This essay is a personal reflection about an email I received from a Professor Emeritus at my university after my research received nationwide news media coverage. During my doctoral research, I located racist public statements made by William Ferguson Massey (1856–1925), former prime minister of New Zealand, whom my university (Massey University) is named after. The white Professor Emeritus, who I have never met, took it upon himself to email me, a Māori [Indigenous] junior faculty member, and chastise me for presenting my archival research to other faculty members. The Professor Emeritus's email epitomizes white power and white fragility in the academy that work to silence “Other” voices.
I am Māori (Indigenous of Aotearoa New Zealand). My route to academia was nontraditional in the sense that I began my university studies as a mature student through distance learning while working full-time as a police officer. Near the end of my doctoral research (communication studies) at Auckland University of Technology, I was fortunate to gain employment as a lecturer (equivalent of “assistant professor” in the US system) of communication at Massey University in 2015. In September 2016, at the invitation of a colleague, I was invited to present research at a seminar series within my school. My research topic for the presentation was about racist public statements by white New Zealand politicians between the late 1800s and early 1900s, which I discovered through archival research of media representations of Māori as part of my doctorate. One of the politicians was William Ferguson Massey (1856–1925), former prime minister of New Zealand, whom my university (Massey University) is named after.1 Massey's racist public statements included “Clearly, we want to keep the race as pure in this Dominion as it is possible to keep it.”2 He also stated, “New Zealanders are probably the purest Anglo-Saxon population in the British Empire. Nature intended New Zealand to be a white man's country, and it must be kept as such.”3 My presentation and subsequent journal article4 was the first time that this collection of racist public statements by New Zealand politicians from around 1880 to 1920 was presented or published in the academic domain.
A local journalist from my city's newspaper attended the research seminar and reported5 that I had called for Massey University to consider changing its name rather than continuing to use the name of a white supremacist. Overnight, my research gained national news media coverage on television, radio, and newspaper outlets, including their respective websites.6 Well-known political and social commentators wrote commentary pieces about my research in national newspapers.7 Meanwhile, I received an influx of negative emails—something I have become accustomed to when I am in the news media discussing Māori issues.8 Most of the negative emails are generally from anonymous throwaway email accounts, or from white supremacists who unashamedly use their real names and email addresses. However, after the nationwide media coverage of my research presentation, I received an email from a Professor Emeritus of the Massey Business School (a college/faculty comprised of several schools, including my school, the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing). To ensure that his words are not taken out of context, here is the full email message sent to me by the Professor Emeritus (see Figure 1). I have removed his name and email address based on advice I received from a senior member of my university.
The email by the Professor Emeritus made me think of my grandfather's era when Māori children were beaten at school for speaking Te Reo Māori (the Māori language)—their voices were silenced using violence.9 Those Māori children did not say what the white majority wanted to hear, so they were chastised and beaten. The Professor Emeritus attempts to do the same—to condition the Native into submission using the tools and power he has acquired in the academy. Fundamentally, his email message was a demonstration of how issues of (white) power and (white) fragility play out. The email message does not require an in-depth analysis because the meanings are obvious—they signify a vulgar display of white power and white fragility. White power is oppressive and seeks to disempower, while white fragility “is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”10 Clearly, it is evident in the email message that the Professor Emeritus could not hide his contempt for my anti-racist research so much so that it triggered his white fragility. It seems that the widespread national media attention afforded to my research enraged him enough that he felt compelled to send this email. Further, he stated that I sought “cheap media publicity”—which I did not—and even if I did, so what? My university, like all universities, encourages its faculty members to engage with news media.
In the first sentence of the email, he used quotation marks around the word “racist,” which, on the surface, serves to quote my research, but the underlying intention seems to minimize or downplay William Massey's statements (“the concerned ‘racist’ comments of Mr Massey”). Perhaps saying that “Nature intended New Zealand to be a white man's country, and it must be kept as such” isn't racist? The Professor Emeritus attempted to denigrate my research further when he also wrote “discovered” in quotation marks (“which you have apparently ‘discovered’ in your research”). After all, the “Other” cannot do real research—only white scholars can do real research. As the email stated, I used “such a weak and dumb argument.” His assertion that my argument was “dumb” conveyed a meaning that I am, by extension, also “dumb,” which is a racist insult commonly heard by Māori. It reminded me of Holly Hippolite and Toni Bruce's study wherein a research participant said: “How long does it take to get … spoken to and spoken to and spoken to, that you're a dumb Māori. Māori, Māori, that you're dumb, dumb, dumb? How long does that take before it actually has an effect on you?”11 I also recalled my own research into Google's Autocomplete (predictive search) function, which included “Māori are dumb” when “Māori are” was typed into the Google search.12 The Professor Emeritus's choice of words, individually and collectively, exposed his racism.
The Professor Emeritus descended to include my iwi (Māori tribe) when he wrote, “Such attempts at cheap publicity do nothing to enhance race relations in New Zealand and do you and your iwi no credit whatsoever.” This discursive tactic is often used against people of color/minorities/Indigenous peoples—it works by associating the actions of one individual to the wider collective. Specifically, the reference to my iwi in his email was a manipulative attempt to lead me to believe that I am causing a negative reaction or harm to my iwi through association. The Professor Emeritus spent decades in the ivory tower that sits on the ancestral lands of my iwi. There is nothing like white colonial arrogance—take Indigenous lands, build a university on Indigenous lands, name the university after a white supremacist, and then threaten an Indigenous faculty member for talking about it. How dare I insult those who have had associations to Massey University before I was born?! After all, they have provided me a “platform from which to teach” as I am the only Māori in a school of around 50 or so faculty members, so I must use this “opportunity graciously, not gratuitously.”
The Professor Emeritus's remark that “this is NOT the way to pursue an academic career in the New Zealand universities system” was a direct threat to my academic career. Although he is retired, colleagues advised that at the time he still held an official advisory position in the Massey Business School and maintained networks at the other universities in New Zealand—there are only eight universities in New Zealand, and we do not have the tenure system that the United States has. The Professor Emeritus title is very rarely awarded by Massey University; it is conferred on retiring professors who have been outstanding in their discipline, are held in the respect and esteem of colleagues, and have a continuing association with the university.13 In other words, this Professor Emeritus has significant power, and I, as a junior member of faculty in the Massey Business School, do not. As part of his posturing, he was sure to include his Professor Emeritus title and the abbreviation of his award, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM)—an award by the Queen of England—which worked to convey his perceived status and authority within the colonial hierarchical system of the academy.
The actions of the Professor Emeritus are worrying for Māori scholars and other scholars of color in New Zealand. A Māori colleague (from outside of the Massey Business School) told me that racism within the university means that he has considered resigning and leaving academia. This is concerning given the low numbers of Māori scholars employed at New Zealand's eight universities. A recent study found that although Māori comprise around 15 percent of New Zealand's population, only 5 percent of scholars at universities are Māori.14 The study highlighted that in 2017 there were 1,045 professors and deans employed at universities but only 35 were Māori—most Māori hold lower positions such as lecturer or senior lecturer. It is unsurprising then, that there are very few Māori scholars, and fewer in senior positions, when gatekeepers at universities include scholars like this Professor Emeritus.
His influence goes beyond the university too; he has publicly stated in a news article that he has taught 2,500 master of business administration students who were full-time executive leaders, including elected members of parliament, public sector leaders, business founders, and others working in public, private, and charitable organizations. If that is correct, I can only hope that his students detected and filtered his racism, for the sake of Māori people and other people of color across the country. I suspect there are others like him who hold positions of power in universities in New Zealand. He is not alone; he is part of a structure that permits him to be who he is. That structure is racist, and it needs to be challenged and dismantled; however, any form of overt resistance to structural power within the academy can have consequences for an emerging scholar's career. Universities in New Zealand tend to view themselves as sites where scholars can perform a “critic and conscience of society” role.15 However, that space is not welcoming to dissenting voices, especially Māori scholars who disrupt whiteness.
How then does one resist and further disfigure the ugly face of racism? As there are so few of us—Māori scholars and other scholars of color—we need to be visible. A student once told me that whenever she sees me on campus (outside of the classroom), according to her, I walk around as if I own the campus. I voice my opinions about every issue at faculty meetings, and I have been a member of the Tertiary Education Union branch committee at my university. I have recently started writing a weekly column about social and cultural issues for Stuff.co.nz, which is “not just New Zealand's largest news site; it's the largest New Zealand web site, period.”16 My former head of school wrote in an email to me that “people can call you many things but they won't call you either unengaged or invisible!”17 There is, of course, a downside to being visible as a Māori scholar, and that is being on the receiving end of racist emails like the one from the Professor Emeritus. For this reason, I know that some of my Māori colleagues from other schools (and other universities) prefer to be invisible, or at least maintain a low profile. They do not want to appear as being too political, controversial, or radical. Who can blame them, right?
I will blame them. As Edward Said so eloquently pointed out: “the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them.”18 Said's statement is relevant today for Māori scholars given that Māori are overrepresented in most negative health and social outcomes in New Zealand. According to Mason Durie, “On almost any indicator, such as health, education, employment, offending, home ownership, or income levels, Māori performance is substantially worse.”19 With that in mind, the voices of Māori scholars need to be amplified, not muted. We need to demonstrate a deep commitment to standing up and talking back, even if that means receiving a racist email from a Professor Emeritus.
Perhaps a framework needs to be developed to address racism within universities. My university has recently declared itself to be a Te Tiriti o Waitangi–led institution.20 Te Tiriti o Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand.21 While my university's declaration is viewed as an endorsement of the bicultural relationship between Māori and Pākehā (white people/settlers), there are some issues with it. First, a lot of white faculty members and senior leadership in the university are opposed to it, and perhaps their opposition can be explained in part by the second point, which is confusion about what being Tiriti-led actually means. Others, including some Māori faculty members, have suggested that being Tiriti-led is mere tokenism, as nothing has changed within the university since the policy was implemented.
Each university in New Zealand has a deputy vice-chancellor (DVC Māori) or a pro vice-chancellor (PVC Māori) who provides “strategic advice to the university and also provides leadership for Māori academic development, Māori student participation and success, Māori staff capability, Māori stakeholder engagement, and matters relating to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”22 I would say, however, that although those in the positions of DVC Māori or PVC Māori across New Zealand's universities do have the best interests of Māori students and staff at heart, their office is subservient to their respective university's leadership. In my view, dealing with racism at universities requires a coordinated collection of Māori voices, and people of color/minorities, to advance anti-racist strategies. In light of the recent rise of white supremacy movements on our campuses—for example, the white supremacist group at the University of Auckland23—now is the time for coordinated anti-racism movements across all eight New Zealand universities.