In a tired and tiring act of privilege protection, a number of Auckland University academics published a collective letter to the editor of The Listener today. I can’t say I’m grateful for it, one is never grateful for racism, but out of the weekly (if not daily) attacks from the righteous white right, this one can at least serve as bold evidence for the endurance of white supremacy within academia and science.
I have spent a decent amount of my employed hours illustrating the role of colonialism and racism in science in order to grow a more just and robust approach to science, and in that work I encounter my fair share of gaslighting. It’s not uncommon that those I work with either believe that colonialism in science is a thing of the past, if it ever existed at all. Many believe that scientific racism cannot exist in the “hard science” of laboratories and observations. Most believe that if racism is present in science it is an aberration.
But this letter, in all of its unsolicited glory, is a true testament to how racism is harboured and fostered within New Zealand academia (as a part of a global system that also harbours and fosters racism) – it is so normalised that people can hold senior academic positions whilst holding and promoting harmful discriminatory views towards marginalised groups.
It’s a very handy example for us to illustrate the work that remains to be done within universities if it ever aspires to deserve the title of the critic and conscience of society, and the work remaining within science and academia if it ever hopes to earn the trust of marginalised communities. It’s also a helpful collection of the very weak arguments that feature in academic racism. More often than not, scientists are afraid to give voice to such positions, because of potential career implications (for, you know…. being racist). Policies of consequence for racism are necessary and just – but in the absence of anti-racism education it means that people merely suppress rather than dispel racist ideas.
So anyway, let’s have a look at this letter for the resource that it is. Without a doubt this will be an educational resource for generations to showcase the absurdity of racism, so let’s get that ball rolling.
The first thing to note is that all of these authors are white, writing about the Māori school curriculum. It’s important because positionality and critical reflection matters. None of these authors have been or will be primarily impacted by the intergenerational dispossession or denigration of Mātauranga Māori. None of them have been beneficiaries of, or will be beneficiaries of the Māori school curriculum. This of course has never halted the likes of Elizabeth Rata from attacking Māori knowledge and education systems before, and Māori scholars such as Leonie Pihama and Jenny Lee have deftly deconstructed her attacks on Māori for many years now. It’s also important because Elizabeth Rata’s use of her ex-spousal surname and her career of writing about Māori (albeit in attack mode) can sometimes mislead people into thinking she is Māori and overestimate the validity of her reckons. She is not Māori, she is pākehā, and writes for racist pākehā think tanks.
“Disturbing misunderstandings of science”
So after raising concerns about the NCEA changes to the Māori school curriculum, the authors cite the proposed changes, which address issues of eurocentrism and scientific domination, as evidence of “disturbing misunderstandings of science” throughout science funding and policy that encourage mistrust in science as a discipline. The statement that “science is universal, not necessarily western european” wilfully and conveniently ignores that there are well-acknowledged limits to any notion of universality. This is a cheap attempt to corral science under colonialism. Scientific methods and philosophy are anything but universal. The authors know this because in spite of trying to apply the universal ideal, they still acknowledge that there are variations in approaches and prescribed validity.
Science is also not confined to method and philosophy. Like all other social institutions, science has its own power structure and it has developed power hierarchies over time precisely because of its involvement in the global colonial project. When I refer to knowledge systems I mean research, education, academia, scientific practice and publications, the evaluation and funding of science, the access to science and the legitimacy of science and its relationship to policy and government. It is a complex structure, the history of which is rooted in a period called The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment period, as the foundation of modern intellectual theory, was overseen by scientists and philosophers who were investors and clients of the slave trade and Imperial dispossession of Indigenous territories the world over, and their work supported those practices. Enlightenment period “research” topics and hypotheses included how to whip an African most effectively, that Indigenous brains were smaller than European brains (making them less intelligent), and that Africans were only slightly more evolved than monkeys. Many of these philosophers and scientists are still upheld and taught in scientific theory today. The power structures that have privileged Europeans economically over time, are the same power structures that have privileged European knowledge systems over time, and just as the economic power and privilege of these events endure today, so too does the privilege and power within the science sector still endure today. The authors cite Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece, and “medieval Islam” as one-time contributors to science, which was then developed by Europe, USA, and a “strong presence” by Asia.
I’m gonna give that it’s own paragraph so we can consider that again, and keep in mind this is written by people who TEACH scientists.
The authors suggest that Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece and “medieval Islam” contributed to this singular science tradition, and it was THEN developed by Europe, the USA, and sometimes Asia.
The authors have also, presumably wilfully, ignored the role Eurocentric science has played in dispossessing those same peoples of their cultural artefacts because of the racist position, based on racist science, that they were not advanced enough to care for their own artefacts. A racist presumption that still endures in arguments against their repatriation today.
“Science itself does not colonize. It has been used to aid colonisation”
Well it’s hardly a revelation that it takes people to colonise. This is rather akin to the National Rifle Association mantra “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.
If it makes it easier for you to understand, Liz, Kendall & Co:
Science itself is not being regulated. The people who carry it out are.
The next apparent attempt to defend the intrinsic good of science comes in the form of:
“Science is helping us battle worldwide crises such as covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation”
No Lizendall, GOOD SCIENCE has helped us battle worldwide crises. Crap science has hindered our efforts in those places. Crap science has denied climate change. Crap science has sought to justify further extraction from the environment. Crap scientists have contributed to COVID denial and vaccine hesitation.
Good science in all of the above cases supports science that is (at a minimum) inclusive of, relevant to and accessible to the local context. In Aotearoa, that local context is unavoidably Māori.
And inspite of the authors’ incredibly patronising attitude towards Indigenous knowledge, it’s actually Indigenous science and practice that is the reason behind 80% of the world’s biodiversity being in Indigenous territories, and Indigenous managed forests outperforming all others in carbon sequestration. Indigenous communities have the longest standing record in biodiversity management, and after those thousands of years of success, in just a few short centuries of European domination we are facing an existential crisis.
So in fact, it’s more accurate to say that Indigenous science systems far outstrip Eurocentric science systems in combatting environmental degradation (which is also a major contributor to the formation of pandemics and inhibits successful COVID responses). Which brings us to the next gem…
“The future of our world and species cannot afford mistrust of science”
Look, Lizendallobarthoglas, if you really want to deal with mistrust in science then here are two great ways to do that:
- Deal with white supremacy in science. People don’t trust science because it’s been dominated by elitist tossers for centuries. Ahem.
- And secondly – deal with the right wing white supremacists that dominate science deniers. You know like Trump who slashed science funding (along with health and environmental funding) and ran his campaign on disinformation tactics, like his mates Johnson and Bolsonaro. Overarchingly overseas it has been white supremacist leaders who have denied science and fostered populations of science deniers under their watch. Similarly it’s pākehā-led lobby groups that are leading the resistance to evidence based policy on the environment and health.
But I think we all know by now this isn’t actually about science.
That becomes startlingly clear in the following paragraph, which really is the pinnacle of this Mt Cleese masterpiece….
“Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.”Kendarthohbethelas
So…. in 1500BC, while ancient Europeans were still dipping their toes in the duck pond of the Mediterranean, and some 3000 years before they even knew of our existence, Māori ancestors were somehow navigating, mapping, and observing the largest water body on earth…. without science.
They somehow managed to develop their own medical disciplines, their own aquacultural and horticultural technological innovations, their own calendrical systems and incredibly sophisticated celestial tracking systems…. without science.
The most basic premise of knowledge systems is that knowledge is produced by science. To acknowledge knowledge requires you to acknowledge the science that created it.
Because we’ve by now abandoned all reason, we finally have a contextual home for the final statement that respecting Mātauranga Māori is “patronising”: That home being the land of Dr Seuss.
Unless, of course, we accept the aforementioned suggestion that this isn’t actually a defence of science in the first place.
The authors, in their desperation to protect their own privilege, comfort and relevance have ultimately defeated themselves, and exposed their letter for what it is, not actually a defence of science at all, but a defence of colonial racism.
This post will also be forwarded to Auckland University. If you would also like to write to Auckland University about this letter, here are some UoA leadership addresses for you:
PVC Māori: firstname.lastname@example.org
PVC Pacific: email@example.com
Don’t just do it for racism, do it for good science.
And please feel free to download and share this gif along with those addresses:
Addendum: I have heard it whispered that one of the authors (not Rata) “has Māori ancestry” and if that is true I certainly stand corrected that that person is most definitely an example of the impacts of intergenerational dispossession of Mātauranga Māori.