contested Realities: Race, Gender and Public Policy in Aotearoa/New Zealand
The term ‘race’ is rarely used in the Aotearoa/New Zealand context. Though colonial and historical documents speak about the ‘Maori race’ it is no longer in common usage. The term ethnicity is used to refer to specific and general group identity. , gender, sexuality and class are interlocking: each of these factors impacts on the way the other is experienced. This paper looks at the different ways Maori attempt to address issues of their own oppression, and it considers how oppressive relationships are inflected by gender and class. There is a need to explore how attempts to tackle forms of racial discrimination may benefit different sectors of Maori more than others, and in some cases continue to perpetuate forms of gender oppression. Maori women are at the forefront of the struggle to better the social position of their communities, yet they continue to bear the greatest burden of social, political and economic oppression. The paper also examines whether Maori forms of feminism are integral to the Maori struggle or whether they are another instance of outsider interference. It will trace the historical development of social movements, the ‘Maori renaissance’, and changing governmental positions and policies toward Maori. Finally, it will explore actual and potential alliances that Maori may draw upon in working toward better distribution of power and resources.

Identity, both personal and collective, is formed in the material reality in which we live, and is a process rather than a result. Our gendered identities determine to a large degree the way we see ourselves and are seen. Similarly, our class location is important to these same perceptions. Ethnicity is another layer upon this, and some ethnic identities produce a far greater and more pronounced reaction than others. The Maori experience of colonization and the contemporary reality of marginalization and deprivation in everyday life mean that ethnic identity in Aotearoa/New Zealand is a site of struggle. As tangata whenua (people of the land, indigenous people) Maori find their social location in New Zealand society highly contested.

The struggle to achieve Tino Rangitiratanga (self-determination, sovereignty) is one that most Maori consider primary, but its interpretation and ways of achieving it are areas of some dispute. There is also considerable opposition from non-Maori to programmes or policies that set out to close social and economic disparities. Though the present government has clearly articulated its intention to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi (signed in 1840 between representatives of the British crown and Maori chiefs) and to ‘close the gaps’ between Maori and non-Maori achievement in education, labour force involvement, housing and health, this has been met with a certain cynicism by many Maori and strident opposition from other sectors of New Zealand society. All things Maori are political.

Extensive research on the Maori condition shows that Maori suffer disadvantage from birth. The Maori infant is more likely to die than the non-Maori infant. The Maori child is less likely to participate in early childhood education. Although there is little significant data on performance at primary school level, we know that young Maori are leaving secondary school with much lower levels of qualifications than non-Maori. Maori are much more likely to be suspended and expelled from school, which increases the likelihood that Maori will attain lower educational achievement and be more significantly involved in youth crimes. Maori unemployment rates are considerably higher than those of non-Maori, and Maori income is considerably lower. Maori are more likely to require government assistance or be totally dependant on a government benefit. Many Maori live in inadequate housing and suffer a poorer mental and physical health status than non-Maori. Disadvantage and difference are marked in Maori participation in the criminal justice system. Maori are over-represented both as victims and offenders. For too many people, unemployment, illness, psychiatric conditions, poverty and prison life are what being Maori is.

Though the position and legitimacy of Maori culture within New Zealand society has been greatly enhanced since the 1970s, with greater respect afforded to our tikanga (cultural practices) and te reo (Maori language), the Maori renaissance has been far less successful in addressing the many other social inequities that Maori face in their daily lives. There is a danger of speaking of a culture as a whole way of life outside its own political economic history. While culture is obviously vitally important to physical and spiritual well-being, for this to be fully achieved we need to insure that day-to-day struggles and the solutions to them are met with the same determination that we give cultural considerations. There is the need not only to fight for the preservation and vitality of culture, but also to assure equity in regard to economic and political standing and to the access to resources, power and knowledge.