By: Dr Ann Milne

Papahueke by Blaine Te Rito


The question in the title to this blog is my usual response to the question I am regularly asked after talks and workshops about Colouring in the White Spaces in our education system. Someone will ask, “How is all this relevant to me when I don’t have any/many Māori children in my school?” My answer is usually met with an uncomfortable silence.

What are White Spaces?

The original artwork (above) was gifted to me by Maori artist and master carver, Blaine Te Rito, to open my doctoral thesis and my book. It is a powerful interpretation of the idea of White spaces. Blaine explains that the circle represents the importance of pre-colonial Māori and Pacific societal structures: education, language, culture, spirituality, and environmental resources. The break in the circle represents the disruption, through colonisation and Christianity, the White spaces that were incurred as a result, and the impossibility of re-completing the circle with pieces or structures that are a completely different shape and are never going to fit. Blaine called the piece Papahueke, which means to be unyielding in the face of this opposition.

Although, internationally, there is a significant body of research on Whiteness and White privilege (for example, see herehere, and here), in Aotearoa New Zealand we have been largely silent about White spaces in our “Whitestream” schools. The racist backdrop that is pervasive in our education system creates and perpetuates the White spaces that marginalise and alienate our Māori learners, yet it is a backdrop that we rarely name as being a problem.

As Pākehā teachers and school leaders, we might not understand this, but when I interviewed senior Māori students in Kia Aroha College about the White spaces they had encountered in their schooling experience, they identified these spaces all too easily.  Most telling of all was the comment from a student that goes straight to the root of the problem: “White spaces are everywhere,” she said, “even in your head.”

Changing that space

And that monocultural, Eurocentric thinking “in our heads” is the key space that we need to address, because we each have the power to make that personal change. For too long, the majority of Pākeha in Aotearoa New Zealand have shied away from those words that make us uncomfortable, like White supremacy, White privilege, White fragility, Whiteness and racism. This discomfort is the reason why the second question I’m asked most often, usually by individuals who come up to me after a talk, is why am I using the word, “White.” I ask what word they would like me to use? The inevitable answer is “New Zealander.” One young man, who chased me some distance to make his objection known, added ageism to his racism when he informed me it was a “generational thing” but he and his friends preferred to be called New Zealanders.

Statistics NZ found that when a “New Zealander” category was added as an ethnicity option in the 2006 Census, those who chose it were overwhelmingly from the New Zealand European group.  Māori however, have no similar confusion about the difference between nationality and ethnicity, or culture. Penetito explains,

“When they think about culture, Māori are likely to be thinking of their identity, their whakapapa (genealogy), which carries with it the notion of determinism”, which includes “notions of biology, genetics, and inheritance, making it equivalent to the concept of race and ethnicity”.

My choice of the word, “White” is a deliberate naming of our unwillingness to see this difference. Kegler calls our use of neutral or more comfortable terms, “the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.” As she explains, the only people fooled by our “linguistic gymnastics” and “whitesplaining”—that is, by our choice of words we find more acceptable, like “casual racism,” or “unconscious bias”—are White people.  There are no degrees of racism, no levels to filter its effect, yet, even when we are faced with hard evidence, as in the racist conversation overheard after a car hire salesperson forgot to end his phone message to my adult granddaughter a few months ago, commenters were reluctant to call racism what it is.

Understanding the pervasive Whiteness in our schools and classrooms is crucial if we want to make change for our Māori and Pasifika learners, but the fact is that in 2017 in New Zealand:

  • 73% of all teachers are Pākehā
  • 80% of school management and leadership positions are held by Pākehā
  • 73% of all teachers are female

Yet the groups our education system fails most consistently are Māori and Pasifika boys, followed by Māori and Pasifika girls.  This means there is a huge gap in the understanding of the lived realities of the children we need to make the biggest changes for, and this gap is the real space our professional development needs to target—not how to get better literacy and numeracy outcomes! Unfortunately, this thinking escapes us completely as we are coerced through offers of targeted funding into Communities of Learning to address the perceived deficits in Māori boys’ writing (or Māori girls’ writing, or, Pasifika boys’ and girls’ reading, writing, and maths). I live in hope that the abolition of National Standards and other promises by the incoming government might be a first step in changing these priorities and allowing schools to define their own community, as my recent ULearn17 keynote argued.

So who needs to learn most about White privilege?

People learn about privilege when they don’t have it. As Pākehā, our privilege is accepted as “normal” because we never have to think about it, and this starts from birth. Māori, on the other hand, have had generations of learning about who has power and who benefits from it.

About 12 years ago, I searched high and low for Christmas presents for my twin granddaughters, Kohanga Reo babies from a few months old, who had asked for dolls. I wanted dolls that looked like them. After aisle upon aisle of white, blonde dolls I gave up and ordered two brown dolls online from America. The girls took one look at the brown dolls, then threw them in the corner pronouncing they were “ugly,” thus confirming the famous experiment by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark with brown and white dolls in the 1940s, and repeated here by a USA high school student in 2006. Using the twins’ thoroughly discarded dolls, a group of Kia Aroha College students repeated the Clark experiment in 2008, with five-year old Māori children in a Māori immersion class, with the same result. If we want to counter the reproduction of these normative beliefs in our children, we need to start early.

We need to teach Pākehā children that there are reasons why, from the moment they are born, due to no conscious action on their part, they are far less likely:

The reason we need to teach Pākehā children about privilege is not to make them feel guilt—it is to make sure they do not grow up to perpetuate the situation.

Teaching children the old adage that we don’t “see colour” isn’t helpful, and is privilege in itself. Of course we see colour! Seeing, understanding, and being aware of colour allows us to examine our attitudes and beliefs towards people who are different from ourselves. Being White shouldn’t mean we can remain ‘invisible’ because our culture, our identity, just “is” like the air we breathe.Knowing that our undeserved sense of entitlement and our unacknowledged privilege impact negatively on other people, and can be changed once we understand them, is a lesson our Pākehā children have the right to learn so they can contribute to a more equitable future, and do better than we have done in the past. We are selling our Pākehā children short if we don’t engage them in this learning.

Māori and Pasifika children have the right to the same lesson for different reasons. Without it, they will continue to believe, amplified by our education system, that their position at the bottom of all our statistics is their fault. They have the absolute right to critical, and culturally sustaining pedagogy that gives them the same educational sovereignty as their Pākehā peers—a right to educational pathways “as Māori” that are not reduced to limited, White norms and definitions of “success.” This is the responsibility of all educators and all schools.

Source: NZARE Te Ipu Kererū – this article has been re-published with permission by the author.


  1. If, as you imply here, the reasons for the lag in maori statistics is solely due to systemic discrimination, unconscious bias and ‘white’ thinking then you remove all hope for maori in one stroke. Because the fact that they are a minority group is never going to change. ‘White’ thought or Western culture is the dominant force in NZ and beyond in the wider world. However, if instead you accept that different ethnic groups have more in common as human beings in terms of the factors that determine their success than they do differences, then there is hope. This involves recognising that science and reason are not just ‘white’ thinking but the most powerful tool we have to determine the causes and solutions to problems, a tool that belongs to all of humanity.

    • No hope is removed at all. The mere fact that Maori have succeeded to survive against all the odds described here, is testament to Maori survival and ability to thrive … even as a minority … Actually, as an indigenous race, Maori united with other indigenous of the same mind, are actually the majority!

      Hope lies in tools of humanity, yes. But, as the article eloquently points out, white thinking has excluded white people from being human, in the very acts of violations against other humans. So Pakeha children need to learn about what white privilege does to dehumanise themselves by dehumanising others, to avoid perpetrating the situation. Well done, Dr Milne, keep on educating!!

  2. “—it is to make sure they do not grow up to perpetuate the situation.”

    Pakeha do not perpetuate the situation, it’s people like you who teach young Maori that they cannot succeed because the world is full of bigotry that perpetuate the situation, you teach a child that they cannot succeed, and guess what, by doing so you’ve just ensured that they’ll fail.

    You perpetrate the most insidious form of racism, a form that destroys the will of those best in a position to improve Maori socio-economic success, you destroy young Maori peoples self-belief.

    • Pakeha thinking perpetrates the situation. Pakeha thinking destroys young Maori people’s self-belief.

      Look at the history of legislation that denies Maori access to Maori education, Maori culture, Maori medicine, Maori performing art, Maori land, Maori waterways, Maori foreshore, Maori seabed, Maori forestry, the list goes on and on and on, etc, etc. All the thing’s that grow Maori self belief and socio-economic success has attempted to destroy Maori.

      However Maori live on and thrive despite. Thanks for the comment though. Mihi ki a koe Dr Milne. Kia Kaha.

  3. This line of identity politics simply perpetuates division between class and culture, you should be ashamed of yourself for indoctrinating children with your insidious and destructive ideologies.No good will come from this train of thought, ironically it will simply continue the destructive cycle of discrimination that you so self righteously seek to dismantle.

    • So funny … you are talking about the NZ education system? Indoctrinating children was the intention of the Native Schools Act 1952 and yes, the ideologies were insidious and destructive, with no good coming from it. Unfortunately it continued the destructive cycle of discrimination you speak about, which is why Dr Milne’s article is so important in teaching general NZ about white privilege and thinking to break the cycle.

      Thank you Dr Milne for providing a valuable resource. I have many Pakeha colleagues who agree with it and are certainly open to dismantle and system that perpetuates white thinking. Well done!!

  4. This is not about identity politics but all about trying to reach equality where there is little. The divisions already exist, all the negative indicators are out there. It never surprises me when mostly pakeha attack commentaries like the authors, these people who are first to complain about changing the status quo give the impression that they are battling with white quilt


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