It would be crass and unfair to claim that “We are all racists”. But I do believe that we are all capable of making decisions based on our preconceptions of other peoples ethnicity or cultural background. Isn’t that just the same thing with a few five-dollar words thrown in?

I’m not sure. Is there a difference between shoving a firework through a ‘paki’ family’s letterbox and crossing the road because there is a black man behind you? The result might be markedly different, but they both come from the same place.

I’m working on this topic at the moment with an advanced class, and I’ve been trying to avoid the big, obvious issues such as Apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement. Of course there are some harrowing and terrible stories to be told, but once you tell them where do you go? It’s like when you watch the news and something awful has happened to some people you have never met in a place you have never been, and you say “Oh dear, that’s a shame”, and you really mean it, but you go back to cooking the dinner. This is the danger of all ‘issues’ classes – reducing complex problems to tired cliches in search of a grammar point.

But this is a guide, so let’s go to the bullet points.

  • If there is one thing students value, it’s fair treatment. We should be consistent and equal in the way we respond to students. All classrooms are diverse, but racial and cultural differences may lead to certain students feeling sidelined.
  • Don’t assume your classroom is racially or culturally homogenous. I teach in Japan, generally thought to be a very homogenous society, yet I frequently have learners of Chinese or Korean ancestry. They are not as immediately visible as the Turkish, Bangladeshi and Brazilian students I’ve also taught here, which means perhaps that it is all the more important to be aware of it. The hidden history of world emigration patterns is more than just Ellis island. Educate yourself about the place you are teaching in (although don’t get carried away and make each student give you a DNA profile. Some people get sensitive about that kind of thing).
  • Don’t stereotype your students. Obvious perhaps, but it is so tempting to do. I’ve taught quite a few students from Arabic-speaking countries and they tend to be more talkative and to have more trouble writing than Japanese students . The danger is that you will pigeonhole a student as soon as you see their face, and get yourself a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Don’t use those stereotypes as an excuse. It may be that my class is quiet because they are Japanese…. but maybe I just did a lousy job setting up the task, or the lesson itself is boring.
  • Assess your materials. Whether you are using publishers stuff, authentic media, or something you have put together yourself, try not to be one-dimensional. the Marxist TEFL blog have an excellent post on immigrant squirrels, and the dangers of peddling perceived wisdom which is actually not so wise. Learners take away a lot more than language from a class, and that handout you used to teach the indefinite article might not stand up to critical scrutiny. Of course, the best student is the one who questions EVERYTHING, including the teacher.
  • You do not represent your entire race or country, but to your students you might. Be very wary of starting statements with “Well, in England we…..”, because whatever you follow it with will be untrue.

To finish off, twenty years old and still as powerful and intelligent as ever……

And in troubled times you might want to read through Searchlight, fighting racism for many years.

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14 Thoughts on “responsible racism – a guide for teachers

  1. Nice checklist Darren. Your blog raises lots of intersting questions and your comments around the blogosphere are always thought-provoking. We hope you will particpate in the building of an alternative TEFL conference (IaltTEFL)not just as contributor but as an organiser. “Invitations” to form an editorial board will be out soon.

    As for the matter in hand, there is no disageement. We would ask however, that you look at this contribution to the Cardiff 2009 IATEFL conference and answer whether, from adapting your checklist, you consider it to be “ageist”. For us it is undoubtedly so, because it homogenizes this group, presenting them as a category without difference. We have looked at the presenters’ supporting papers and we find them shocking. For example, they conclude that “senior learners do believe they can learn” (based of course on their limited experience teaching people who have probably paid over 1,000 euros to do so) they show no interest in social class, gender or race. They treat them as homogenous without actually defining who “they” are. Are they over 50, 60 or 70, are they retired or still working, are they learning a language siimilar to their own or one widely different? This, for us is promoting “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” to the status of science. Elevating small observed biological differences to justifications for stereotypes.

    There might be plenty of reasons to provide a class for “retired learners” if only for the fact that the richness of their life experiences is often stymied by the presence of younger students but aparthied… an expectation that senior learners need something different than other learners because their brains have decayed….

    We’d be grateful to know if you think this is an over-reaction on our part (were we so confident, we would have posted it as a piece on the blog) to an innocent paper presented by two committed teachers only trying to identify need and teach better.

    We thought, given your approach in the above article, you will be well-placed to reply.

  2. darren on October 10, 2009 at 8:37 pm said:

    I think you’ve answered your own question. I agree that, technically, this could be considered ageist. But returning to racism as an analogy, how about the woman who brings me an English menu at a restaurant in Japan. She looks at my white face and assumes that I couldn’t possibly read Japanese – that’s racist. But in her mind, she is trying to be helpful…. it doesn’t really compare to a boot in the face from a skinhead, does it?

    So to this presentation… condescending? Maybe. Sloppy? Possibly. I’d be reluctant to go even that far without seeing the presentation itself. I think you can find bigger targets. Why don’t you put your thoughts to the presenters themselves?

    As for IaltTEFL, I like the idea. I read a few of the blogs (Alex, Sara and you I think?) but didn’t get to comment at the time. I’m up for whatever, me!

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  4. Thanks Darren,

    Great to have you on board for IaltTEFL.

    Yes, I think you’re right about the presentation. It’s not clear cut-enough without seeing further evidence of ageism and would therefore be unfair to “read the teachers’ minds”.

    As for the waitress in the restaurant, she is being prejudiced (maybe condescending). Racist is a strong word and should be used with caution. Hopefully, when/if you asked for the menu in Japanese she revised/would revise her practice. If not that is racism, for racism is far more systematic. However, individual racism (i.e. the belief that Obama and a few others are okay but most other black people are dangerous) is not as destructive as the institutional racism that traps black people in the ghettoes of New Orleans and when they are trapped further by a flood, in part caused by lack of investment, sends the police (some black and some white) to shoot at them Your final example, describes a fascist not a racist, although racism is not necessary to fascism it is a very useful tool in organising an army of the dispossessed to help it to power.

    Thanks again Darren. It will be good to work with you

  5. darren on October 11, 2009 at 6:31 am said:

    Thanks for such a concise summary of the distinctions (if there’s one thing a Marxist can do it’s define a term, right? ; P)

    I’m not sure if the last example is fascism. In the classical sense (as an ex-history student) I’d look to Mussolini, who was hardly a model of racial tolerance but was a half-hearted anti-semite and no more racist in his ‘African Adventures’ than his European contemporaries. Besides, don’t ideologues across the spectrum utilise the dispossessed? I suppose we might say this is a post-ideology world (perhaps Fukuyama got that much right), in which case are the BNP really fascist, or just racist?

    Here’s a thing though – at which point does widespread individual racism become institutional? There is extensive anti-racist legislation in the UK, and public and private organisations appear to be committed to equality in their charters and policies. And yet….

  6. Darren, I think this is a useful post that hopefully makes us look at any preconceptions we might have about our learners and the effects it has on our teaching. I agree with Marxitself that racism is probably too strong of a word here, though. Pigeon-holing or stereotyping a learner is quite different from assuming they do drugs or are in a gang.

    In can be very useful in our classrooms to be aware of general learner behaviors, problems, or attitudes in any given culture. While all your students are individuals and may come from somewhat diverse backgrounds, I’m sure they share a lot of common characteristics. Over on my blog I list a good portion of the challenges that are faced in the Turkish classroom. I find this very useful for teachers because it helps them become aware of problems they may face and be prepared to deal with them. Will every student exhibit these issues? Of course not, but often a majority of students do and if we want to help our students learn we need to have effective strategies to deal with the problems that may arise.

    I agree that we should always kind of double-check ourselves to make sure we’re not jumping to conclusions prematurely. However, Turkish students often have difficulties in organizing a paper according to Western academic guidelines. Rather than ignore because it’s a stereotype about Turkish learners, it’s better to focus on it because they’ll need extra help. It’s important not to overgeneralize, but it is useful to identify and prepare for common problems.

    All in all, a thought-provoking post.

  7. Darren,

    Thx for this interesting discussion. I have been watching from afar (lurking). Just want to say that in my view the BNP are fascists. I think it is really very important to be clear about the reasons why they are and not to waver on that (no pasaran). This may be the subject of another post as it certainly deserves it, but a quick look at their manifesto and commonly uttered sentiments should be enough to convince anyone who is in doubt. Many of their key members admire the actions of the SS in Nazi Germany, some deny the holocaust. They support other facist regimes i.e. the systematic and organised persecution of groups of people based on their race or religion. They also intend (if in power) to deport people they deem to not be “pure” British (whatever that means) and to legislate against mixed marriages. Dig a bit deeper and you will find that many of their key members have records of racially motivated violence. They also have disgustingly regressive policies on women and gay people. Um…..this is not just the odd racist comment is it that might change when confronted with the right set of circumstances? It is an ideology of hate and bigotry.

    Going back a few sentences in your contribution, I disagree with Fukuyama’s analysis of the end of history and ideology. There are strong arguments to suggest that this way of thinking is primarily an intellectual (i.e. academic) pursuit which only represents a privileged class of people who have chosen to buy into consumer capitalism and therefore it no longer suits them to recognise either class interests or the ideology that springs from this as absolutely basic shapers of our society. Arguing such things have disappeared is such a lazy way of dealing with what is infact a change in personal circumstances! So…have class and ideolgoy disappered? Or is this way of thinking just an excuse to justify the lack of action that such academics (and commentators) have shown to mobilise against inequality and important issues of the day. The group of ‘thinkers’ world wide who led the “end of ideology” movement are also one and the same (in many cases) as the disillusioned late 60s generation who gave up the vision of something different a long time ago and would have us all do the same. Really though, how much has changed in the outside world? Class still exists, privilege still exists and power still exists – large parts of the global population live without their basic needs being met. Probably looks a lot more rosy from the ivory tower of the (western) university, but not when you look at it globally and truthfully.

    In answer to your question about how does racism become insitutional and Marxistelf’s correct observation that the example you gave above is not really a case of racism in the same way (unless it becomes a sustained way of thinking which you could only have really known had you challenged this person and seen them across contexts – it may be that he/she was actually trying to be polite and the response was influenced by the fact that most white people in Japan do not speak Japanese and are not expected to), you can take on various analyses to understand the relationship between individual thought and institutional power (I favour Bourdieu as a starting point). Ideology or the way that people understand the world around them is shaped by power and dominance, but counter-ideology is always in existence along side the ‘dominant’ view, and people are constantly reformulating that which they are told is ‘right’ – as we are doing now. IMHO you are correct that public services in the UK do pay lip service to equality – but bear in mind they were forced to do this through the struggles by discriminated groups to get represented not that long ago in historical terms i.e. this happened in a bottom up way. Whether public services actually do what they say they do is entirely another matter. In other contexts or countries, you may see less of the lip service, and a more up front racist attitude towards ‘difference’. However, in both contexts racism becomes institutional when policies are in place which mean certain groups routinely get treated differently because of the group they belong to, and are denied access to resources. In the UK there is plenty of evidence to still show that the police routinely stop and persecute black and asian (particularly young men) just because of the colour of their skin. Another quick look at the educational statistics should demonstrate how educational policy, for example, is failing children in poor areas, and doubly failing those who come from immigrant backgrounds. This is justified by constantly claiming that there are other ‘problems’ with these new communities that make them responsible. There are countless other examples to show how this works in practice.

    But that is enough for now!

  8. Hi Darren,

    Nice discussion developing.

    You are right to insist in the concrete and historical. The point I was trying to make is that racism is not necessary to fascism (theoretically) but of course it is caught up with racism in the concrete. By saying this I wanted to say we can call Mosley, Franco, Hitler, Le Pen fascists but still understand their subtle but significant differences. Ultimately, the key to undertanding fascism is a class analysis and not an ideologial analysis. We need to understand with fascism, not why someone holds racist beliefs (that we can undertand elsewhere) but why they identify themelves “at war” with another group. Why they put on “a uniform” define themselves primarily in terms of race and go attacking people in the street. There is a big difference between holding certain racist stereotypes and subscribing to fascist newsletters. A big difference between supporting stronger Immigration Controls (in my view all immmigration controls are racist) and arguing for repatriation of “non-natives”. A mass movemment(recruiting among the poorest sections of society) led by the day-to-day petty bourgeoise and funded by desperate large-scale capitalists in a time of economic or political crises, this is fascism. To confue a fascist with someone who holds racist views is to confuse how to fight the two(see new post in Marxist TEFL –

    I wouldn’t disgree with Sara’s points about ideology and counter-ideologies and in answer to your question of institutional racism, I would argue that the myth that the “native teacher is best” is exactly that- institutional racism.

    The fight against individual racism, institutional racism and Fascism are three interconnected but separate struggles. A victory in one is a victory against the others, but we lose by confusing the three. Saying English Language Teachers are all imperailist stormtroopers, calling someone believing racial stereotypes a fascist, or confusing a fascist as just another racist are all making the problems worse.

  9. darren on October 13, 2009 at 8:26 pm said:

    Thanks all for such thoughtful and considered replies. I’m not as politically aware or involved as either Sara or the MEFLers – I think what I was trying to say was that I see fascism in its historical form, as an encompassing ideology of which extreme nationalism was a major pillar. The BNP appear to me to be a rag tag collection of racists with no other ideas other than “kick ’em out” (to where, I don’t know). I do understand that, since the 1920’s, the term “fascist” has taken on a wider meaning and could be understood to be any kind of controlling leadership with a disregard for human rights and policies that favour the powerful over the powerless. It worries me that if we bandy the word around with abandon it will lose any meaning at all ….

    Your point about white people in Japan, though, Sara…. not too sure about that. Of course there are plenty of ‘gaijin’ who aren’t particularly proficient in Japanese, but I haven’t met many who can’t at least navigate a menu. And from there, it is not too far a leap to a letting agent who turns you away because foreigners can’t understand the garbage rules or use the bath properly. You might be interested in David Ardwinkle, an American born (white) naturalised Japanese citizen who goes by the name of Debito Arudou. On the one hand, he is a tireless campaigner for the trampled human rights of Chinese fruit pickers and various refugees. But then he gets in a tizzy about goofy white guys in “racist” McDonalds adverts and filthy sex clubs with “no foreigners” signs on the door and…. well, maybe he could pick his battles.

    At the end of the day, as we said all along I DO think the waitress who brings me an English menu is being helpful. But I do feel happier when they don’t – it’s nice not to be treated any different, right?

    I’m afraid I’m a two-finger thinker, as well as a two-finger typist, so that’s as much political analysis as I can muster. Thank you for the mental workout though.

  10. “The fight against individual racism, institutional racism and Fascism are three interconnected but separate struggles. A victory in one is a victory against the others, but we lose by confusing the three. Saying English Language Teachers are all imperailist stormtroopers, calling someone believing racial stereotypes a fascist, or confusing a fascist as just another racist are all making the problems worse”

    Very nicely put. Totally agree.

  11. Darren,

    I think Marxistelf’s very succinct new post on the BNP gives some clearer insights into their beliefs. They are not, perhaps, as raggle taggle as you present which is why they must, in my opinion, be taken seriously and confronted. Where fascists are concerned, it is always necesssary to be prepared to confront them wherever they emerge (and stop them, which includes no platform for their views), as well as offering clear and believable counter-arguments to those that may sound attractive to people in desparate circumstances who might consider voting for them (and don’t know the full extent of their violent policies).

    Re: your point regarding Japan and white people. I was talking primarily about visitors rather than settlers who might invest in learning the language. Service industry staff are unlikely to be able to tell the difference immediately. You know the situation better than me as you live there, but in reference to your own case, I was reading lately some stuff by an American white woman who looked at various situations in her life whilst living in Japan over a long period of time where she observed she was given preferential treatment due to the colour of her skin, which included, amongst other things, the belief that she should not have to speak the Japanese language, but that others should speak to her in English. It also included the elevation of her as a white English teacher in Japanese schools to a very high (and better) status than her Japanese colleagues, used primarily for marketing purposes. This does not detract from the fact that white visitors experience discrimination, but I think it is important to notice the difference between the way individual cases of discrimination (based on difference) operate, and a systematic belief system, that suggests native speakers (and westerners) are superior. Would value your thoughts on that as someone who has lived there. Do you think these observations are valid?

    As for your menu conundrum – I get that all the time in Greece and just reply (in Greek) “parakalo mipos mporeis na mou ferete to katalogo sta ellinka” (please can you bring me the menu in Greek) which often leads to a great conversation about how and why I learned the language as here there is also an expectation that the populace should adjust to me rather than me to the populace. I find these exchanges really important and they are often very interesting discusssions.

    Thanks for the chat!

  12. Hi Darren,

    I took me some time to find something to comment on šŸ™‚ You’ve got lots of interesting stuff here!

    Going back to racism, I liked how you wrote that people are sorry to talk about it and then go back to cooking dinners. It’s so true. What I think is crucial is how to make students/people fully aware of what racism actually stands for.
    I come from a country that, from my point of view, had the unfortunate chance to experience racism in the worst form. As a 13-year-old I was taken to a concentration camp and it was one of the most shocking events in my life. Although it really taught me what racism is, I am aware that most people these days do not have such opportunities. Visiting the camp also convinced me that the idea of racism has to be taught as early as possible.

    If you have time take a look at the following documentary called ‘How racist are you?’

    You might be also interested in watching ‘Freedom Writers’ with Hilary Swank as a teacher struggling with her racist students.


  13. Glad to have you Anita… and thanks for the two tips. I’ll check them out.

    Racism can be very easy to ignore as someone else’s problem, but there are some very powerful lessons to be learnt from history. I was reading a short piece recently about concentration camps, written by one of the first British troops to arrive at Belsen (I think). For some reason, the relief team sent lipsticks. But these turned out to be the best possible thing – in such a degrading and dehumanising place, amongst the death, the lipstick gave dying women some dignity.

    It was a very moving (and depressing) story. I would hesitate to use it in class, but actually this is EXACTLY the kind of thing we should be using. The idea that millions of people died is almost to big to take on, the individual stories are what resonate.

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