Dylan Asafo: a quiet voice for justice

Dylan Asafo doesn’t shy from sharing his opinion on health inequity and institutional racism in the justice system.

Law lecturer Dylan Asafo
Law lecturer Dylan Asafo. Photo: Billy Wong

Read University of Auckland law lecturer Dylan Asafo’s opinion pieces and you may get the impression he’s an angry man.

Well, yes, he is rightly riled by racial injustice, but talk to him in person and the thoughtful, softly spoken law lecturer sees being forthright as a means to an end.

Dylan believes speaking out is his duty, even if it goes against his cultural grain.

“When we call out injustice, as angry as we might sound, it’s out of love. Even though it can be quite risky and scary to call out powerful people and institutions – to speak truth to power – it is something we do out of love for our communities because we want to see them flourish.”

In 2019, Dylan, now 28, won a Fulbright General Graduate Award. He went to Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2020 where he earned his Masters of Law in Critical Race Studies.

“It was a huge privilege, and one I’d never imagined for myself. It was the first time I’d been away from my family for longer than a month, so it was hard. Being close to my family and my communities is what inspires me and gives me strength to do this work.”

The benefits were great. “Many scholars of colour go to schools like Harvard with a very specific purpose – to represent our communities and to take the privilege and skills that our degrees give us back to our communities.

“The experience opened my eyes to thinking radically about the law. First and foremost, solutions always lie within our communities. That means thinking about how you can use your training, and your role as an academic, practitioner or policymaker, to amplify the voices and aspirations of your communities.

“I was exposed to critical race theory at Auckland Law School during my undergraduate LLB, but it was quite a small part of the curriculum. When I learnt about critical race theory more deeply, and other similar racial justice theories in my final two years of my LLB degree, that’s when I felt law was something I should pursue in my postgraduate studies.”

What health science teaches you is that law and policy have an important role in driving health inequities.

Lecturer Dylan Asafo, Auckland Law School Waipapa Taumata Rau

Dylan’s undergraduate degree was a conjoint in health science and law.

“I was interested in both and wanted to pursue a career in health policy at the Ministry of Health. I’m grateful I went with that combination because it’s a pretty rare conjoint degree. Something I love about health sciences is that it’s geared towards social justice.”

He says a core focus in a health science degree is to address health inequities. Learning about the social determinants of health has been foundational to his views.

“We look at how inequities are driven by political and economic forces, globally and domestically. I wonder if my politics would be different today if I hadn’t done a health science degree.”

Dylan doesn’t shy from sharing his opinion on health inequity, as well as institutional racism in the criminal justice system.

“What health science teaches you, is that law and policy have an important role in driving health inequities.”

Dylan’s passion for research grew stronger after studying in the US.

“It was transformative to learn how they have used movements within academia to serve their communities. I’ve never turned back from that.

“There are still opportunities to contribute to policy and practice. In academia, I can act as a consultant, and also work with lawyers to help them with their practice. I’m still able to influence law and policy in those ways.”

He acknowledges the US legal system is hardly an exemplar for how our legal system should deal with racism, but says standing in solidarity with marginalised communities in the US is critical.

“From the outside, the US legal system might look like a complete mess. But something I learned from legal scholars of colour over there is that we have to always hope and reimagine a better world.

“Even though there have been, and will continue to be, setbacks in racial justice, accepting the status quo is not an option. You can grieve over the losses but you have to keep going.”

Dylan says while there are contextual distinctions between racial tensions in the US and what’s happening in Aotearoa, he does believe there is sustained racialised police violence here.

“Saying racism is not as ‘big’ an issue here is unhelpful, and is rhetoric often used to dismiss or minimise racist violence.”

It is so important for Pacific students to see a brown face at the front of the lecture theatre, so that they see themselves in the Law School and know that they are needed here.

Dylan Asafo, law lecturer University of Auckland

But has racism in the justice system improved since the Dawn Raids era, from 1974 to 1976?

“Well, it might be unlikely for the police today to carry out large-scale deportation raids driven by racist scapegoating as we saw with the Dawn Raids. But the police still continue to subject Māori, Pacific, Black and Muslim minorities to racial profiling, surveillance and violence every day, and still exploit every opportunity to arm themselves to the detriment of our people.”

When Dylan first began studying law, there were no Pacific lecturers.

“It is so important for Pacific students to see a brown face at the front of the lecture theatre, so that they see themselves in the Law School and know that they are needed here.

“When I entered as a first-year student in 2012, I didn’t see that. It finally happened when Helenā Kaho became the first Pacific academic to join the faculty in 2015; she broke that barrier for us.”

Now he shyly wears the mantle of role model for Pacific students, with fellow Samoan academic, Associate Professor Guy Fiti Sinclair. There are around 1,300 students in first-year law and Dylan estimates around 200 would be Pacific students.

“It makes a huge difference being able to see ‘yourself’ in front of you and to hear similar perspectives coming through. It makes you feel as though you belong, and that it’s okay to be yourself, and that you’re able to achieve to the best of your ability.”

Dylan and his younger brother went to Avondale College. His brother is working as a Pacific health researcher while completing his Master of Public Health at the University of Auckland. His older sister went to Auckland Girls Grammar and is training to become an orthopaedic surgeon.

“My parents believe education is important. I was privileged to have a mum with a university degree, who helped us in a very hands-on way with our homework and encouraged us to read every day.

“That was on top of having a gruelling job as a night-shift nurse. She made a big difference to my ability to pay attention and to achieve. But our parents also gave us the space to choose whatever we wanted for a career.”

He acknowledges that many Pacific families try to steer their children towards medicine or law.

“I’m grateful my parents were gentle with their encouragement, and open and flexible with whatever we wanted to do.”

Being able to express yourself freely is important, but hate speech isn’t free speech.

Law lecturer Dylan Asafo University of Auckland

Dylan is also working to address socioeconomic inequality, which includes serious pay disparities experienced by Pacific peoples. The first report by the Human Rights Commission as part of the Pacific Pay Gap Inquiry, released on 19 July, provided disturbing data about the pay gaps for Māori, Pacific and Asian people, relative to Pākehā.

For example, the research showed that with all other relevant factors eliminated (education, job characteristics, geographic location), 73 percent of the pay gap for Pacific men and 61 percent of the pay gap for Pacific women, couldn’t be explained. It showed the gap was likely due to barriers such as racism, unconscious bias and discriminatory practices in the workplace.

Dylan says the attribute of humility often stops Pacific peoples from discussing better wages with their employers.

“A lot of us won’t demand what we deserve not only because of the racial power imbalances at play, but because being humble, gracious and generous to others is fundamentally important to us.

Within Pacific and other Indigenous spaces, those traits and tendencies are usually reciprocated or returned with generosity.

“Unfortunately, in Eurocentric Western workplaces, that reciprocity is missing. As a result, many Pacific peoples are not being paid what they deserve based on their contributions – not only in terms of their official duties, but additional unwritten expectations around cultural advising and support that they’re not properly compensated for.”

While Dylan feels free to speak out about this and many other issues affecting minority groups, he is concerned with how the right to free speech is constantly invoked to deny marginalised groups stronger protections against hate speech.

“In New Zealand, we have an absolutist commitment to free speech which distorts what many people think is ok when it comes to discrimination. Within universities, mainstream media and social media platforms, there’s a bizarre preoccupation with protecting individual human rights, like the right to freedom of expression, at almost any cost, rather than protecting the lives and upholding the mana of everyone within our communities."

He says we need to shift away from that individualistic thinking.

“Being able to express yourself freely is important, but hate speech isn’t free speech. Hate speech is connected to hate crime and acts of white supremacist terrorism around the world.”

Dylan believes New Zealand’s hate speech laws are inadequate.

“Entrenched colonial racism plays a huge role in preventing effective regulation of hate speech. Pākehā continue to centre themselves and their rights to be racist whenever we talk about hate speech law reform, and that mindset needs to change for marginalised people to be safe and protected from violence.”

Isn’t it all a bit depressing?

“Definitely!” he laughs. “In my classes I say ‘yep this Act [of law] is racist and will be extremely difficult to change’. And my students say, ‘how am I supposed to go on with the rest of my day?’.”

But Dylan reminds them to always be hopeful and encourages them to use their privileges as future law and policymakers to speak up, in the same way he was encouraged.

“I always felt out of place in law lectures and I wasn’t a star student. But I was lucky I had tuakana like Helenā, Khylee Quince, Julia Tolmie and Treasa Dunworth who created spaces for students to be bold and challenge traditional ways of thinking about the law.

“I wouldn’t be here without Treasa and a lot of other Pacific law graduates would tell you the same thing. She has worked tirelessly to build the Pacific programme at the Law School to what it is today.

“She is always telling our students that nothing is impossible, and told me to apply for Fulbright and Harvard even though it seemed like the most ridiculous idea at the time.

“When I started as a teaching fellow and doubted my critical ideas, Treasa encouraged me and reminded me that it’s my duty and privilege to be critical and to call out racism in the law. I’ve never looked back.”

Truth to power. It’s what he does, just quietly.

Story by Denise Montgomery

This profile first appeared in the August 2022 edition of UniNews

Email: uninews@auckland.ac.nz