Week in Review

I’m a nice white parent - and we have work to do

When Pākehā parents put the needs of their individual child over the needs of Māori and Pacific communities to thrive, it is a problem for all of us, says Jess Berentson-Shaw

I'm listening to a great podcast at the moment. Nice White Parents is the story of the informal segregation of white and Black and Hispanic children within the New York School system. It tells a fascinating and dispiriting story that starts in schools in the 1960s and continues today.

The story is this: a group of seemingly well-intentioned white parents, who just want what is best for their kids, work together using all their advantage and influence to ensure their kids gain maximum opportunities. They appear oblivious to the opportunities Black and Hispanic kids don't get as a result of the funnelling of resources to their own kids. Sometimes their actions actively block Black and Hispanics kids from getting the same opportunities. They are just “looking out for their kids”.

The tale of the parents who set up a separate fundraising committee and use their background in professional fundraising, to bring in money only for the new French programme that only the new white kids attend in a low-income mainly black and hispanic school is particularly unedifying.

But this column is not just a podcast recommendation.

Within days of starting to listen to this podcast I saw this exact pattern of behaviour in a New Zealand setting, a university even, and it doesn't stop there.

The nice white parents of medical school

Every year there are plenty of bright young people who want to get into medical school. Many are products of the great opportunities those with money and connections have access to in New Zealand: private education; tutoring if they need it; many enriching experiences that help kids develop like after-school activities and trips away; plentiful food; warm stable housing across their schooling life; internet access whenever they need it; early introduction to the culture of the formal learning systems, and teachers and parents who believe in their abilities.

They get great grades, but they don't get into medical school. It's a major disappointment, of course it is, to not get what you are aiming for in life.

But it is what some people do with that disappointment that is the problem.

Families see Māori and Pacific people entering medical school under the priority pathway system, and according to various people who know about such things, parents complain and make life difficult for the people at medical school about the programme. Meanwhile reports of threats of legal action by disgruntled parents have now been confirmed.

It is a little ironic that parents who complain about their own child’s unique skills and competencies “being lost to medicine” due to the priority pathway system, can’t see that particular system is there to bring greater competency and unique expertise (in the form of Māori and Pacific expertise) into our medical profession. The goal being to improve health outcomes.

It is interesting also that these complaints don’t seem to centre around either the rural quotient or the low socioeconomic community quotient. I am not sure if there even  is a disability quotient (a whole other story).

Recently it was revealed that the University of Otago is looking to change its policy for Māori and Pacific entry into the medical programme. Previously not capped, it is proposing to limit Māori and Pacific students entry through the “Mirror on Society” programme.

I don't know if the medical school is changing its entry criteria because nice Pākehā parents keep objecting to a policy that helps ensure this country's healthcare systems works better for Māori and Pacific communities. They say the legal action has not influenced them. But the dots are there to join.

It had me reflecting on the power that nice white parents exert in this country to block the opportunities of so many young Pacific and Māori people. And how the institutions that are there to support all our young people actually enable this behaviour, instead of sticking to policies that have the potential to improve outcomes for entire communities and hence all of us.

What is good for Māori is good for everyone

Advocates and scholars are often heard to say, when talking about any policies and practices that focus on the needs of Māori, that what is good for Māori is good for everyone.

For me, as a Pākehā woman, this means something to me at both the individual and the society wide level.

First, at the structural level, many of us understand that, like our bodies, if one part is hurting or injured, then we cannot function as well. We cannot separate out pain in one part of the system from pain across the entire system. New Zealand society is like this.

We share resources, we work together across communities to build businesses, do research, create our health system, make policy, raise children and educate them. Together we look after our environment, and together we respond to Covid-19.

When one part of our community, maybe living in a different place, with a different worldview and experiences from us, is hurt by the way we currently make decisions, make policy, and behave, as we know Māori and Pacific communities are, then solving that pain, stopping it from happening benefits us all.

Currently only 3.5 percent of our doctors are Māori and and 1.8 percent are Pacific people (there are no Māori or Pacific doctors working in quite a few speciality areas, including sexual health, according to the Medical Council Workforce survey).

Across New Zealand 16.5 percent of us are Māori and 8.1 percent are Pacific. Even more telling is the multitude of health deficit data that gets constantly reported on every year in relation to Māori and Pacific people, that does not for non-Māori and non-Pacific people.

The health need is great and our health system and our society needs more Māori and Pacific people working in it, learning in it, and ultimately running it. It will help, along with other systemic changes, improve health outcomes.

More generally, young Māori and Pacific people need to be seen and treated by all of us as the leaders and innovators they already are, in health and outside of it. Living in a society that so limits and ignores the needs, lives and goals of an entire group of people because of who they are is a deep injustice that needs righting. No society thrives where injustice is minimised and accepted.That is how we will all do better. It just makes damn good sense.

At the individual level, I think about how my family would do better in a health system oriented towards Māori and Pacific worldviews and practices of health. I think of the many hurtful experiences I have had in a health system overloaded with stress, not able to focus on the wider causes and impacts of health or mental health problems we have faced as a family. A health system that is deeply invested in models of wellbeing that go beyond the physical self, as Māori and Pacific models of health wellbeing do, would likely encourage widespread acceptance of broader more holistic ways of delivering health to everyone.

Nice Pākeha parents have influence everywhere

When Pākehā parents put the needs of their individual child over the needs of Māori and Pacific communities to thrive, and ultimately all of our needs, it is a problem for all of us.

When Pākehā institutions fold to the power of these groups of noisy individuals it is a problem for all of us. It is a problem not limited to health. In education, streaming practices - something supported by Pākehā parents particularly (though not exclusively)- have worked to keep Māori and Pacific children from the opportunity to thrive in education.

As a friend of mine who is a teacher said to me, when she walked into her new school, and her home class was primarily Māori and Pacific kids who had been streamed there her heart sank. She knew  this meant they would experience schooling differently from the kids put in the higher stream and that their opportunities would be limited. While her school has now scrapped streaming, it persists in other schools. The Ministry of Education could prohibit this practice, something Tokona te Raki, has emphasized repeatedly.  

Housing is also rife with it. At the moment there is a clash in my local area about the proposed intensification of housing. It will, if it gets through, be a policy that helps low income families, families currently excluded from housing, gain the opportunity to raise their children in stable homes (if it is done well).

The desire of existing (often Pākehā) residents, who want to retain their restored villa on a garden section, with sunlight and ‘a nice community’ as they define it, leads to extreme push back against the changes that frightens people in councils. This push back may include legitimate concerns about housing standards and heritage status, but these are issues that need to be addressed at the national housing policy level.

The desire to maintain the current status quo, and the resources brought to bear by people in these groups to do so, ultimately ends up blocking the sharing of the advantage of a stable home in a welcoming community with others.Housing, health, education, justice, everywhere in the formal and informal spaces of our communities, nice white parents need to do better to support Māori and Pacific people and all our communities to make New Zealander fairer for all of us, not just some.

Nice Pākehā parents need to act for other people’s children too

As my seven year old said to me, when I asked 'what do you need to be a good doctor?':  “You need to be kind and to know how to make people feel okay about being in hospital, and maybe be smart”.

There is more at stake here in the medical school issue (and across society) for all of us than simply disappointed parents and children. It's about our collective needs.

Lifting our gaze as nice white parents from our own children to all the children and people across our communities, using our resources, power and influence for this work, that is what we can do for each other.

We can use our influence to advocating and support programmes like WhyOra, and priority pathway programmes in education, and their equivalent in other sectors. While the institutions that represent all of us need to get on board, stay the course and use their power to stand up for the young people who need them, not just those who want them too.

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