Varinder’s personal story of a non-white woman teacher in white male dominated transnational ELT shows how deeply discriminatory the profession has become. It shows that being perceived as a ‘native speaker’ has often nothing to do with your mother tongue, but everything with being white and Western-looking.
This might shock you. You might think that Varinder’s story is but one unfortunate example. And we can’t generalise from it. Surely such a nice profession as ELT can’t be that racist?
It can. It is. And the extent of racism in ELT is shocking.
In his 2014 MA thesis, Vijay Anil Ramjattan presents narratives of ten English teachers from ethnic minorities in Toronto, Canada. Similarly to Varinder, they face incredulous looks and racist comments from students.
You don’t have to look far to find similar accounts. In a 2016 paper, Eljee Javier presents stories of two English teachers – a Canadian and an American – of non-white descent. Neither fits the idealised image of the fabled ‘native speaker’ that has been sold to students around the world. Such attitudes aren’t limited to students, though.
In a recent analysis of native speakerism in Japan, researchers Kubota and Fujimoto highlight the story of a American teacher of Japanese ancestry who felt that she was always seen and talked about by her colleagues as a Japanese American. On the other hand, her American colleague of Italian descent would never be referred to as an Italian American. He was simply American.
He had something she lacked: he was white and Western-looking. And it’s not even your non-white looks that can give you away. Racism and prejudice in ELT run much, much deeper. A study of recruitment policies in the Gulf countries gives examples of American and British teachers whose CVs were turned down on the spot because of their ‘non-native’ names. I mean, surely, a proper ‘native speaker’ should be called John Smith, not Muhammed Said. I could go on. But to recount all the instances of racism in ELT documented in academic literature, let alone by such poignant and telling personal accounts as that shared by Varinder, would take a whole book.
Unfortunately, racism in ELT is widespread. It is also well-documented.
The question that we should all ask ourselves, though, is: what can we do about it.
Marek Kiczkowiak is an EAP lecturer at the University of Leuven and is founder of TEFL Equity Advocates: www.teflequityadvocates.com