I, Too, Am Auckland: Combating Racialized Microaggressions

Just over a year ago, a group of African American students at Harvard University initiated the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, exposing the racialized microaggressions black students at Harvard face. According to Columbia University Professor Derald Sue and colleagues, microaggressions are a contemporary form of racism, which can be defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group” (p. 273). In this post, David Mayeda overviews the “I, Too, Am Auckland” movement, where Māori and ethnically diverse Pacific students describe the lexicon of microaggressions they face, how they and their peers cope with racially disparaging actions, and how we as a society can overcome racial inequalities.

For the last seven months, six University of Auckland students and I worked diligently on a projected titled, “I, Too, Am Auckland.” Building off the widely successful “I, Too, Am Harvard” project and the university campaigns that followed at Oxford, Cambridge, and Sydney, our project speaks to the seemingly subtle, covert but still very damaging racism directed towards Māori and Pacific university students in Aotearoa New Zealand.

To provide some context, in New Zealand, Māori are the indigenous population who have undergone waves of colonialism and face marginalization in society that is similar to indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada and Australia. Pacific peoples have ancestries tied to Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tokelau, Vanuatu, Hawai’i, French Polynesia/Tahiti, and many other Pacific islands/nations. Most Pacific nations also underwent European colonization, and notably in New Zealand, Pacific people were recruited to work in factories during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, valued predominantly for their unskilled labor.

At present time, Māori and Pacific people, on average, experience economic deprivation, are profiled negatively in mainstream media, must overcome racialized barriers in education, and show poor health indicators. Despite these trends, numerous Māori and Pacific peoples break the stereotypes, succeeding in a Eurocentric society, including in institutions of higher education.

Hence, our “I, Too, Am Auckland” project was designed with multiple objectives. Using modern technology as a platform, the project perpetuates Māori and Pacific peoples’ cultural traditions that value oral histories. Our team interviewed over 40 Māori and Pacific students majoring in a wide range of disciplinary areas. And while our video project did not follow strict research procedures, the project is based off scientific research with Māori and Pacific communities.

Our first video, “Experiences” (above) presents several stories, first showcasing how racism has shifted in contemporary society, now expressed through racialized microaggressions, something a participant terms, “soft racism.” Soft racism at the university level occurs when majority-group students make “subtle” (and sometimes not so subtle) comments that suggest Māori and Pacific students have not earned their place in the university and do not deserve to be there.

This story, however, is not confined to students, as participants also describe how university teaching staff sometimes contribute to a culture that belittles Māori and Pacific communities (or don’t address them at all), thereby contributing to a dominant culture that harms some Māori and Pacific students very significantly. In short, the problem is not merely interpersonal, but also institutional. This piece closes out, however, with participants displaying strength, articulating how they deflect racialized microaggressions and turn them into motivation. Clearly they are not passive victims.

Our second video, “Targeted Admission Schemes/Tuākana” (above) was designed to explain the targeted admission schemes at our university, or what some may call “affirmative action” policies, which allow small numbers of Māori and Pacific students admission into certain disciplines with slightly lower grades. Those who perpetrate microaggressions frequently cite these policies to say Māori and Pacific students don’t belong.

Providing greater insight and expertise, this video augments student interviews with university staff, who explain that these policies are not affirmative action, but restorative justice – rectifying historical and ongoing forms of systemic racism so that today’s playing field is a bit more level. Likewise, supplementary tutorial programs (Tuākana) exist to insure learning spaces are present where Māori and Pacific cultures are utilized and valued.

Our final video, “Solutions” (above) was created so that our project was not limited to a series that only presented problems. Here, Māori and Pacific interviewees offer their opinions on how we as a society can remedy this situation, by no longer trivializing racism in any form, at any level, and acknowledging that we must discuss the problem more openly. As the piece closes, interviewees assert that this is not solely a Māori and Pacific issue. Rather, those who enjoy racial privilege must support anti-racism movements for true, lasting change to occur.

On a personal note, my involvement in the “I, Too, Am Auckland” project does mean some bias is involved in this post. At the same time, the project builds off my research and seeks to transform the research into action, a practice aligned with indigenous research methods. And finally, whether one agrees or disagrees with the contentions presented in the videos, I would hope the interviewees’ bravery was recognized, as they took the opportunity to speak very publicly on issues they view as important.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Microaggressions frequently transpire at an interpersonal level, within small groups of people. How are interpersonal microaggressions connected to wider systemic and historical circumstances in the “I, Too, Am Auckland” videos?
  2. In what ways do Māori and Pacific students face similar challenges to the African American students involved in the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign? What are some historical differences that differentiate African American students, from Māori students, from Pacific students?
  3. Without putting yourself at risk, how might you constructively challenge racialized microaggressions within your school or workplace?
  4. Information technology and social media have changed human interactions tremendously. What may be some advantages and limitations to using YouTube videos, Facebook, and blogging as forms of activism?
The "I, Too, Am Auckland" Team
The "I, Too, Am Auckland" Team