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Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 11, 2020

The many problems with Auckland University’s racist coffee

auckland university clock tower
Image: Tina Tiller

Two Māori University of Auckland students tell Sherry Zhang about their struggle to get coffee with racist imagery removed from campus – and why they think it’s emblematic of a bigger problem. 

A few weeks ago, The Spinoff received a peculiar email:

Subject: Auckland University Racist Coffee!! 

Body: Please investigate! 

Photos Attached: Caricatures of a shiny Black man with overdrawn lips and bare feet on Lucaffé coffee boxes in staff tea rooms. 

Nicole*, the postgraduate science student who sent the email, suggested I join her on a scavenger hunt around campus for these coffee sachets. Sarah Davis (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine), coordinator of the Tuākana Biology programme for Māori and Pasifika students, would come too. The two met while trying to get the coffee sachets removed and haven’t been impressed by the university’s slow response.    

Davis says she tried to file a formal complaint two years ago twice with another staff member but heard nothing back. Nicole submitted an informal complaint via a suggestion box in August this year, and has been trying to bring it up with faculty staff, but says the only response she received was, “Ooh, I’ve never really noticed it.”    

“There is a history of dehumanising people of colour used to justify actions from subconscious bias all the way to violence,” says Davis. “It’s not enough to say ‘yikes’ and not do anything because it doesn’t affect you.” 

The Lucaffé coffee and hot chocolate at the University of Auckland staff tea rooms

The scavenger hunt: 

Thomas building: three boxes down a hallway of taxidermied native birds. 

Biology building: two boxes round the corner past two elephant skulls. 

Science centre: two to three boxes on four floors of staff tea rooms. 

Commerce buildings: more? But doors were locked.  

Clock tower (vice-chancellor’s office): none (only Nescafe). 

“Of course Dawn Freshwater [the vice-chancellor] gets better tasting, more expensive, and probably less racist coffee,” concluded Nicole. 

Back at the Thomas building, the receptionist assured me the coffee sachets weren’t an issue any more. This was surprising, as we’d just seen multiple boxes in almost every science faculty tea room. Including some directly across the room from us. 

Slightly flustered, the receptionist showed us how they’d recently taped over the image on the coffee sachets. Problem solved, except they’d forgotten to cover the large racist caricature still on the boxes. Apparently they were just using the coffee up while a new shipment was stuck somewhere in Tauranga.

Nicole and Sarah say the fact it’s this difficult to get rid of offensive coffee sachets hints at the deeper struggles some students face. While institutionalised racism is usually more subtle than this, it serves as a platform for more visible racism and white supremacy on campus. 

Left: racist coffee; right: slightly less racist coffee?

“Institutionalised racism is very rarely racial slurs or physical altercations,” explains professor of Māori education Joanna Kidman (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa). “It occurs from people with good intentions, but is taken to a place which implies some deficit within Māori culture.”  

For Davis, these aren’t just poor taste coffee sachets being served to staff, but “a physical manifestation that the university isn’t willing to take proper action to make sure racism is not accepted”. 

Science and arts student Milly Grant-Mackie (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Kuri) says she’s often the only Māori student in the room, and recalls drafting numerous emails calling out her lecturers for offensive comments, but never sending them. “It’s hard! You’re putting yourself on the line. And you end up having two jobs: trying to be a student, while also dealing with their reply.” 

The University of Auckland’s complaints process suggests students can either contact the person directly if they feel comfortable, or contact AUSA advocacy/the proctor.  

Grant-Mackie and Davis say as they’re often the only Māori, they’ve found themselves carrying the burden of cultural labour in their classes. “These situations arise because people think they are being respectful, but it’s actually covering their own lack of understanding about these worlds,” says Kidman. “It’s awkward for students, because they’re being asked to speak for all Māori, or all of the Pacific. These students end up having to do a lot more to get through the door.”  

For Davis, it’s being asked to say a karakia on the spot or expected to educate the class on Māori concepts and tikanga. “I’m in a lecture theatre! I’m paying to learn. Why am I being asked to produce content?”  

Grant-Mackie adds, “The lecturer obviously isn’t qualified, so [they should] bring in Māori scholars and experts to teach the class. It’s about spreading wealth and the platform.” 

While Grant-Mackie says she’s learned to use humour to deflect uncomfortable attention, she feels sorry for the first year students still figuring it out. “There’s so many barriers for brown students going to class. You get anxiety, like, are they going to call me out? Am I going to be the only one there? Am I going to sit at the back of the class ’cause I’m not comfortable with it?” 

Beyond well-intentioned attempts to incorporate more Māori and Pasifika world views into the curriculum, a hierarchy of elitism still exists, says Davis. 

She says she’s been told she’s “smart for a brown person”, or asked why she’s majoring in Māori Studies since it’s an “extinct language” anyway. “Well to me, and half a million people, it’s not extinct. The lecturer heard this, just became awkward and moved on.” 

For Grant-Mackie, this hierarchy of elitism shows itself through courses that view indigenous knowledge as subservient to western notions of science. “Indigenous knowledge is formed over thousands of years. It’s sometimes better because it’s localised. But some lecturers still view ‘science’ as the be all and end all.”  

Kidman believes universities still have a long way to go, and pins it down to the lack of staff with expertise, skills or knowledge to talk about matauranga Māori or Pacific ways of knowing. “So sometimes it can feel like, here’s the actual curriculum. But let’s add on something to make Māori feel like they’re being included.”  

Lecturers are often overworked so don’t have the resources to provide pastoral support to students who need it. But in-house services and counselling are still patchy across institutions, says Kidman. 

“It’s not a level playing field. Some are able to access help, and articulate how they feel. But not all students can do that. Especially during Covid, we’ve seen how under pressure these structures are. The canary in the mine tends to be Māori and Pacific students.” 

Lockdown meant Grant-Mackie had to move to Rotorua to help her sister, a single mum, look after three kids under the age of six. She tried to apply for extensions for her coursework and compassionate consideration for her exams. 

“For me, culturally, when your family needs you, you just have to help. But the counsellor kept asking why I had to go. And didn’t understand how it would impact my exams. I opened up about my struggles to this blank Zoom screen and just felt so shit afterwards.” 

As Tuākana coordinator, Davis has seen students struggle with three jobs to support their families, or with parenting special needs kids, while trying to balance study. Students have also had counselling appointments cancelled or ended up paying for outside counselling as there were no available slots, she says. “Unfortunately, we had a few students open up to us about suicide attempts because of the stress they’re under.”  

According to Universities New Zealand, universities are not directly funded for counselling or student support. Instead, these are taken out of compulsory student service fees. 

Zero tolerance for discrimination sign and lion skeleton in biology building; two elephant skills

In a response to questions from The Spinoff, the University of Auckland said it was working hard to address bullying and harassment, and urged students who have experienced it to inform the university.

“But the reality is racism operates below the radar. It doesn’t neatly fit into definitions universities usually provide. People know what they can or can’t say, so it’s more about attitudes,” says Kidman.

The University of Auckland defines harassment as “conduct that is offensive, humiliating or intimidating to any other person and is either repeated, or of such significant nature that it has a detrimental effect on the person”. It gives  examples of harassment including “suggesting that Māori and Pacific students are only enrolled because of preferential treatment” and “challenging the right of Māori and Pacific students to be at the university”.

Complaining takes courage, and that’s just the beginning: Kidman says defensiveness is a common reaction when an institution is questioned on its process.

 “[Auckland University] stands firmly on the fact that there is no racism here. I’ve had students come to me, who have complained, and been told that it wouldn’t happen. And they’re saying, well, it has happened to me,” said Davis.  

As Māori and Pacific students are often the first in their family to attend university, they can start university already feeling alienated, says Kidman. “It’s really hard for Māori and Pacific students to complain. They don’t know where the complaints are going. What impact it has. If it’s even the right thing to do.

“Everyone has this institutional narrative that they have good procedure, but if the people who are being targeted don’t feel comfortable to complain, then obviously it’s not working.” 

Waikato University is currently undergoing an independent review regarding accusations of structural racism. Kidman, one of 36 Māori academics who called for a nationwide review in September following these accusations, says they’re all watching the process closely as it will inform how other universities respond in similar situations.  

A spokesperson from University of Auckland told The Spinoff “the caricatures on the coffee pods are completely at odds with the values of the university”. They said the complaints were responded to immediately, though Davis and Nicole are sceptical that two years, or even two months, fits under any definition of immediate, and suggest being approached by The Spinoff is what prompted the university to take action. 

A screenshot from Lucaffé’s website

In response to an email from The Spinoff, a representative from Lucaffé, the Italian coffee company that makes the sachets, admitted the company had faced problems because of its logo “but we are not racist at all”.

An attached explanation of the logo’s origins, presumably translated from the original Italian, was a little difficult to decipher, but said to avoid misunderstandings, the company had recently decided to “dress our little man better, take off the striped shirt and put on a shirt, we eliminated the bare feet by putting shoes on him”.

“If there are positions, thoughts and opinions different from ours, we ask you to let us know them and we will welcome everything with open arms and a smile trying to make it clear that Lucaffé has not a racist background but pure joy. We want to transmit happiness to all those who look at our little man and make it clear that black and white for us are not two different worlds but can coexist.”

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