Rebooting biculturalism in Aotearoa-New Zealand

Georgina Stewart

The idea of biculturalism gets a lot of airtime in Aotearoa-New Zealand, but it hardly seems popular. Some argue biculturalism should be replaced by multiculturalism, as a more accurate reflection of the national situation today. Others see biculturalism as ‘not Māori enough’ and would prefer to talk about Kaupapa Māori. Anyone who studies for a range of professions including teaching, nursing and social work is taught and assessed on ‘biculturalism’ as part of the curriculum. Yet very few seem clear on what biculturalism actually means. Many people in Aotearoa-New Zealand would put ‘biculturalism’ in a category that includes the Treaty of Waitangi, equity, diversity and inclusiveness. I think the best explanation is to understand biculturalism as a relationship in which the social and intellectual histories of two (or more) peoples are intertwined over many generations.

The ideas of equity, diversity and inclusiveness still hold a time-honoured place in our national imagination, supported by the fundamental Kiwi philosophy of giving someone a ‘fair go’ – but many influences, especially saturating our airwaves with globalised US-dominated cultural products and ideas through television and the internet, have all but untied even the last remaining shreds of this once-distinctive fabric of Kiwi fairness and tolerance for difference, down-under. For the bicultural historical relationship between Māori and Pākehā has been a love affair as well as a power struggle – whether or not one believes that one side of this binary is possible without the other. New Zealand today can be understood only within the history of this relationship. Certainly Pākehā would not be where they are now without the land they acquired cheaply from its Māori traditional owners, and developed using decades of poorly-paid Māori labour, often on their own ancestral lands, to lay the foundation of hugely profitable primary industries (Willmott, 1989).

Biculturalism is an indelible part of the social landscape and national discourse of Aotearoa-New Zealand, given our history and identity as the country with the ‘best race relations in the world’, and the popularity of ‘Māori’ amongst the peoples of the world. Our national anthem became ‘bicultural’ in the 1980s, and our national greeting became ‘kia ora’ at around the same time. The Māori factor makes ‘brand New Zealand’ unique in the global market. Don Brash and others may call for ‘the end’ of the ‘Māori problem’ but arguably it is a simple political stunt: they know full well how much the ‘Māori brand’ is worth to themselves and their capitalist friends (Webster, 1998). Therefore the nature and control of Māori representation in media and public discourse is a matter of ongoing political significance, requiring sound theoretical underpinning by critical academic research and scholarship. I argue for a radical form of biculturalism, as a profoundly educational concept for Aotearoa-New Zealand. The term ‘rebooting biculturalism’ captures my aspiration to catalyse more widespread and fruitful discussions.

Biculturalism takes a unique form in each social context. For this reason, I argue we cannot learn much from international literature about biculturalism in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where the Māori-Pākehā relationship is primary. Since the beginning of that relationship, Māori have had no choice but to be bicultural, reflecting the general rule that only members of the dominant group can ignore ethnicity, and the concepts such as biculturalism that ethnicity brings with it, in a multicultural (or, more precisely, multi-ethnic) society.

The intercultural hyphen is a useful model of biculturalism in a country like Aotearoa-New Zealand, founded on a specific indigenous-settler (Māori-Pākehā) relationship (Stewart, 2016). For example, the three phrases just used—indigenous-settler, Māori-Pākehā, Aotearoa-New Zealand—each consist of two ‘identity’ terms connected by a hyphen: the point of the ‘intercultural hyphen’ model is to draw attention to what connects two groups or perspectives. The hyphen is a symbolic ‘gap or bridge’ that captures the paradoxical nature of the bicultural relationship, with a range of options for engaging or disengaging across the hyphen from either side. The intercultural hyphen symbolises the ‘something new’ of a bicultural relationship that is not the same as either of the original cultural groups.

A marker of the relationship between two generalized groups, the hyphen has been erased, softened, denied, consumed, expanded, homogenized, and romanticized. The discursive hyphen has stood in for an unbridgeable chasm between the civilized and the uncivilized; it has marked a romantic difference between the innocent noble savage and corrupt Western man; it has held the gap between the indigenous subjects of study and their objective White observers (Jones & Jenkins, 2008, p. 473).

The concept of biculturalism carries with it a challenge to the dominant culture in the form of incommensurable difference, the limits of Western knowledge, and the theoretical notion of the Other: biculturalism by its nature is unsettling and at times uncomfortable. Since learning, in the sense of ‘deep’ learning, is by definition challenging to the learner, ideas that challenge us are inherently educational for the monocultural nation-state. What we might learn in the bicultural space is not necessarily what we are prepared to know.

Through their links to large historical and social processes, schools and education institutions have important connections to biculturalism, but they cannot ‘contain’ biculturalism, which is an important topic in its own right. Biculturalism is a fundamentally educational concept, seeing ‘education’ here in a larger sense that transcends formal institutions such as schools and universities. Healthy debate and engagement with biculturalism provokes our nation into being a learning society, with an openness to possibilities for human flourishing. Many more Pākehā are telling their stories about why learning te reo matters to them. There is a new spirit of optimism stirring in the country: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s commitment to spending five days at Waitangi for the commemoration of Waitangi Day 2018 is just one hopeful sign of the important role biculturalism might yet come to play in our national future.




Jones, A., & Jenkins, K. (2008). Rethinking collaboration: Working the indigene-colonizer hyphen. In N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (pp. 471–486). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Stewart, G. (2016). From both sides of the indigenous-settler hyphen in Aotearoa New Zealand. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-10. doi:10.1080/00131857.2016.1204904

Webster, S. (1998). Patrons of Maori Culture: Power, Theory and Ideology in the Maori Renaissance. Dunedin: University of Otago Press.

Willmott, B. (1989). Introduction: Culture and National Identity. In D. Novitz & B. Willmott (Eds.), Culture and Identity in New Zealand (pp. 1-20). Wellington: GP Books.





Georgina Stewart
About the author

Georgina Stewart

Georgina Stewart (ko Whakarārā te maunga, ko Matauri te moana, ko Te Tāpui te marae, ko Ngāti Kura te hapū, ko Ngāpuhi-nui-tonu te iwi) is Associate Professor in Te Kura Mātauranga School of Education, Auckland University of Technology. In 2014, Georgina won a Marsden research grant to investigate academic writing in Māori, a project she is currently completing, and on which this briefing paper is based. Georgina is a former secondary teacher of Science, Mathematics and Te Reo Māori, and completed her doctorate on the Māori science curriculum in 2007. She worked for six years at the Tai Tokerau campus of the University of Auckland in Whangarei before joining AUT in July 2016.