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Shifting Focus From Race To Culture: Preserving Trust With Indigenous Communities

Recently, a photo was taken of a space that had been dedicated to Māori and Pasifika students at Auckland University. The photo has received wide spread attention, both for and against the idea. In an attempt to dispel any intention of racism, I am writing this op/ed to help move the dial from a focus on race, to a focus on cultural norms and sensitivities.

In the contemporary discourse on social justice, there's been a palpable shift from discussing cultural perspectives to fixating solely on race. While the intentions behind this shift may be well-meaning, its consequences are significant, particularly concerning the erosion of trust within indigenous communities, including those of us who are Māori of Aotearoa/New Zealand. This transition, though subtle, has profound implications, leading us down a perilous path towards further division and, inadvertently, racism.

To comprehend this transition fully, it's crucial to understand the distinction between "race" and "culture," especially within the context of indigenous communities such as Māori. Race is a socially constructed concept primarily focused on physical attributes, often used to categorize and stratify people based on superficial characteristics like skin color or facial features. The term race does not take into consideration individual characteristics of said people, but rather places people together by identity only. Conversely, culture encompasses a much broader spectrum, including norms, traditions, values, beliefs, and ways of being and knowing within a particular community or group. For Māori, we only need to look at whanau, hapū and iwi – each a separate entity but when brought together, are called “Māori”. Each whanau, hapū and iwi have their own identities, kawa and tikanga.

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The Māori culture as a whole is deeply rooted in traditions, values, and a unique worldview that shapes their identity and community cohesion. From the significance of the marae as a focal point of communal life to the principles of manaakitanga (hospitality) and kaitiakitanga (stewardship of the environment), Māori culture is rich and multifaceted, reflecting a holistic approach to life and relationships.

However, the recent emphasis on race over culture threatens to undermine these foundational elements of indigenous identity. By reducing complex cultural identities to mere racial categories, we risk overlooking the richness and diversity of indigenous cultures. This oversimplification perpetuates harmful stereotypes and neglects the significance of cultural practices in fostering the holistic development of indigenous individuals.

If we continue to look at Māori from a “racial” perspective, we will continue to focus on the wrong thing. Providing spaces for Māori or Pasifika is not about their race, it’s about cultural norms and sensitivities which are allowed to be practiced. We have moved to a space where “we don’t want these Māori’s to be doing Māori things in public” and therefore spaces like the one mentioned at Auckland University are necessary. Can we get to a place where Māori “stuff” is tolerated in an open forum, absolutely! Will we? Maybe not in this life time, if we continue to debate whether or not places and spaces for cultural groups are permitted.

It's also worthy to point out the following. “Pasifika” is not a race. There is no racial demographic called, “pasifika”. There aren’t even cultural practices for “Pasifika”. Every person who is from any pasifika island will tell you that they are a descendant from their own individual pacific island nation. The term “pasifika” is a lazy term that has been used to group a bunch of people from the Pacific Islands. If Auckland University intended to “segregate” people, it would have done so based on individual races and excluded others – they did not. They provided a place for Māori and Pasifika people. It’s also important to note that there was no “No white people allowed” sign. I’ve been Māori all 38 years of my life time. When I attended university as a masters student, Te Wananga O Aotearoa as an undergrad student and polytechnic, there have always been spaces set aside for indigenous students. What I know for sure is, I have never seen anyone refused entry into those spaces. If invited, people from all cultures have been welcomed. I can’t tell you a time when someone hasn’t been invited in. So to accuse anyone of apartheid and segregation is an outright falsehood. Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation, providing spaces for indigenous people is not about racial segregation, rather providing spaces of cultural likeness to congregate, share ideas and be in a place where being open and transparent about such issues is welcomed.

It's imperative to shift our focus back to cultural perspectives, especially concerning indigenous communities like Māori. Recognising and respecting cultural norms, sensitivities, and values not only honours the integrity of indigenous identities but also fosters greater understanding and empathy across diverse communities. Embracing cultural diversity strengthens the fabric of society, promoting inclusivity and unity amidst differences.

Moreover, centering cultural perspectives aligns with the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Treaty of Waitangi, which serves as the foundation of the relationship between the Crown and Māori. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Treaty is not a contract between races but a pact between the Crown and Māori, acknowledging the rights and autonomy of Māori as Tangata whenua, the indigenous people of New Zealand.

Article Two of Te Tiriti guarantees Māori the right to retain their cultural practices and ways of being, emphasising the importance of cultural autonomy within the treaty partnership. Therefore, any discourse or policy that neglects or undermines Māori cultural perspectives violates the spirit of Te Tiriti and jeopardizes the trust and partnership between the Crown and Māori.

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