– A Critical Reflection on Privilege and being a White Immigrant in Aotearoa New Zealand
This is a 2500 word (ish) essay I wrote for one of my psych courses. I received great feedback (and an amazing grade) for it so wanted it to live in perpetuity on the interwebs too!
This essay is a critical reflection upon my personal learnings on the topic of cultural perspectives, specifically as it relates to my personal context of being a white immigrant in Aotearoa New Zealand and how this experience is different to the experience of other migrants in this country. Acknowledging cultural perspectives in the context of psychology means acknowledging different worldviews and how individuals may view themselves, depending on the context they find themselves in. This essay will discuss how the field of psychology has failed to do this and how centring WEIRD perspectives in the field and society at large has, and continues to, impact marginalised individuals and communities and how my own experience has been different. Additionally, I reflect on my privilege and discuss how I may use my position going forward so I can be a better ally to Māori, not just on my journey to become a psychologist but in general life too.
A key term used in the essay is the acronym WEIRD, which stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. This acronym is used to illustrate that most of the established theories and concepts in psychology are based on Western views and theories and that most research has been conducted using this lens.
As uncomfortable (and a bit embarrassing) as it is to admit, before taking this course I had no idea how much psychology still perpetuates the power imbalance created by colonisation by centring WEIRD psychology concepts instead of acknowledging other cultural perspectives, especially Indigenous beliefs and traditions that are often older than most Western theories (Groot et al., 2019). In the context of psychology in Aotearoa New Zealand, centring of WEIRD perspectives continues to this day, for example by ignoring Indigenous concepts and customs when designing and conducting research and by following a mostly WEIRD-oriented curriculum when educating future psychologists (Pomare et al, 2021). I credit this course for helping me understand that a lot of psychological research has been and still is racist based on how it is conducted, both in terms of how research participants are approached and treated, as well as how information is then reviewed and discussed. For example, a lot of research is based on quantitative approaches that attempt to measure something and will often compare one culture to another, usually by positioning the Western culture as the norm (Li et al., 2018). Taking this approach into a local context where Māori are the focus of research, this looks like making little to no attempts to collaborate with participants and their beliefs and customs, and instead comparing Māori to what is considered normal, thus implying that Māori have an inherent deficit (Groot et al, 2019). Overall, this course has been a starting point to learn about the whakapapa of psychology, specifically in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, and how much of it is rooted in racism (Pomare et al, 2021). In my opinion, this shows just how important teaching (and learning) about cultural perspectives is, not just within the broader discipline of psychology but especially in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Reflecting on my privilege of being born and growing up in Germany, I was able to travel to other European countries regularly and always enjoyed exploring their history, getting to know the locals where we were staying and learning about how they go about their lives. I would say that I was aware of other cultures and their history since it is something we discuss and learn about in school and I used to think of myself as someone open to other ways of viewing the world, but this course has opened my eyes and shown me that I have a lot more to learn – and more importantly, to unlearn. For example, until starting this course I had not even considered that psychology evolved as a Eurocentric science because to me, Eurocentric was the norm, it is the bubble I grew up in. Of course, I knew other cultures and ways of viewing the world existed, but I had not really considered this within the context of science and psychology in particular. I had assumed that what I had been learning was considered the standard, however this course showed me that this was indeed a widespread assumption held within the field of psychology (Misra
and Gergen, 1993). I vividly remember completing the first few readings in week one of the course and how shocked I was to learn about the lack of consideration of culture within the field of psychology. I had believed psychology would consider culture and ways of being a part of the human experience and how different cultures can influence an individual depending on where they are born and grow up. Misra and Gergen (1993) highlighted that this is indeed not the case, and that culture and context were treated as extraneous variables when studying behaviour, focusing on the individual and their concept of self instead, for example by centring research on preconceived theories on how individuals define selfhood (Bhatia and Ram, 2001). Additionally, this course prompted me to reflect on what I personally consider as normal and how psychology even defines what is normal, as I now understand this to be a question of perspective and context, not objective and observable facts which is how WEIRD psychology has been viewing and measuring its definition of normal (Groot et al., 2019).
Upon further reflection, I do wonder if my initial reaction was a sign of white fragility in response to reading how scholars questioned the way Eurocentric research had been conducted, when that was all I had known based on my own context and growing up in an individualistic culture (Molina et al., 2014). Robin DiAngelo (2018) originally coined the term white fragility and describes it as the phenomenon where white people (such as myself) struggle with the discomfort of realising that they may have been complicit in racism. A common example of this I have anecdotally observed is the reaction of other members of the dominant group in society to statements highlighting how existing systems and practices are racist.
I migrated to New Zealand in 2006, but as a white immigrant in this country, I did not have to question my culture and identity when I moved here and wonder whether I belonged. Unfortunately, this is the lived experience of a lot of migrants in this country, for example the Muslim migrant community who are trying to gain a sense of belonging but are often marginalised and discriminated against based on various factors, most often including their physical appearance, as discussed by Cassim et al. (in press). Furthermore, I already had a good grasp on the English language and because of the colour of my skin, I was not challenged about why I was in this country and seamlessly transitioned into being a member of the dominant group in society. I would like to say I knew that a lot of migrants do not have such a privileged experience but if anything, that is a superficial acknowledgement at best. I will not claim that what I have learnt this semester means I can now fully grasp the experience of other migrants as I will never truly be able to, however I believe the materials discussed have helped me better understand my positionality and just how much privilege I hold. This learning experience has been at times uncomfortable, especially in the first few weeks, when reading about the Eurocentricity of psychology and how I was reacting to what I was learning. This course has helped me come to terms with my own fragility and if I had not been immersed in the topics discussed, I do not think I would have deliberately challenged my own migration experience and that it was made easier by already belonging to the dominant group in this country and having grown up within a similar Western culture.
As a member of the dominant group in society, I also continue to benefit from processes and systems that were designed for me but do not consider other perspectives, specifically Māori perspectives and ways of being. For instance, education in Aotearoa New Zealand, from primary all the way to tertiary level, has been favouring the dominant group and has failed to “foster equitable achievement for Māori children and young people” (Skerrett & Ritchie, 2021, p. 258). While researching and preparing this essay, I even observed that this course is based on a more traditional Western delivery process where learning hours are delivered via readings and lectures and students are then assessed (in this case using three essays) to confirm if the overall learning outcomes have been achieved (New Zealand Productivity Commission, 2017).
As much as this course has taught me about cultural perspectives, urged me to reflect on my own experiences when first moving here, and shone a light on injustices and power imbalances being perpetuated to this day, I believe the most important learning has been for me to truly understand the role I have to play as a member of the dominant group in society. Instead of succumbing to white fragility and defensiveness like I did early on in this course, I have learnt that I can use my privilege to challenge the status quo, not just in my role as a student, but in everyday life at work and interacting with others. More specifically, I now know that I need to ask a lot more questions, for example by querying who benefits, whether that is from a specific situation or to understand why we are conducting research on a certain topic or working with a particular community. Professor Hodgetts discussed this in his guest lecture (personal communication, October 10, 2022) and it has stuck with me since and helped me understand that we need to consider this question more often to ensure we are conducting research or enacting interventions for the appropriate reasons and not just because WEIRD psychology previously guided us to do it in a specific manner.
Thanks to this course, I have also learnt that remaining silent means I continue to uphold the power imbalance that has always centred me (and people like me) and made things easier for me. As argued by Crawford and Langridge (2022), white people need to understand how the system works and how our silence and fragility continue to uphold racism. This concept was not new to me and while it is something I previously reflected on, I did not take any action to speak up about injustices I witnessed or was made aware of. I cannot claim that I will do this in the future every time I find myself in such a situation, however what I have learnt in this course has given me additional context and perspective to make me think twice about remaining silent from now on. Also discussed by Crawford and Langridge (2022) is the need to learn about positionality which includes challenging our own biases and values, as well as deliberately stating our position of knowledge and experience and acknowledging how our own culture has influenced how we view ourselves and our beliefs. For example, explicitly naming whiteness and the importance of openly acknowledging it is not something I had considered, even though doing so and being able to name it creates space for conversations around what is considered normal (Graham, 2022).
Along with reflecting on the overall learnings of this course, the guest lecture with Dr Graham also prompted me to re-evaluate why I chose to pursue this qualification in the first place. The discussion on decentring whiteness and challenging what is accepted as the norm resonated a lot with me and also provided something tangible to take away, both for this essay and into my future studies and possible career in the field of psychology. In some of my early notes for this essay I stated that I was not certain about pursuing postgraduate qualifications to eventually register as a psychologist. I first started my Graduate Diploma out of interest because I am someone who enjoys learning for the sake of learning, however over the course of writing this reflection, I have to started to rethink why I am studying and how I might eventually contribute to enacting change in this country by actively using my privilege to challenge our systems and processes so we can improve the experiences of marginalised groups and individuals within these systems.
When I enrolled in this course, my expectation was to learn more about Māori perspectives in psychology and how multiple views can coexist within one society. Instead, I learnt about how cultural perspectives, particularly Indigenous perspectives, have been denied for a long time and just how much of an impact colonisation and the evolution of WEIRD psychology have had on Indigenous psychologies.
To summarise, cultural perspectives and the context an individual grows up in influence their overall concept of identity and these perspectives must be considered within the field of psychology, especially when conducting research. My own reflections on my personal migration experience have revealed contrasts with the experience of others. Being able to easily transition into the dominant group in society meant it was a less challenging experience for me. Further, my privilege makes it easier to navigate other situations, such as education, as the system is built for people like me instead of considering Indigenous perspectives. I can use what I have learnt in this course to challenge the status quo moving forward and I may contribute to change in the field of psychology within Aotearoa New Zealand.
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