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‘Students have refused to be taught by me’

varinder unlu

Language school director of studies Varinder Unlu has spent her career on the receiving end of often bare-faced racism. The issue is the ‘elephant in the room’ in ELT and needs greater research, she says.

I have grown up experiencing so much racism and sexism that most of the time these days it doesn’t even occur to me to be offended when it rears its ugly head.

Take last week for example. I get a call from one of our registrars – there’s a prospective student wanting to talk to the academic director about Ielts classes.

I walk out to the reception area to be greeted by a young Saudi woman. I introduce myself and her first question is, ‘Are you going to be my teacher? I want a good teacher. I need a native teacher to teach me because it’s very important for me to pass my exam.’

This didn’t shock me. I have heard this many times before. I have had students walk out of classrooms when I have walked in, demanding that they have a white native teacher. I have had teachers on teacher-refresher courses do the same – without even being given the chance to open my mouth, let alone teach them anything.

In ELT we’ve been talking about the native versus non-native speaker teacher issue for a long time, but there is an elephant in the room which we are totally ignoring: people of colour and racism.

I was born in India but grew up in London. I have dark skin but I sound English. I don’t look typically Indian and people find it difficult to place my ethnicity. Plus, I’m female.

Like most people in this industry, I became a teacher by chance. In Izmir, Turkey, where I first started teaching in 1992, I was the only Asian teacher there at the time. I was a bit of a novelty. Students would often call me Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson, not because I could sing but because I’m dark skinned and have curly hair. I just put it down to ignorance.

It wasn’t until I returned to London that I experienced racism of a different sort.

Students of certain nationalities refusing to be taught by me, not because I’m not good at teaching but because I’m not white. Teenage children writing racist remarks on the covers of their notebooks such as ‘fucking nigger bitch’. Remarks which shocked my director of studies so much at the time that he actually apologised for putting me through this awful experience and asked the group to leave the school.

When I first became an examiner, I had to attend examiner training with a room full of white middle-class women who thought I was there to serve lunch.

Becoming a director of studies at a language school in Covent Garden and attending an anniversary celebration where I was mistaken for the staff serving drinks and canapes. Being asked, ‘What do you do?’ and getting a look of shock when the reply was, ‘I’m the director of studies.’

One person even asked, ‘How did you manage that, then?’

Is it racism or something else? Would a white person have been asked the same questions or got mistaken for waiting staff? Was it because I was wearing a black dress?

I have asked myself these questions many times over the years. I’ve also questioned when in meetings or at some event why I’m the only non-white face there. Or when a student is shocked to see me when they’ve asked to see the academic director and I have to convince them that

it’s me they want to speak to.

In an industry where it’s still normal to see job ads asking for ‘native speakers only – must be white/Caucasian’, it can sometimes be tough to ignore racism.

I’m a first-generation immigrant. English is not my mother tongue but I speak it better than most natives. So why is it that I’m not considered native?

There are many countries around the world where there are no anti-discrimination laws to regulate employment, and an English teacher is still perceived to be white and a native of the UK, US, Australia or Canada. A non-white teacher from India would still be considered non-native, despite having grown up in England. The white teacher would still be preferred over the non-white teacher, even if they lacked the experience and qualifications.

However, in Europe and the US, where we do have anti-discrimination laws that employers have to abide by, there are some that still maintain discriminatory practices in their hiring policies. A good academic paper to look at is Racism in the ELT industry by Ahmar Mahboob and Caroline Lipovsky, written in 2009. Most staffrooms in EFL still consist predominantly of white teachers. At the above school in Covent Garden, only two out of sixty teachers were non-white. State sector Esol is an exception to this.

In 2003, doctoral research by Dr Mahboob, then at Indiana University, said, ‘we only have anecdotal evidence that employers prefer to hire white native speakers to other speakers as language teachers. A native speaker will have a higher chance of being hired than a non-native speaker.’

I don’t think things have improved at all since this was written, and its a topic that is all-too-often ignored.

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