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As the time for university and scholarship applications draws near, my peers are voicing some disturbing opinions about affirmative action. Scholarships for people of Māori and Pacific Islander descent are apparently “unfair” according to some of my classmates, and a tech-y friend of mine thought (past tense once our conversation was over) that internships, programmes and workshops designed for women interested in STEM are not only exhibiting favouritism, but unnecessary in New Zealand.
It’s painful how commonplace these attitudes are amongst students and professionals.
Generally, the belief that affirmative action is unnecessary comes from either a misconception of what it is, or a misperception of the culture we are living in — i.e. those that haven’t had to experience discrimination in New Zealand won’t believe that there is a need to combat it.
To clear up the former, affirmative action promotes the education and employment of members of groups that have experienced discrimination either currently or in the past. The New Zealand government, specifically, does this through scholarships for Māori/Pacific Islander students, refugees and those from low socio-economic brackets. Other organisations like GirlBoss and TechWomen have mentorship initiatives and conferences geared towards women in male-dominated industries.
On paper, it doesn’t sound like anyone would disagree with affirmative action. But if you’ve heard the following sentences, chances are, you’ve met someone who does.
“Why do people have to make everything about race?”
“I think people should be chosen based on how qualified they are for the job.”
“So, just because they’re [insert minority group here] they deserve special treatment?”
Statements like these diminish the oppression of certain groups. They imply that things like gender, sexual orientation and race are extraneous parts of a person, and consequently that allocating jobs, scholarships and titles based on such details is foolish.
But, to some more than others, gender, sexual orientation and race are pivotal aspects of people’s identity, especially when their identity would have attracted persecution in the past. They can speak volumes about what their predecessors have had to overcome, what they themselves have had to overcome and the progress that has been made for future generations.
Though New Zealand has been a pioneering country in the women’s rights movement, women are still more likely to encounter sexual harassment, domestic violence and workplace discrimination than their male counterparts. Take the STEM industry for example: not only is establishing yourself in the industry difficult when considering gender stereotypes, it seems you’re not safe even if you make it to Google. (See last year’s global walkout to protest Google’s alleged cover-up of workplace sexual harassment, inequality and racism.)
Along with gender biases, New Zealand also has a rich history of white supremacy. A direct result of the Land Wars, during which Māori land was confiscated from iwi, was the social and economic displacement of the Māori population. Fast forward 100 years to the 1970s, when the infamous dawn raids had a similar effect on the Pacific Islander population.
As a result of these racist policies, crime, unemployment and incarceration rates remain high amongst Māori and Pacific Islander communities — which then feeds into a national stigma that helps to perpetuate these negative environments.
How can anyone say that New Zealand gives equal opportunity to all?
Discrimination nowadays is not always explicit. It’s systemic, it’s subtle and it takes some probing to find. But you need only look at our history, our suicide numbers, our incarceration and school dropout statistics to realise that we don’t create a nurturing environment for all our citizens. The road to success is so much harder for some, due to biases, poverty and cycles of crime.
That’s where affirmative action comes in to help us achieve equity. (Equity is different from equality — the division of resources such that everyone gets the same amount — in that it entails the division of resources such that everyone gets the same outcome.)
Accepting our culture for what it is — racism, patriarchy and all — can be sobering, but it is necessary. We need to own where we have limited communities in the past, acknowledge how they continue to be impacted by that oppression and work to remove any remaining barriers to higher education and employment.
By providing support for groups that have been oppressed, we can make sure the proportion of people in government, in university and even in prison reflects the true makeup of New Zealand more closely.
Until that day comes, affirmative action will remain necessary.Support Villainesse