Graham Adams: Ardern’s gamble on shutting down the “white privilege” debate

Graham Adams: Ardern’s gamble on shutting down the “white privilege” debate

The Prime Minister’s denials that the topic forms part of the school curriculum are puzzling. Graham Adams tries to make sense of her tactics.


Jacinda Ardern has offered herself as a hostage to fortune by repeatedly denying that the doctrine of “white privilege” is being taught in schools, or that the teaching curriculum mentions it anywhere, or that it is part of her “government’s agenda”.

She has conceded that white privilege — namely, the social and economic advantages that white people allegedly enjoy — might have been taught by a teacher somewhere at some time in some school but insists it isn’t official policy.

“If, indeed, it has been used — that’s just maybe the way it’s been used in a particular classroom,” she said.

In denying that discussing white privilege is an approved part of teaching in schools, she has opened the door wide for opponents such as Act’s David Seymour to wander through with evidence that shows she may have been bending the truth beyond breaking point.

As he points out, the official education document Te Hurihanganui: A Blueprint for Transformative System Shift mentions “white privilege” in its opening paragraphs: “Building critical consciousness means reflecting critically on the imbalance of power and resources in society, and taking anti-oppressive action to do something about it for the better. It means recognising white privilege, understanding racism, inequity faced by Māori and disrupting that status quo to strengthen equity.”

The government has funded the programme to the tune of $42 million over three years. Launched in October 2020, it has now been established in numerous schools in Nelson, Te Puke, Porirua and Southland, with more to come.

For someone who prides herself on mastering the details of her government’s policies, it’s impossible to believe Ardern is simply ill informed or forgetful about Te Hurihanganui’s existence or what it recommends. And if her memory needs jogging, she could reread Labour’s 2020 election manifesto, which stated: “With iwi across the country we are going to finally teach our history in schools and are working hard to implement Te Hurihanganui with our communities, to remove racism from them as well.”

Last week, Newstalk ZB broadcast a recording from a recent teacher-only day that featured Auckland educator Dr Michelle Johansson advising her audience to reflect on their white privilege.

Earlier this month, the Teaching Council launched its Unteach Racism programme fronted by film-maker Taika Waititi. One segment explains, “We have to talk about white privilege and white supremacy,” claiming, “The intractability of this supremacy in education institutions is one of the main challenges for critical pedagogy.”

If teachers are being trained so thoroughly to be aware of and deal with the topic, it looks pretty much like a fool’s errand to deny that it is official policy.

Nevertheless, Ardern is trying to do just that. Her motivation for her repeated refusals to accept reality is very hard to fathom given it leaves her open to a charge of outright lying. Why would she be so willing to brazenly distort facts? Why doesn’t she simply defend her government’s programme?

Is it because polling has told her that such anti-racism programmes directed at making Pakeha feel responsible for society’s inequalities are political Kryptonite? Or has she been particularly spooked by the fact that the programmes can be linked back to He Puapua, which has been used by Judith Collins and David Seymour as a stick to beat her with inside and outside Parliament?

He Puapua — which has been painted as a secret Labour Party manifesto mapping a path to wide-ranging co-governance for Māori — recommends combatting “structural racism” through “school programmes and media campaigns”, including by “conscious and subconscious bias training”.

Teaching awareness of white privilege in schools fits squarely within that framework.

Of course, in making her denials Ardern may be relying on a very narrow definition of what “curriculum” means to ensure her point is at least technically true but that would be far too subtle to convince most of the public.

Or she may simply be making a calculation that with Labour riding high in the polls and with her personal ratings as preferred prime minister reliably in the 40s, most voters won’t pay any attention to Seymour and Collins or the questions they are raising.

However, with so much evidence stacked against her, this is a risky gamble.

The debate over white privilege is not confined, of course, to the current public dispute over its appearance in school teaching resources. The same debate underpins objections to the draft of the compulsory history curriculum to be taught in schools from next year.

The draft appears largely dedicated to exposing the historical basis of white privilege and white supremacy. With its focus on colonial oppression that has inflicted damage and injustice on Maori, it is skewed towards examining Pakeha advantage and Māori disadvantage to the exclusion of anything that doesn’t fit that particular narrative.

It is clear from reports in the mainstream media as well as social media that there is extensive public opposition. More than 2000 submissions had been received by the cutoff on May 31.

The draft has been widely criticised as “black armband” history, in which epochal events that might reflect unfavourably on Māori — such as the extensive slaughter during the Musket Wars in the decades before 1840 — don’t rate even a single mention. In contrast, events that could be seen as reflecting poorly on Pakeha, including battles during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, are highlighted.

In its submission, the Royal Society of New Zealand criticised the curriculum’s narrow focus. It cited, among other examples, the omission of women and economic activity — as well as the draft’s skating over the longest distinct era in the country’s human history: the 600 years of pre-European Māori life. ”Despite the prominence given to Māori history, there is a 600-year gap between the arrival of Māori and the arrival of Europeans. It is almost as if Māori arrive in New Zealand and become instantly the victims of colonialism.”

The society also mentioned its concern that the draft’s terms meant New Zealand history could be incorrectly framed in some schools as illustrating “white supremacy”.

While Pakeha parents may be happy to endorse the general concept of schools working to eradicate racism, many will bridle at their children being given history lessons that depict their ancestors as colonial oppressors who did nothing admirable or worthy of praise while enjoying the benefits of the white privilege and white supremacy they had engineered.

Last week, Ardern told a journalist who persisted in asking her questions about teaching white privilege in schools that the topic was “not something I’ve dwelt on”.

She will be hoping the public doesn’t dwell on it either — or joins the dots between the recommendations in the revolutionary document He Puapua and the teaching of white privilege in schools alongside the proposed one-eyed history of colonialism.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.