Understanding Racialized Expectations in the ELT Profession

10 August 2017

This month we are publishing Race and Ethnicity in English Language Teaching by Christopher Joseph Jenks. In this post the author discusses where racialized expectations come from and how they shape language teaching and learning.

Expectations are everything; they help us make decisions and make sense of existing life experiences. Our expectations shape decisions to seek out particular food items, holiday destinations and places of residence, and influence the extent to which we are satisfied with them. For instance, the satisfaction that I receive from eating a kale salad is not tied to my expectation that this particular food item tastes good. This would, without saying, be a foolish expectation. Rather, consuming a kale salad brings me satisfaction because of my expectations that it will result in good health and allow me to align myself with the all-important hipster community. Of course, the belief that kale is a food item of both a health-conscious individual and an advanced human being is the result of many years of cultural conditioning, which materializes in my decision to seek out particular foods and shop at grocery stores that will remain unnamed.

The decision to enrol in a particular school taught by an instructor that looks a certain way and speaks a specific language variety is also shaped by an existing set of expectations. My book, which examines race and racism in English language teaching and learning, is essentially about understanding where racialized expectations come from, and how they shape our understanding of, and actions pertaining to, the profession. That is to say, a preference for hiring White instructors from so-called Western countries does not materialize in a vacuum – a key observation in my book – but this ideology is rather rooted in a history of cultural conditioning that informs individuals what they should expect to see and hear in the language classroom.

What discourses and ideologies are responsible for such expectations? The expectation that English is a language (best) spoken, and therefore taught, by a small group of countries comes from a number of discourses and ideologies, and indeed varies from one region of the world to another, including colonial and imperial histories; in a place like South Korea, English is often associated with North America because of the role the United States has in military, political, and economic affairs.

My interest in writing this book comes from the many unanswered questions that exist regarding how such expectations become racialized in and through the discourses that are circulated within the English language teaching profession. For instance, I was motivated to understand how neoliberal forces shape the expectations one has when thinking about what English course to take. Although I am not interested in criticizing neoliberalism as an economic theory necessarily, I was motivated to show that the commodification of English facilitates the creation and circulation of racialized expectations. The book was also written because I was very much interested in examining how expectations are formulated from the point of view of privilege, such as White instructors from places like the United States. I show in my book, for example, that racial privilege creates the expectation among White instructors that they are in the best position to facilitate language learning, and this in turn influences how said teachers orient themselves within the profession; I refer to this expectation as White saviorism.

Although this project is ultimately about understanding where racialized expectations come from and how they shape language teaching and learning, the book also explores what needs to be done in the profession to create new discourses and ideologies that attend to the racial diversity that exists within the workforce. Like my desire to eat kale salads, I attempt to show that racial discrimination and privilege are misplaced expectations that come from years of cultural conditioning. This is no easy task, as racism is tied to decades of complex political and cultural struggles; yet I will be happy if my book makes even the smallest of contributions to the eradication of racism in the profession.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you enjoyed this, you might also be interested in Why English? edited by Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana and Ruanni Tupas.


No, Where Are You Really From? The Impact of Categorizing Others

8 August 2017

This month we are publishing Becoming Diasporically Moroccan by Lauren Wagner. In this post the author discusses the themes of microaggression and othering that are explored in her book.

© Kiyun Kim – from Racial Microaggressions, December 2013

Contrary to the typical imagination of discriminatory speech being direct and obvious, othering or categorizing statements often happen more subtly through microaggression. It can be understood as the ways underlying stereotypes about race, class, gender, and other social attributes are reproduced in casual encounters – like the experience of the woman in the picture on the right, from photographer Kiyun Kim’s project on microaggressions in a NYC university (For more testimonies, see the Microaggressions Tumblr or this nice video at Quartz with examples from film and TV). Microaggressions can be found anywhere, and experienced by anyone who might find their own sense of identity and belonging inadvertently or purposefully stereotyped by someone else. As they are becoming more widely researched and recognized as fostering social divisions, universities around the US are mandating that incoming students learn about the negative impacts of microaggression on their peers.

Yet, the existence of ‘microaggression’ is coming under attack by media and researchers, who question many of the claims made about potentially negative impacts of subtle speech. In Becoming Diasporically Moroccan, I try to show how the very subtle communicative and embodied modes for categorizing others do have an impact – not necessarily a direct and immediate one, but a cumulative and collective impact, as whole communities can come to feel ‘othered’ by the repetition, across members and over time, of small speech acts that create distinctions between us and them. This book doesn’t concentrate on how ‘othered’ groups feel harmed; rather, I try to focus on how othering contributes to evolving ideas of membership, participation, and a sense of belonging in an emerging group.

Let me take the example from the photograph above to illustrate how categorization happens in ordinary conversation.

No, where are you really from?

This is a question I hear quoted all the time by my research participants as one of the most troublesome ones they receive. While they are Moroccan-origin individuals who grew up in Europe, they share the problem of many migrant-origin individuals around the world of somehow not being allowed to be ‘from’ the place where they grew up.

The person asking this question may be on a genuine quest for information, but this includes layered, embedded assumptions that make it microaggressive. It is, firstly, context-specific, and depends on local knowledges and shared assumptions about what is ‘normal’; what should a person who is from somewhere look, sound, or be like? That leads to a second factor: that statement takes into account some kind of visible embodiment as categorizable in a combination of place (e.g. the somewhere she is from) and descent (or, the family lineage she comes from). This statement makes an assumption that place and descent map onto each other following a ‘normal’ category. Asking where she is really from implies that her claim to be from that somewhere is impossible. When these assumptions work together, they perpetuate this kind of (maybe unintentional…) microaggression, where this woman may feel like she has to justify being from the somewhere she feels she is from.

No wonder she is rolling her eyes…

Categorization at ‘home’

In Becoming Diasporically Moroccan, I pick apart face-to-face interactions where similar kinds of categorizing talk takes place, but in a different kind of context. Instead of looking at how Moroccan-origins manage their categorization in their European homelands – which might be compared to how lots of other minorities and migrant-origin groups have to deal with microaggression within a dominant (often ‘white’) group – this book looks at how these categorizations take place between Moroccans who live in Morocco and Moroccan-origin adults who visit Morocco from Europe. Like some other communities that develop in one place and can trace their familial descent to another place, Moroccans have a chance to regularly visit ‘home’. When they do, however, they often feel ‘othered’, in the opposite way to how many feel ‘othered’ in Europe.

By looking at individual examples of interactions in marketplaces, between resident Moroccan vendors and Moroccans-from-Europe, I show the subtle conversational details of how this ‘othering’ works. My conclusion, however, is not about how one or the other party may be doing wrong… Instead, I advocate that we start to think about how individuals like this – who grow up connected by descent and place to multiple homelands – together create new categories that help us evolve our thinking about where anyone might ‘belong’.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African Society by Kasper Juffermans.


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