Last week I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Equity Practitioners Conference in Perth. My paper looked at shifting the focus of university’s from recruiting Pasifika students to their institutions as mostly an activity of adding flavour, to a deliberate approach of engaging these communities as a means of facilitating their personal and familial aspirations. At the opening of the conference we were reminded that as equity practitioners our role was to work alongside marginalised communities and not determine their dreams. I was in for a great conference – well at least I thought I was.
As each of the sessions passed my excitement quickly dissipated whilst my anger and frustration grew. I listened to white, middle class practitioners outline strategies on indigenous, Aboriginal cultural competency and when I asked where they got all this knowledge from, was told they had a few informal meetings with some elders. At every session the Australian speakers spouted the same opening lines of “I want to acknowledge the indigenous people of Australia, original custodians of the land.” After the fifth session of this mantra I’d had enough and asked the speaker what she meant by that statement. She looked back at me curiously then took a few minutes to scramble for an answer. I was later told by a friend now working in Australia that public servants get an introduction card which uses that line as a basis for any opening remarks they use in public. Another Australian woman kept quoting my colleague formerly from NZ as a means to justify her position on the issue of race because it was made by “an indigenous Maori woman”. She looked confused and somewhat indignant towards me after I told her that the woman she was making reference to was actually a NZ-born Niuean.
At all but the Aotearoa-led sessions I heard people patting themselves on the back for the great work they were doing to reach under-represented communities. All the Aotearoa sessions were led by Maori and Pasifika colleagues based in Auckland. The difference in the approaches couldn’t have been starker. By the end of the conference I couldn’t wait to get on the plane to come home exhausted from my attempts to get people to think more deeply and critically about the work they were engaged with. Make no mistake about it – we need equity practitioners in tertiary institutions as people who will work alongside marginalised communities. But we need them to deeply understand, appreciate and recognise that these groups of people have hopes, beliefs, ways of life, languages and traditions that are exceptional and unique. It is therefore essential that equity practitioners ensure that they don’t relay indigenous ideas and practices after they’ve been sifted through the lens of privilege and dominance.
Jones (1999) made the observation when working with Maori and Pakeha female postgraduate students, that it wasn’t the natural right of Pakeha students to receive a detailed description on the experiences of their Maori colleagues. Whilst some might argue that everyone benefits from hearing and learning from the indigenous experience, Jones noted that in certain situations, it was only the Pakeha students who would benefit as their existing privilege meant their worldview would mediate the experiences of the other Maori students. This is something that the conference attendees needed to reflect on. In the end the conference was bitterly disappointing. I live these equity conferences every day – where people tell me what and how I am feeling having never walked in my jandals. It exemplifies the patronising practices that we encounter every day, wrapped up in good intentions and well-meaning practitioners. I had been hoping to leave Perth feeling invigorated and inspired. I left with the stinking reminder that the pursuit for equity in higher education still happens from the sidelines.