We must work to replace the automatic and crackpot racist justifications that come too easily to our minds, with narratives that explain structural racism and anti-racism.
ANALYSIS: Nerdery is absolutely what drew me to research. I love to know stuff, to read, to find out what works.
It’s not nerdery for its own sake though. I want to use nerdery to fix buggered-up policy systems. Systems that are unjust, that exclude people, especially young Māori and Pacific people. Systems and processes that lock young people out, stop them from reaching their goals, and makes us all lesser for it.
Take streaming in education as an example. That is where kids are put into different classes and taught differently based on their perceived abilities. It’s called different things: ‘in-class grouping’, ‘banding’. It’s not actually a requirement of any school in this country, and despite years of research showing it is a harmful and racist approach it appears to be hard coded into many school’s practices.
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Tokona Te Raki spent time with young people like Harmony Te Raki and deep in the data looking at the impact of streaming in Aotearoa New Zealand on young people. They found that Māori and Pacific kids are disproportionately streamed into ‘foundational classes’, that is the lowest ability groups.
And once there the expectations that teachers have for Māori and Pacific kids are lowered, the rangatahi themselves come to believe they are capable of less, the opportunities they are offered are limited, and unsurprisingly their education outcomes are made worse.
The impact reveals the reality: by passively continuing with streaming, people across schools in our country are actively growing inequality, whether they intend to or not.
As Dr Eruera Tarena says in the report, “For many Māori and Pasifika students, streaming acts as a gatekeeper, forcing them into low paid, low skilled jobs. We all pay a price for this”.
To make this explicit, we are taking groups of capable kids (the research shows that Māori and Pacific rangatahi with the same or greater abilities than non-Maori and non Pacific kids are more likely to be streamed into lower classes), and treating them as ‘less than’ and giving them less than. This is so utterly stupid it is hard for me to comprehend why we would continue do this given the impact not just on those kids and their whānau, but all of us who benefit from living in a society where everyone gets the opportunity to thrive. That is where stories and narratives come into play.
The stories to justify the racism
The work of Ibram X Kendi is enlightening and helpful here. Kendi argues that we have created stories and ideas to justify and hold in place unjust, harmful and racist policies and practices sometimes set up decades, centuries before. Stories that attempt to explain away the impacts of unjust policies as an issue of individual difference (aka deficits) in entire ethnic and racial groups (let’s just call them what they are: racist ideas).
You hear it in education to justify streaming of Māori and Pacific kids, in justice to explain away the differences in the rates of crime between Māori and non-Māori youth. I hear them in my own mind at times to be perfectly honest. It’s the water I swim in. At its worst these racist ideas are internalised by the young people themselves, leading to self blame.
And it is total bullshit. Quality research, in Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas is damn clear that policies, practices and structures, especially racist ones, shape our lives and outcomes to a far greater extent than any individual, especially ethnic or racial, differences.
Kendi’s argument is that because the racist ideas and stories come after the racist policies and practices to justify the unjustifiable, the solution we need is less talk and more anti-racist action. That is the implementation of policies and practices that are proven to reduce inequities between groups. For example, getting rid of streaming in schools and building education practices that respond to the needs of all kids.
It doesn’t matter what you spend time saying (“we want to get rid of racism in schools”) or what you intend (“I’m just here for educational opportunity for all”), Kendi argues, the effective and important work is implementing policies or practices that practically work to overcome the imbalances that the racist policies created in the first place. And this is why anti-racism needs nerds.
Nerds needed for anti-racism
What the streaming example shows is that racism gets coded into our systems. And like a computer programme we regularly run we may be unaware of the code behind it. We don’t have to have negative intentions (maybe we are even aware of and care about racism) to still run a programme with code that hurts young Māori and Pacific people. I know I have been part of such systems and probably still am.
So this is where we need the data (and the nerds that wrangle it), Kendi argues, to reveal whether there is racist coding within a system by documenting the actual outcomes, and showing what works to change it.
Revealing the racist code in policies needs good analysis – research on the outcomes, metrics and data to show the effect of a policy on different ethnic groups. Is the metric showing an anti-racist outcomes, regardless of the intent of the individuals involved? If the data shows a policy achieves equity, overcomes barriers put up in front of people because of their ethnicity or race, reduces the privileges given to white people alone, it’s anti-racist. So we need more nerds for anti-racism.
Of course there is a lot more to it than that.
It’s a compelling argument, moving past measuring rhetoric and words from people of all political persuasion, to measuring outcomes. Have you actually reprogrammed the system? It’s one that nerds and wonks are familiar with – measure what actually works. The difference here is that “what works” should not be neutral on racism. It is about “what works to be anti-racist”.
So how do you get people, many of whom have never experienced racism, have benefited from racist code, who don’t even see it, to care about and act on anti-racism without getting fragile about their own part in it? How do you do anti-racism in a way that moves beyond a focus on individuals overcoming their “bias” to a much more scaled and collective response led by people with power in a system?
Anti-racism narratives to build understanding
To embed anti-racist economic, health, and education policies and practices at the right level, far enough upstream in our systems, still needs a lot of people, including white people, to understand how racist (and anti-racist) coding works and why it matters and what the more hopeful alternative is.
That means moving people who, in the main, conceptualise racism as one or a group of individuals engaging in an explicitly racist act towards another individual, to better understand and support effective anti-racist ways of working.
It means moving them from thinking about individual acts (eg, unconscious bias) to structural actions (anti-racist policies), from the intent to not be racist (rhetoric) to leading on anti-racist impact (asking for anti-racist outcomes). From a focus on the perpetrators of racism (let’s do some internal training) to a focus on the wellbeing of those who experience it (the outcomes that have meaning for those communities most excluded), and more widely the improved future that is possible for us all.
Perhaps this is where the public narratives can help. Replacing the automatic and crackpot racist justifications that come too easily to our minds, with narratives that explain structural racism and anti-racism. Finding and practicing narratives that the research shows build support for anti-racism as a concept and engender action for the policies that Kendi says have to be proven to be anti-racist.
Racist narratives are already well established, resourced and supported, in politics, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our minds (mine included). To counter and replace them, we need to tip the scales in favour of anti-racism and bring clarity to anti-racist narratives. To find narratives, language and frames for everyday people to grasp, narratives that will open a side door for them to consider what is at stake for them, for all of us and what the opportunity is.
Without these narratives, the necessary mindset shifts are hard to make. And without those mindset shifts among people who don’t spend their lives deep in the research on racism and anti-racism, the risk is that our best anti-racist policies fail to get the support they need to achieve large-scale change, or the racist coding gets programmed back in.
I suspect, or rather I hypothesise, because I don’t have the research specific to Aotearoa New Zealand, that these narratives are going to need to find ways to articulate how anti-racism is an act of solidarity between communities. One that will bring us together in our differences to do the right thing for groups of young people who are being locked out of opportunity. Honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi offers enormous opportunities in this space.
As Eruera said to me, Te Tiriti could be seen as an anti-racist charter, and it certainly makes us unique on the global stage. There is a powerful story in an agreement that our tūpuna and ancestors made together with intentions for a future where all of us thrived. That is the opportunity that anti-racism offers.
More to read and listen to on this: