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.