Food and cultural festivals are among the things young people love most about Auckland. But they’re also concerned about racism and inequality. Tuitofa Aloua just hopes for the same chances to excel as everyone else.

A clutch of Tongan flags flap in the wind above the canvas sprawl of the Ōtara markets. Beneath them, Tuitofa Aloua weaves her way through the crowd of early morning shoppers, pausing to pick over a stall overflowing with pears, kiwifruit, apples, and checking the scrawled prices with a keen eye.

She’s been coming here every Saturday for as long as she can remember. The weekly trip to buy fruit and vegetables is part of her family’s routine. Her parents came from Tonga to Auckland, where they’ve raised five children. She’s the eldest. She’s lived in Papatoetoe her whole life.  “Home life is really quite traditional. We’re not allowed to speak English, so it’s full on Tongan.”

She’s grateful for this emphasis on her heritage. Grateful, too, for the multicultural community of South Auckland. “I’ve always felt accepted for who I am,” she says. “The diversity here is what makes me feel safe and I just love it.”

In the rest of the city, she doesn’t always feel so welcome.

If I was to go out of South Auckland I would kind of feel isolated, or like I don’t belong there.

“If I was to walk in somewhere people would look at my skin colour and they would just straight away think of something else,” she says.

She knows what people are thinking: “We are viewed as people who are lower class and don’t have jobs.” Media coverage of South Auckland plays into the negative stereotypes, she says.

“It’s always the bad things they look at ... it’s like they’re representing us as a whole when there’s so much more beneath the surface.”

Tuitofa is modest - she plays down her own successes. She says she’s been “lucky enough” to be given a Pacific Academic Excellence Scholarship to the University of Auckland.

When she moves into halls of residence next year to start a bachelor of health science, it will be the first time she’s lived away from South Auckland.

“I’ll be facing a lot of barriers. I’m quite nervous.”

Still, she’s confident she’ll rise to the challenge. The Papatoetoe High School head girl is used to meeting new people, and she’s no stranger to responsibility. She’s part of the Ōtara-Papatoetoe Youth Council and her church’s youth group, and works part-time at Cotton On.

“My upbringing and the community I’ve grown up in and having these different commitments ... has encouraged me to become bold, and just make sure that I break these stereotypical views,” she says.

The 18-year-old has a “passion for helping people” and wants to become a doctor. If she has to crash through glass ceilings to get there, she won’t just be doing it for herself. “I know that I’m representing a whole lot more talented and intelligent Pasifika people,” she says.

She credits her family with being the driving force behind her achievements. “I do what I do today only … so I can inspire [my siblings] to do just as good or better,” she says. That means going to university is “a lot of pressure”.

Not only do I need to do well, I need to get a job after uni, because I’m the eldest and right now my parents are working really hard just to provide for us.

She worries that even if she excels academically, she won’t get the same job opportunities or references as her Pākehā peers. “Where I come from, my identity, might be a barrier.” Knowing these challenges may lie ahead is “discouraging” for Pasifika and Māori youth, she says.

Auckland’s racist undercurrent is a big worry for young people.

Tuitofa is one of 84 student leaders from across Auckland who Stuff surveyed as part of Polite Rebellion, a project examining the lives, goals and fears of a generation of school leavers.

Forty-four per cent said they were “very concerned” about racism in Auckland and 41 per cent were “somewhat concerned”. Only 5 per cent said they weren’t at all concerned, and 9 per cent were neutral. At the same time, students highlighted Auckland’s diversity as one of the things they loved most about the city.

I like how it’s multicultural and not homogeneous. You get to learn something new every day.
Nikita Rani

Nikita Rani of Edgewater College. (SUPPLIED)

Nikita Rani of Edgewater College. (SUPPLIED)

Nikita Rani, 18, was born in Fiji but has lived in Auckland for long enough that “it truly feels like home”. While she’s desperate to travel, she reckons she’ll always find herself back here. As she comes to the end of her student leadership role at Edgewater College, she says she’s grateful to her parents for the “better education” she’s received in New Zealand.   

The students Stuff surveyed came from 31 ethnicities, and almost a third - 28 per cent - identified with more than one ethnic group.

Forty-one per cent of students said they were New Zealand European, while 27 per cent of students identified with one or more Asian ethnicity. A fifth of students identified as Pasifika and 11 per cent as Māori.

This is broadly reflective of Auckland overall.

In the 2013 census, 59 per cent of Aucklanders identified as NZ European; 23 per cent Asian; 15 per cent Pacific Islander and 11 per cent Māori.

Auckland is changing though. The latest projections from Stats NZ predict the city’s population is going to become increasingly diverse.

Auckland’s Asian community is set to almost double in the next 20 years, while the Pacific Island population will rise significantly, too. The Māori population is expected to grow slightly, to 12 per cent of the city’s make up. In contrast, the proportion of European or 'other' category is expected to fall to 48 per cent by 2038.

The shift in Auckland’s demographics will “undoubtedly” change the character of the city, Michael Slessor-White says.

The 17-year-old head boy of Rosmini College, on the North Shore, worries that more cultural diversity could bring with it “potential disharmony”.

While the pace of change because of Auckland’s diversity can be “overwhelming,” says Rutherford College head girl Jane Lee, the more we embrace diversity and adapt to change, “the more steps we take in the right direction together”.

Jane Lee of Rutherford College. (SUPPLIED)

Jane Lee of Rutherford College. (SUPPLIED)

Lee was born and raised in West Auckland and says she’s grateful to have grown up in an “incredible tight-knit community”.

“I believe it'd be harder to have this feeling of pride if I were to live anywhere else,” Lee says.

Grey - who prefers to go by his first name - is a 17-year-old intern at Auckland’s Rainbow YOUTH centre. A queer trans man, he says Auckland is “definitely” accepting of the LGBTIQ+ community, especially compared to more rural areas. Part of this tolerance is generational, he says.

My generation really understands that we’re all just people and we all just need to be nice to each other, instead of spreading a lot of hate and discrimination.

Christian Tuipulotu says meeting people from different backgrounds “helps us connect with each other and learn about their way of life”. The 17-year-old head boy of St Paul’s College has Tongan heritage and has grown up in South Auckland. He plans to move to Australia to further his rugby league career - he dreams of playing in the NRL for the Sydney Roosters - and study law and commerce at university.

But Auckland will always be home. “This is the place where my great-grandfathers have moved to give us a better chance at succeeding in life,” he says.

The city’s festivals and cultural events - such as Diwali, Polyfest, Chinese New Year and the lantern festival, Pride, Pasifika Festival - “bring the city of Auckland together to embrace life and live it to the best,” Tuipulotu says.

But Dr Edwina Pio, New Zealand’s first and only professor of diversity and director of diversity at AUT, says while it’s wonderful to celebrate diversity through festivals, “we’ve got to do much more”.

Dr Edwina Pio, professor of diversity and director of diversity at AUT. (SUPPLIED)

Dr Edwina Pio, professor of diversity and director of diversity at AUT. (SUPPLIED)

It’s important that education institutions, as well as organisations, when they talk of diversity it’s more than butter chicken, more than Diwali, more than moon cakes and more than Chinese New Year.
Dr Edwina Pio

Large countries such as India or China, where a lot of migrants come from, are “so heterogenous” she says, “you can’t use one broad template for everyone”.

Migration is a reality, Pio says. “When we think of the future of New Zealand, it is going to get browner, it is going to get older.” That’s why it’s important Aucklanders are comfortable living alongside people from diverse backgrounds.

University of Auckland academic Ani McGahan and manager of South Auckland online community empowerment platform UPsouth Ayla Hoeta agree Aucklanders need to do more to change negative perceptions that cling to areas and ethnicities.

Hoeta says Māori students in her community commonly don’t make it past Year 11. “You ask why they dropped out, and the comments are always around teachers making them feel they had less value than non-Māori.”

Ayla Hoeta, manager of South Auckland online community empowerment platform UPsouth. (SUPPLIED)

Ayla Hoeta, manager of South Auckland online community empowerment platform UPsouth. (SUPPLIED)

McGahan’s own experiences of prejudice as a Māori female growing up on the North Shore prompted her to research the ways Māori experience racism in the area for her master’s degree. For many of the rangatahi (young people) McGahan spoke to, racism was “an old acquaintance” that could take the form of negative stereotyping, implicit racial bias, or low expectations about who they were and what they would achieve.

Although discussing racism is often emotionally charged, “we’re only going to change if we start talking more about it,” McGahan says. This starts with turning “inward” and examining our own biases.

Tui is also hopeful that conversation can create positive change.

“I know there’s a lot of good students out there, I just hope we get the same chance as well and we get recognised for our achievements as well.”

Reporting: Brittany Keogh and Josephine Franks

Visuals: Lawrence Smith

Animation and design: Kathryn George

Data: Andy Fyers

Development: John Harford

Editors: John Hartevelt and Blair Ensor