In the industry of teaching English abroad, people of colour don’t exist. Or at least that’s what you might think from reading articles like Vice’s White People with No Skill Sets Wanted in China. In the piece, Walker and Hartley suggest that Chinese people believe all white people can teach English well. They have, however, failed to acknowledge the harmful role that the English teaching industry and western media have had in painting the image of ‘good English’ as a domain reserved for white people. Whilst this image serves to fuel entitlement amongst whites it also renders English-speaking people of colour invisible and fundamentally deficient by way of their race. Clearly, since the rise of English as the language of empire, it can no longer be considered as synonymous with white. Perpetuating this perspective leads to situations where people ask me
“Oh? You’re an English teacher? But I thought you were black.”
For a while now, I’ve been going back and forth in my head about what it means to be a person of colour, teaching English abroad. Every day I find myself conflicted in how I feel about my work; although I enjoy it, I also feel as if I have something to prove. While I am a 23 year-old, native English-speaking American, with a dual bachelor of arts in Chinese language and philosophy; I am also a black Latina woman with a sizeable afro. I feel the pressure of my race every single day when my students are reluctant to play the role of a black character for language practice in a skit. I feel the need prove that black and brown people can make it in the world.
The most jarring realisation that I have had during my experience of teaching abroad, has been how truly unprepared I was to endure the constant contact with intrusive, white, western privilege, and its detrimental effects on, not only me as a person, but on the Chinese people that I encounter every day. Of course I’ve browsed through all the usual expat resources, “life hack” articles for the traveller, but very few delve into the psychological journeys of people of colour living abroad. However, the majority seem to be written by middle class white westerners “experiencing youth”, “living life on the edge” and “finding themselves”
I wonder how different the output quality of English teachers in China would be if they not only recruited more teachers of colour, but also gave them resources. Programs such as mine do not prepare us for the triggering effects of being followed around a store or stopped and checked for identification on a Tuesday night. Nor do they prepare us for older ladies grabbing our hair or children seeing us and screaming. Currently, the visibility of non-white native English speakers in countries like China is astoundingly low, however, I believe that changing this will have a disruptive effect, breaking the illusory notion that English (and thereby power) is the domain of whiteness alone, distributed downward only at the hands of white benevolence.
Within a hegemonic world, the English language has been placed on such a high pedestal that Chinese parents are spending their last dime to have an unskilled foreigner pretend to teach their children. The high demand for English has been established because those in non-native English speaking countries believe English is necessary for survival. As a person of colour operating in this environment I feel that, although I am a part of the problem by virtue of supporting the industry, I am also challenging norms by showing that people of colour needn’t always be sat in the class, they can lead it too.
I was placed at my current school through a foundation that recruits recent college graduates for employment teaching English in China. The sole requirements were a background check, four-year university degree, an interest in Chinese culture, and native speaker English fluency. Hundreds of teachers arrive in countries like China every year, with these minimal qualifications and inadequate knowledge of basic world culture, race, and history. They do not know that English has been used as a tool of imperialism for decades and continues to be the dominant language of privilege used by western countries to uphold the line between the haves and the have-nots. They cannot see that their sense of entitlement will remain unchecked because there is no one around to check it when they quite literally, rule the world. I wonder how different these programs would be if trainees were given useful cultural lessons that highlighted more than “bizarre Chinese customs”, and focused on how to be a conscious foreign ambassador. Our cultural training started and ended with basic statements about getting our picture taken from time to time on the streets, interesting Chinese cuisine, too small clothes, and how “Chinese girls love white dudes”. I believe an honest panel discussion on life in China from the perspective of a native Chinese citizen, a non-white expat, and non-male participant would be most beneficial.
Whilst it is difficult to work against a perspective that remains ubiquitous after centuries of hegemony, action can be taken. Organisations, much like the one that placed me in China, can hire a more diverse staff, and they should establish a set of baseline criteria for participants that exceeds just a university degree. Cross-cultural competency, a fundamental understanding of racism and privilege, and personal accountability should be just as important as knowledge of the English language. I’d go as far as suggesting the recruitment of majority non-white English teachers for a few years to begin shifting the balance.
I feel immense pressure to help my students learn English so that I can give them the advantage that they unfortunately need to have. Ultimately, I have had to take a critical look at how I am contributing to western privilege, yet also uplifting English-speaking people of colour in the eyes of the non-English speaking world. Chinese students should have the opportunity to learn that this language is not synonymous with white. I sleep at night knowing that as a person of colour, I have displayed myself as a foil to the negative stereotypes and general portrayals non-western countries receive about people like me on a constant basis.
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Ashley Evangelista is a 23-year-old aspiring writer from Baltimore, Maryland. She recently spent a year teaching English in Ningbo, China where she found a great deal of time to read, write, and play the ukulele. She has a passion for multicultural education and contemporary art, and hopes to one day utilize both to make a positive impact in her community. Find her on Twitter: @KaboomxPow
This piece was edited by Henna Butt