Maori and Pakeha: Visiting New Zealander talks race, identity

How do people identify with dual heritage? How does race and/or ethnicity play into self-esteem and academic success? Why does ethnicity matter… to any of us? Do boundaries create a wall or a safe place?

Those are some of the questions that drive the curiosity of UW-Green Bay psychology professor Regan A. R. Gurung and his invited guest, faculty member Melinda Webber. Webber is a visiting scholar from The University of Auckland, New Zealand. While the two are collaborating on research and possible future publications, Webber’s visit also means the UW-Green Bay community — including many students, faculty, classes and programs —benefits from Webber’s unique perspective.

Gurung says there are strong parallels between New Zealand as a whole and the state of Wisconsin regarding the cultural relationships that both separate, and divide, those in each geographical area.

New Zealand is considered an “ethnically diverse” nation, with many of its citizens identifying with more than one ethnic group. The indigenous New Zealander’s, the Māori, live in a dominant Pākehā (White) society. However, a treaty that dates back to 1840 provides a working partnership and strong standing in government for Māori; but also a strong voice in education, politics and social norms. Gurung says the New Zealand culture and how it caters to difference, has strong implications for Wisconsin and its Caucasian and Native populations, especially populations that struggle with the meaning of their own ethnic identity.

Webber’s research, much of it conducted using personal interviews and open-ended questions, focuses on the insights and understanding about the challenges, issues and benefits associated with racial and/or ethnic identity and biracial or mixed ethnicity. In her recent book, “Walking the Space Between: Identity Māori/Pākehā,” Webber shows how “dual heritage can become a positive force which enables people to walk in all worlds with heads held high.” Webber’s research approach is largely qualitative in nature and aims to empower the research participants. “Often in research, there is too much ‘research on’ and not enough ‘research with,’” she says.

“Positive ethnic identity is one of the key resiliency factors for minority and indigenous children,” she said. “It’s very important to their self-esteem,” she said. “There is often this weird space during early adolescence when they are caught between who they think they are and who they think others expect them to be. They need to learn strategies to help them navigate these tricky junctures in their lives”

New Zealand is seeing a tribal resurgence and revitalization in the Māori language, culture and indigenous studies. Elementary students, for example, have the choice to learn their entire curriculum in Māori-language schools. Teacher-education programs have made knowledge of Māori language and customs a requirement for graduation.

On her visit, Webber took the time to visit with UW-Green Bay’s Phuture Phoenix program leaders, and discussed the University of Auckland University’s Starpath Project, which uses student data to monitor and track student success, but also to engage in objective discussions with teachers and parents. “Through the Starpath Project, we have found that parent attendance at parent-student-teacher meetings improved from about 15% to about a 85% and that figure has been sustained for quite some time.”

Gurung and Webber are excited about their partnership and implications for further study. Ideally, they would like to use their joint research interests to design research projects which focus on empowerment, helping people better understand the positive impact of their multiple ethnic, racial and national identities.
Photos by Veronica Wierer, photo intern, Marketing and University Communication