Sunday, 29 March 2015

'I, Too, Am Auckland' and Racism in the Academy

In the past few weeks 3 video's have appeared on Facebook produced as part of a research project on racism in the academy.  Motivated by a project on racism in the U.S Academy called 'I, Too, Am Harvard', ' I, Too, Am Auckland' is a project undertaken by Maori and Pacifica students at the University of Auckland and guided by a member of the Department of Sociology, Dr David Mayeda.  The project also involved a number of Pacifica and Maori members of staff, some of whom appear in the third video that deals with perceptions of  targeted admission schemes. 

As someone currently researching the topic of racism within the Academy, and particularly within my discipline, criminology, the material produced by Dr Mayeda and his research team is a godsend.  To my knowledge, the project represents the first significant social science research on academic racism in Aotearoa/New Zealand; well at least one that goes out of its way to share the lived experiences of participants.  The videos that are embedded below provide details of the many and varied micro-aggressions utilised by racist assholes (my interpretation and expression, not those involved in the project!) to belittle and disempower their fellow students; descriptions enriched with the lived experiences of the participants. The decision to use video to transmit the experiences of participants was inspired as reading about them on the printed page, while important, does not have the same impact as being able to see people speak for themselves.    

One of the issues raised by participants was that academics were also responsible for behaviour they experienced as disempowering. This comes as no surprise to me, having experienced racist conduct at various points in my career, and having recently conducted research that involved Indigenous colleagues in New Zealand, Australia and North America recount numerous stories of racist, unethical conduct they had experienced during their time in the Academy.  But it does trouble me greatly that Maori and Pacifica students are also experiencing this type of behaviour from people who are meant to be working to create a safe environment for their learning.

The fact that students involved in 'I Too, Am Auckland' project reported experiencing disempowering conduct by academics, places recent statements by a spokesperson for the University of Auckland, in an interesting light.  On the weekend media asked for the University's response, which pretty much followed the standard, 'dot point', 'drag sh*t from the strategy document' response institutions rely on in the face of criticism or research that does not present the organisation in the positive light it prefers: the response was of the 'if racism occurs students should report it' and 'the University supports Maori and Pacifica students', etc, etc, kind... well for me the experiences of the students presented in the videos kinda makes these 'strategic statements' appear a little vacuous.

If the micro-aggressions and racist conduct are being perpetrated by staff, what are the chances that students will feel empowered enough, or safe enough, to report it?  After all, we are talking about students having to go up against the weight of an institution that, in my experience, will be hell bent on killing off the issue as quickly as possible.  And often 'killing off the issue' involves turning the problem back on the Maori or Pacifica student or academic, in a process that can involve a whole range of silencing strategies, from dismissives like 'you are being too sensitive' to 'your response was angry and/or aggressive'.  In other words, the focus moves from the racist act, to our response, or even (as reported by academics in my research) on the fact that we actually made a complaint, as in 'your complaint makes the institution look bad'! Seriously, this shit happens; I'm not making it up.

Anyway, back to 'I, Too, Am Auckland'.  There are so many things about the project and those involved in it to praise, including the fact that it provides further evidence of the widespread racism that occurs at academic institutions; grounded in the lived experiences of Maori and Pacifica students and academics.  But what I find most impressive is that the research took place at all given the increasing corporatisation of the tertiary education sector.  The neo-liberal education policies of recent governments have created tertiary institutions that are hyper-sensitive to research, publications and dialogue that throws anything less than a positive light on their business.  If you think about it, this situation is kind of funny given that so much of the research activity of said institutions involves critical analysis of a whole range of external institutions and their activities, including government agencies... but turn your critical gaze towards the universities themselves and sit back and watch the dummy fly across the room... but I digress: 

I am calling the research for what it is... bold, powerful and heartening. 

Bold - because it takes guts to stand up and be heard.

Powerful - because the methodology that drives the project empowers the participants to speak for themselves, thus ensuring their experiences and perspectives are the focus of the work, and not, as often occurs in academic research, mediated through the interpretative lens of an academic.  This is Indigenous Emancipatory Methodology, or Kaupapa Maori Research, or whatever term you prefer, at its best.

Heartening - because despite dealing with serious issues that can and do negatively impact Maori and Pacifica students, the project highlights a number of positives, including a) the aroha (love) and support the students give to each other, b) the depth of their strength and resilience in the face of adversity, and c) the commitment Maori and Pacifica (and no doubt some non-Maori and Pacifica) staff have to support them to succeed.

I am thankful to all those involved in the project for their wonderful, insightful work.  I am especially thankful to the students involved, and in awe of them, because if they are willing to stand up and speak out while they are STILL enrolled in their studies, given the power institutions can weld over them, just imagine what they will do when they graduate.  

Despite the racism and micro-aggressions, the students (clearly supported by Maori and Pacifica staff, and each other) are getting on with their mahi ('stuff') and succeeding.  Now imagine how much easier things would be if the White Privileged Academy got over itself, and responded meaningfully and with purpose, to the racist assholes that exist in its midst.  

The videos are inserted below:

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