Skin tone determines racism and prejudice against rangatahi - research says

By Will Trafford

Rangatahi not perceived as European/Pākehā, ‘white’ or mixed race are more likely to experience discrimination by teachers, police and healthcare providers in Aotearoa, according to research from the University of Auckland.

Wealth may also protect ethnic or immigrant youth from racism but the study finds that being perceived as white has a greater impact.

Some 7,700 school students aged 13 to 17 were surveyed in 2019 as part of 'Youth2000' a long-running collaborative study between Auckland University researchers and others from Oxford University in the UK.

“Colourism – skin-shade prejudice – is disturbingly persistent in our society,” said Dr Simon Kumar, an associate professor. “Educational interventions and diversity training for teachers, health workers and the police are essential to combat these biases.”

Dr Terryann Clark (Ngāpuhi) told TeAoMā the research results might be quite tough reading for some in Aotearoa.

"It's pretty devastating to read these disparities still permeate the services that young people really rely on, like health, schooling and policing. This perhaps will be a lot for some in those sectors to face."

“We can work to unlearn racism."

Passing for white protected

“The results were striking,” said Dr Peiris John. “Being affluent protected against some of the effects of racism but passing for white had a greater protective effect for young people.”

The study used students' perceptions of how they were treated unfairly by teachers, medical professionals, and the police; whether they were bullied in school; and whether they felt safe in their communities or schools.

Despite being Māori or a member of an ethnic minority, 13% of youth reported that they were perceived as Pākehā or white.

Youth who said they were perceived as Māori, Pasifika or African reported higher levels of racial discrimination by their teachers, health providers and the police. “It was disturbing to see that Māori and Pasifika youth are particularly targeted,” said Dr Clark.

A student's country of origin, also affected the levels of racism suffered.

Migrant youth from high-income regions like Europe, North America, Australia and east Asia were less likely to experience deprivation. “They are more likely to live in affluent neighbourhoods, go to better-resourced schools, and have fewer worries about meeting daily basic needs,” Dr Sonia Lewycka said.

Generations of racism experienced

For people from lower-income countries of origin, inequalities persisted for generations. When whānau had lived in Aotearoa for three generations or longer, people whose families immigrated from the Pacific Islands, South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, or Africa were likely to continue to experience inequality and racism.

“The ongoing effect of colonisation is evident in contemporary structures and policies, systematically disadvantaging not only Indigenous Māori, but each wave of non-white migrants who are making New Zealand their home,” the paper says.

The findings “add to the scarce body of literature on the effects of colourism or perceived whiteness and how it shapes everyday social relationships, a facet of racism that is often underestimated in health research,” the document says.

What all the authors agreed was that urgent action was necessary.

“Even when we think of ourselves as non-racist, we may unwittingly lower our expectations or undertake greater scrutiny of some groups of young people while others, often those who are white, are offered more support,” co-author Associate Professor Terry Fleming from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Health said.

Unlearning racism

“We can work to unlearn racism, and support others to unlearn these behaviours,” she says.

Dr Clark said the responsibility was on all New Zealanders to address areas of racism and discrimination in their day-to-day lives.

"What this paper ultimately reveals is that we all need to address this. We need to stop the engrained prejudices we have; we need to address this together."

The full research paper has been published in the international academic journal 'The Lancet'

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