White noise: When white privilege drowns out reality

by Virginia Larson / 18 May, 2017

Maybe levelling the playing field involves recognising who owns it first.

“Maori, along with white children and others of the many races now making up New Zealand, all start equally in the school system at age five.” This is a quote from Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar, who went on to say he “does not accept there is any institutional racism in our school system”.

If only McVicar were right about those equal starting blocks and that prejudice-free education system, Maori and Polynesian kids might have a better chance of matching their Pakeha peers in their 10-plus years of primary and secondary school education.

I don’t usually trawl the web for the trust’s press releases, but this one caught my eye because of a conversation I’d had with friends recently about the nature of privilege. I’m in the camp that believes people who have privileges – white people mostly and white men most of all – are generally oblivious to what they have. Even in countries like ours, which try to provide pathways from disadvantage to success, it’s very, very hard to overcome childhood deprivation. 

Disadvantage and privilege pile up incrementally. My weekend women’s walking group often talks about our young-adult children as we pound around suburban Auckland. The kids have their ups and downs – degrees achieved, papers failed, jobs won, applications rejected – but for all of them, there’s our white, middle-class support system backing them up and moving them up. It’s there from the beginning, in warm houses with books and laptops and full fridges, but it’s still working as they leave school and start making their own study and career decisions. It’s the little things, too – getting mum to help format a uni essay, having straight teeth and the right clothes, having parents who know people who can offer work experience and character references. My company provides internships; they’re unpaid, but useful stepping stones to employment, and certainly to building an attractive CV. Honestly, though, they’re mostly filled by bright, white girls from good schools.

As for the topic of race, I subscribe to American author Fran Lebowitz’s position, in which she says first, it’s only a topic to white people, and second, well-intentioned white people should stop asking, “What would it be like to be black [or brown]?” and to instead seriously consider what it’s like to be white. And that’s to concede that being white is not to talk about levelling the playing field, but to acknowledge that “white people own the playing field”.

One of my walking friends, whose area of expertise is mental health services, has spent many years working to improve the odds for poor South Auckland kids and their families. She puts me on to the leader of her Ko Awatea “Handle the Jandal” community campaign, Alexandra Nicholas. (Jandals are often used as a disciplinary tool in Pacific culture, says Nicholas. HtJ aims to build resilient young Polynesians, capable of handling the pressures of “living in the two worlds”.)

Nicholas, 30, is Cook Islands Maori and was born and raised in South Auckland. She’s a “brown girl” success story, having earned a bachelor of business at AUT and worked her way into her job at Counties-Manukau DHB, but her achievements came with her own mental health challenges and a good dose of that institutional racism McVicar denies exists.

Nicholas still encounters plenty of evidence of it, sometimes meant well, as she trains young leaders from the Pasifika-Maori community, such as the parents who attended a decile 3 school NCEA information night for Polynesian families and were told to push their kids for the minimum number of credits to pass – and weren’t told at all about the higher levels of achievement. As a Samoan father told Nicholas: “Did the teacher give the same message to the Pakeha and Asian parents?”

HtJ was launched in 2012 with a focus on improving mental health among young Pasifika; it’s a “by youth, for youth” movement that’s trained around 200 young leader-mentors in community organising and is now expanding into education, building student leadership teams across South Auckland schools. In April, it jointly won the Youth Group Award at the 2017 New Zealand Youth Awards.  

In the campaign’s Speak Up Challenge that went online last month, participants write on their hand a word that sums up their experience in the school system as a young Polynesian. They then write a brief explanation. “One student wrote the word ‘brown’ on his hand,” says Nicholas. “Underneath, he explained, ‘I thought I had to be white to succeed.’”

As someone who’s never had to contemplate having a different skin colour to succeed, I hope the young man’s expectations are proved wrong.      

                            

 

This was published in the June 2017 issue of North & South.


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