A Kiwi Myth: The Post-Racial Society by Cherry Sharma & Mikyla Rowe

Congratulations to the winners of the inaugural SAANZ Secondary School Essay Prize: Cherry Sharma & Mikyla Rowe from Ōtūmoetai College.

It’s a myth that we live in a post-racist society.[1] While ‘race’ no longer affects modern society to the same extent as it once did, circumstances in New Zealand prove that the social structure of ‘race’ still has significant influence over both the lives of individuals and the shape of society as a whole.

Discrimination based on ‘race’ was outlawed in New Zealand with the Human Rights Act of 1993. Since then, the New Zealand government has made significant progress in addressing its colonial wrongs; iwi can negotiate with the Crown for settlements in the form of land or money (a reparation for historical land confiscation), and the Crown has continuously made apologies. In the education sector, initiatives like targeted scholarships for Māori and Pasifika students have been implemented to increase the number of formally educated Māori individuals. All of this has significantly improved the lives of Māori individuals. However, some perceive these practices as ‘unfair,’ particularly Europeans who, nowadays, often fail to recognise racial disparities. Claire Charters, a Maori Lawyer and Activist, analyses the European perspective: “Everyone is assumed to be the same…if Māori get privileges, it creates inequality for non-Māori.[2] She highlights that it is important to remember the impact of colonisation in that the Māori are living in a system that requires them to conform to ideals not of their own.

These ‘privileges’ and small attitude changes are only surface-level solutions to the institutionalised racism that still occurs in healthcare and to the severe socioeconomic disparities across races. Europeans of today often overlook the impact of this trauma and deny the presence of continued racism. This is seen systematically within the social structure of socioeconomic class.  In 2015, it was found that there was a $91,000 gap in wealth between median Māori ($23 000) and Pākehā ($114 000) – in 2018, this gap grew to $108 000. This significant disparity also translates into home ownership – 28.2 percent of Māori stated that they owned a home in 2013, compared to 58.2 percent of Pākehā[3].  These disparities are not coincidental, but a direct consequence of historical racial stratification in both societies. Historically, the opportunity for Māori families to generate wealth was taken away from them as a result of colonialism (and the exclusive economic policies created from this). The concept of “equal opportunity” for all races in generating income, or home ownership, holds much less weight when this is taken into account. Maori populations do not have the same generational wealth to fall back on as white families do – they started centuries behind, and this will not change unless significant moves are made in wealth redistribution. Socioeconomic class is an incredibly significant factor in an individual’s life chances and social status: people with access to wealth and money will have access to a higher quality of education, healthcare, legal counsel, and many other resources. The disproportionate number of Māori with lower class status indicates that in modern New Zealand society, white individuals will have a greater quality of life and therefore an increased amount of power.

Race also plays a large role in how other social institutions, such as healthcare systems operate. Social institutions are pillars of culture – if racial stratification is embedded into them, a natural conclusion is that ‘race’ continues to shape the culture of modern New Zealand. In both countries, implicit bias and disparities in access to healthcare lead to worse health outcomes for Māori. A lack of indigenous representation in the healthcare industry – with only 3 percent of healthcare practitioners in the country being of Māori descent – means that patients are prone to being mistreated as a result of prejudiced thinking[4]. A 2018 study of New Zealand medical students found that while many Pākehā medical students indicated that they treat European and Māori patients equally, they showed significant implicit bias, believing Māori were less compliant[5]. This demonstrates how individuals are socialised into racially prejudiced beliefs without even realising. However, disparity in health outcomes is not solely due to the biases of some practitioners (this implies that with the right education/attitudes, inequality will be solved) – the racism is also embedded into the way the institution runs. In New Zealand, access to healthcare for marginalised races is an issue due to increased poverty in Maori communities, and more distance from urban centres as a consequence of land confiscation. Even once care is accessed, it is not distributed equally across races – Māori face longer wait times and are more prone to being inaccurately prescribed than Pākehā. Māori healthcare outcomes are significantly worse than those of Pākehā and other races: a child mortality rate 1.5x higher than that of other races, and a higher chance of suffering with, for example, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These outcomes are evidently a consequence of institutionalised racism within healthcare. This is just one example. Similar statistics are evident across law enforcement, education, and all other institutions that our society is built on.

To treat both races with pure equality does not work in a system which is rigged to fail them. Thus, before the peoples can be treated with equality, the system must be fixed to bring justice. Until then, equity must address existing inequalities. Socialisation is a contributing factor to this unconscious racism. From birth, individuals are exposed to various socialising agents, such as family, the media, and education. These agents transmit stereotypes, cultural norms, and prejudices. If these institutions hold these biases, it can perpetuate racial stereotypes that an individual may internalise without realising. Internalisation refers to the process of making certain attitudes or beliefs a part of one’s cognition or behaviours without explicit awareness of it happening. The individual, while displaying no explicit bias (for example, shouting racial slurs), has an internally concocted set of values and beliefs based on society’s perceptions of other ‘races.’ Microaggressive judgements are made based on this, such as the decision to cross the street if a black man is walking towards you due to the fear of him being violent, or the decision not to hire a Māori individual as they ‘won’t work hard anyway.’ These attitudes still persist today partly due to the conservative nature of the social institutions in which these values are deeply embedded and partly due to our refusal to acknowledge them. The effects of these past actions are still felt today despite their discontinuation. Without recognising the harm that has been done, nothing will ever change and history is liable to repeat itself.

We live in a society in which racist beliefs are embedded, and this shows in the statistics. Modern disparities in socioeconomic status and treatment in healthcare institutions are so large that they cannot be coincidental (or a result of inherent biological differences between races). They are proof that colonisation, and the historic discrimination against Māori people continues to have effects on societies today, even if these effects are not as tangible as before.

[1] Okonedo, S. (2007). Racism: A History. BBC Direct Documentary. BBC.

[2] Lawrence, N. (2010). Working Towards Māori Equality. Cultural Survival- culturalsurvival.org

[3] “NZ’s Perverse Ethnic Wealth Gap | Newsroom.” 27 Jul. 2020, https://www.newsroom.co.nz/pete-mckenzie-on-the-ethnic-wealth-gap. Accessed 1 Jul. 2023.

[4] “Our shameful health statistics show colonisation has failed Māori.” 21 Jun. 2021, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/kahu/dr-mataroria-lyndon-our-shameful-health-statistics-show-colonisation-has-failed-Māori/X3UQKEHR4BB6Q44KODISF732IQ/. Accessed 1 Jul. 2023.

[5] “Institutional racism to blame for poor Māori, Pacific health, Auckland ….” 27 Jul. 2019, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/kahu/institutional-racism-to-blame-for-poor-Māori-pacific-health-auckland-dhb-says/EHVS4TQ72J6V7KZTSB6KP5EDDA/. Accessed 1 Jul. 2023.