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Segregation, whether by ethnicity or religion, remains a contentious issue that challenges the principles of equality and inclusivity in modern society. The recent controversy surrounding the University of Auckland’s decision to designate areas for Māori and Pasifika students underscores the complexity of navigating identity, representation, and belonging within educational institutions. While the intention behind creating safe spaces for marginalised groups is often well-meaning, questions inevitably arise when such segregation occurs, particularly when it intersects with ethnic (and, importantly, religious) accommodations.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters drew a striking comparison, likening this action to the practices of alt-right racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Such a comparison might seem extreme to some, but it underscores the seriousness of the issue. Segregation, regardless of its intentions, carries the weight of historical injustices and perpetuates division within society.

Segregation, regardless of its motivations, evokes painful memories of historical injustices and serves as a reminder of the enduring struggle for equality. In a country like New Zealand, celebrated for its cultural diversity and commitment to multiculturalism, such divisions run counter to the values of unity and inclusivity that form the bedrock of its society.

The Act Party’s condemnation of racial segregation in universities echoes broader concerns about the perpetuation of division within society. Segregated spaces, whether for Māori and Pasifika students or for religious purposes, risk reinforcing harmful stereotypes and limiting opportunities for interaction and understanding among diverse groups. While the argument for creating safe spaces to empower minority communities is valid, it must be balanced against the broader goal of fostering an inclusive environment where all students feel valued and supported.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s assertion that there is no place for discrimination or segregation in New Zealand reflects a commitment to upholding the principles of equality and diversity. Universities, as centres of learning and enlightenment, have a responsibility to cultivate environments where students from all backgrounds can thrive and contribute positively to society. Segregation, in any form, undermines this objective and impedes progress towards a more equitable future.

The Act Party’s criticism of racial segregation in universities is particularly noteworthy in light of broader debates surrounding religious accommodations on campuses. Questions arise when segregated spaces are earmarked for prayer rooms for certain religions instead of accommodating all faiths equally. Public spaces in most secular countries have all-faith prayer rooms rather than those specially labelled for a particular religion. While it is essential to respect religious diversity and provide appropriate facilities for worship, it is equally important to ensure that such accommodations do not inadvertently promote exclusion or favouritism.

David Seymour’s call to end race-based policies in healthcare resonates with concerns about the broader implications of identity-based segregation. Just as race should not be a determining factor in access to healthcare, it should not dictate access to educational resources or facilities. The pursuit of equality requires a commitment to dismantling systemic barriers and addressing underlying inequities that perpetuate discrimination and marginalisation.

University student Shakeel Shamaail’s defence of segregated spaces for Māori and Pasifika students reflects the complexity of the issue. While these segregated or specially earmarked spaces may provide a sense of belonging and support for some, they also raise questions about the potential for further division within campus communities. The challenge lies in striking a balance between creating spaces that empower marginalised groups and fostering an inclusive environment that promotes dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect among all students.

As New Zealand grapples with issues of equality and diversity, it is essential for institutions and policymakers to prioritise solutions that promote genuine inclusivity and empower all members of society to succeed, irrespective of their background or beliefs.

First appeared in the 28 March 2024 edition of the Indian Weekender