by Ashley Evangelista

Ashley Evangelista
Ashley Evangelista

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.

Ashley in the classroom
Ashley in the classroom

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

29 thoughts on “Teaching English in China While Black

  1. Greetings , I am cameroonian , a teacher by profession .Please I really want to teach in China. I have 2years experience and I really enjoy teaching the primary level. Presently i am teaching in a home school with about 20 pupils .Please help me get a teaching job in China .

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  2. AM IN CHINA IN WUHAN CITY HOW CAN I FIND A JOB TO TEACH AM A DEGREE HOLDER IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE
    WITH TEACHING EXPERIENCE OF 4 YEARS…… THANKS IF SOMEONE CAN HELP ……AM READY TO RELOCATE

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  3. well, an individual should always be judged as an individual. Unfortunately, African people as a -race- are generally subpar — and this is the root of your problem. Or, you can prove me wrong and show me a few places on the map where black people have built a decent society for themselves.

    That’s what I think about your ‘white privilege’ complaints. It’s what we get for having successful state and culture throughout history.

    Get it.

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    1. Let’s see how long it would take you to influence respect and create successful economies for your race after you’ve been enslaved for hundreds of years. Not to mention the ensuing oppression that follows, post enslavement. I think we’ve made some drastic leaps as a race in just ~200 years. It’s hard to see the other side of things when your a decendant of white privilege. It’s even harder when you’re too ignorant to understand the concept of what follows such enslavement.

      Better yet, let’s see your pampered ass navigate the environmental implications that construct the paradigm of black communities. Let’s see you circumvent poverty, prison, & poor education. Until then, don’t speak on things that you can’t begin to understand.

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    2. Exactly it’s a known fact blacks have lower IQs than Caucasian white people, just accept the fact or don’t it’s your choice, your the one being racist toward who people with all this crap your butt hurt because they want white teachers and you aren’t wanted, go anywhere in Asia and you will get the same your lucky you even got a job there fuzzy dick head

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      1. What a racist name you chose. That alone tells us everything we need to know. Haven’t you heard that IQ is discredited? “your lucky”, gee if you want to argue for your superiority, you might be more careful of your grammar! How pathetic.

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  4. This is truly an amazing article.

    I lived in China for about a year and I believe that you just nailed the problematic right there.

    The English language has been for the last decades (or centuries) a tool of domination between the haves and the haves not and Chinese people are suffering from it.

    As a white privileged male, it is really difficult for me to take a moral standing on this issue: while I truly benefit from the system, I also understand that it has severe consequences on the people living beside me.

    And still, even with moral issues, I can’t resist returning there as soon as possible.

    China is truly a playground for the privileged.

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    1. An excellent article, Ashley.Unfortunately, this is an issue that exists everywhere. I taught in China and am now teaching in Thailand. As a highly qualified and experienced native speaker of English, albeit of Indian heritage, I experience racism on a regular basis. Even as a CELTA and DELTA qualified teacher, with four years teaching experience, it still feels as if I have apply for 50+ jobs to recieve a few responses.

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  5. Fantastic article! So well written and ARTICULATE (said tongue-in-cheek from a black female also currently teaching English in China;) No, but seriously you articulated so clearly how I feel and have experienced on this matter. Your writing is so clear, and to the point. I wish you much success in your future writing endeavors. I don’t have twitter, but if you have a blog or something else I’d gladly subscribe to it 🙂

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  6. I’m sure you’re glad you had the teaching experience in China. As for teaching the language of privilege and colonialism: My take is that to fight back effectively sometimes it helps to know the language of the “other”. 🙂

    Anyway, what can I say: born in Canada, didn’t learn English until kindergarten, lived in Canada all my life and lost about 80% of Chinese speaking fluency.

    Asssimilation is powerful…but I confess fighting its power means taking a different direction solo, to redefining identity in North America. Not sure about China and being seduced by the West + English language.

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  7. I think this is a really important thing about EAL teaching that needs to be discussed more – thank you for saying it! I teach English in London, and I benefit from being a white “native speaker”, in that both employers and students assume that I will, as a result of my whiteness and “lack of accent”, will be a “better” teacher than my POC peers and teachers with non-RP accents – before they’ve even seen me teach; I see adverts for “native speakers only” regularly when job-hunting. I do find challenging racism (and sexism, and dis/ableism) in the classroom to be a necessary part of teaching, but not one that training or the culture of EAL teaching prepared me to meet – and something that is so rarely discussed that finding teachers who want to make changes seems to be a rarity. Thank you again for writing this.

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  8. Great insightful article. I think citizenship (accent?) plays a large part too when it comes to teaching English in places like China, Indonesia or Japan. I’ve found that non-British/American/Australian POC have had their English language proficiencies dismissed and/or not held to as high a regard. English language supremacy & colonialism at work obviously.

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    1. Adrienne, I definitely agree with you about the imperialist idea that non-British or non-American accents and citizenship are often closed off from this, or dismissed as adequate enough for teaching English. Although I was born in Singapore, arguably an English-speaking country, and lived in Canada extensively to the point that I did my PhD there in English, certain countries such as South Korea would NEVER employ me, unless I acquire my Canadian citizenship (then again, the other issue is that Singapore does not allow dual citizenship unlike Canada, and why should I opt for this when some of my immediate family is not re-locating to Canada?). That did not stop me from applying though, and I was employed in a Japanese university for a while, although I still have to start looking again for employment now that I am done with contract work there.

      “White privilege” is a term alien to most people of Caucasian heritage though, as far as I view it, and especially when one has been inured to decades and centuries of western imperialism and colonialism through upbringing and media, it is not possible to change such ideas and stereotypes immediately. For example, it was rather pathetic but laughable at the same time when I was dressed up very well and shopping inside at a supermarket for groceries, and one old Canadian lady asked me then(years back) about a particular product and where it was located, under the assumption that Asians in Canada are working in low-end retail jobs as cashiers and store assistants. At a conference in the USA two years back, I asked the lady tending the booth for one of the university presses holding an exhibition about the book’s price, and she was like, “O, you speak really good English!” All these were obviously said under the assumptions that because I am Asian, I cannot possibly be expected to know English because it is assumed that I was not born or raised or educated in the west. The irony of it all was that I was speaking in a standard North American or Canadian accent to her which would have been clear that I grew up speaking English instead of any other Asian language as my native language.

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  9. This is fascinating… I could read a whole book about your experience! I have so much to say (so many hideous anecdotes of whiteness) about my own time teaching English in China but I am trying to restrain myself from colonising even more space and inflicting further violence…

    However, I would like to share that what I saw totally and urgently corroborates what you pointed out here about the privilege-blindness, entitlement and ignorance about colonialism of EMT (English ‘mother-tongue’) teachers, and the desperate need for ‘useful cultural lessons’ from native and non-white-EMT perspectives. Up to now, I have not been able to articulate what I found extremely problematic about my role while in China, and your words have enabled me to see whiteness. I am especially grateful for your sharing as I am continuing to teach ESOL. Thank you!

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  10. Excellent article! Things are changing very, very, slowly and more non-white teachers are heading overseas to places like China and Korea to teach… but there’s a long a way to go still…

    Have you seen this article from Tate Nanje on teaching in Korea? I think it would resonate a lot with what you’ve experienced: http://tinyurl.com/nnjhted

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  11. Great article, def a necessary voice on the subject of teaching english abroad. But while the writer acknowledges that teaching english is fucked up, it just stops there. Really, no one, and I feel, especially POC, should be engaging in linguistic imperialism at this degree. I wonder what else the writer has to say about this.

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    1. I’ve seen the argument that absolutely no one should teach English abroad and I’ve been trying to articulate my feelings on that. I have a couple of statements/ideas that I suppose lead to a larger answer.

      First, let’s talk about the basics of learning a foreign language. In most cases (save for public high school and middle school), I received Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic lessons from a native speaker. There are many benefits to learning a second language from a native speaker; there are certain nuances and double meanings that a native level speaker best understands. This can be applied across the board and in a country like China, native English speakers are going to have to be imported. Learning it from the mouth of a native speak in itself is not the problem. However, as I stated, learning English as a second language has very different implications depending on where you are in the world. There are also false assumptions as to what a native English speaker looks like.

      Secondly, if POC were to remove themselves from the equation and decide to abstain from teaching English abroad, white people aren’t going to stop. We aren’t even a visible part of the industry let alone a driving force to demolish it. Additionally, teaching English has far surpassed the days of simply white imperialists traveling to a small isolated community and “civilizing” the residents. There is a strong demand globally for native English speakers (for business, political, academic, etc. reasons). So what I suggest is we take a system that is flawed at its foundation and introduce sensitivity and understanding. Redistribute the privilege. Work from within to ensure people globally aren’t simply used as a means to an end for a couple of bucks.

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      1. Perhaps I should have said “should not be.” Please remove my comment if it offends you, that was certainly not my intention.

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    1. Color really, really is a consideration and in a lot of cases, a qualification. Read the link given about how white people can get jobs as fake executives.to give an international image just by being white. POC don’t get those chances.

      Japan is a different country, but has a lot of the same issues. I’ve lived in Japan for over a decade, and yes, being black does make a difference. The image of an English-language speaker is that of a white person, and it makes it harder to find jobs when you aren’t white.

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      1. Think for a minute… people of different races, sex, degree of attractiveness, etc. are all measured up to a defective list of criteria. A white/caucasian who is very unattractive or deformed is less likely to be selected for employment than a Black or Hispanic, etc. All criteria is subjective.

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        1. Think for a minute… are you actually denying the direct experience that people are sharing here? Or are you saying that racism/white privilege is an amazingly coincidental series of isolated incidents?

          Liked by 2 people

        2. I was talking about this issue with a Chinese university teacher very close of mine. He used to tell me that, up to a certain extent, Chinese culture could be the most racist in the world. Not through aggressive behaviors towards POC, but due to the fact that they represent themselves the World has a ”ladder of races”. And concretely, people with darker complexions are seen globally as ”lower” than people with fairer complexions (even among themselves).

          In order to reply to your comment, I could definitely say that in China, white people always get the edge over locals or POCs. Is it fair? No. Is is encouraged? Indirectly, but very difficult to seize it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Wouldn’t it be nice if the entire human race would focus on moving us all forward instead of nitpicking on small, inconsequential things like the pigment of our skin?

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