'Non-academic edge' by Anes Mohamed

“If you are not white, you are missing out” Louis CK

Having been an ELT teacher for a long time, I feel I am well placed to vouch for the self‐evident truth of the above quote. In fact, in that same stand‐up comedy show, Louis CK drives this point home when he wittily challenges white people to deny the privileges accorded to the status of being white.

This is especially true when it comes to English Language Industry (ELT). As a living example of this pathetic situation consider the following statement taken from this article about what language schools look for in English teachers in China: These schools will hire English teachers with one, basic requirement: “a white face”.

Nowhere is this ludicrous but lucrative obsession with European look more disgustingly blatant than in the Gulf countries. A friend of mine who works in Saudi Arabia once told me a very interesting story. A Saudi engineering company asked a company in the US to send them one of their finest engineer. Upon his arrival at the airport, the cream of the crop engineer prostrated on the ground and kissed it in a clear indication that he was a Muslim. Contrary to what one might have expected, the Saudis were aghast at what they were seeing. Apparently, the best engineer did not fit their stereotype of a good engineer because not only did he not possess the so-called European look but also he was a Muslim like them, which, to them, ironically translated into inadequacy. So, the Palestinian‐American engineer was taken to a hotel instead of his pre‐arranged residence while the Saudis made the necessary calls to the company in the US to make it clear to them that they were expecting a white engineer with blue eyes and blonde hair and not someone who spoke Arabic, which is another indication that he/she is not good enough. A good engineer is someone who can’t speak any other language but English and preferably with an “American accent”. Given the fact that those Saudis hardly spoke English, it was a bit of a mystery as to how they could tell if someone had an “American” or “British” accent. You can imagine how shocked the Palestinian‐American engineer must have felt when he returned to the US and found out that his “look” fell far short of what was demanded by the client.

Turning back to the sinecure job of teaching English, I find it striking that an exception has been made to the axiomatic rule that the ability to speak a language is not synonymous with the ability to teach it. Though I speak Arabic as a mother tongue, I have never entertained the idea that I can teach it even when I was offered a job to do that when I was living in Iran. But the same is not true of white Europeans and Americans who happen to speak English either as a first or second language. I have seen how some European tourists cash in on their skin pigmentation when they run out of money by teaching gullible people who benightedly look up to them as the ideal speakers. It is worth quoting the first paragraph of the article cited above as an illustrative case in point:

Michael is a 20‐year‐old English teacher in Beijing, and every Saturday at 10am he tutors a 14‐year‐old Chinese girl called Daisy. “Sometimes I’ll go straight from partying to teaching, and because I stink I spray on loads of cologne.” Although Michael is from Austria, the school that hires him tells his students that he’s American because they prefer a native speaker. Sometimes he forgets whether he told a student he was from Connecticut, or Chicago. Michael was hired without any previous teaching experience and given no training. Just thrown into a room with students and told, “go teach”.

Tragicomic as it may seem, this state of affairs is extremely disturbing to me as it highlights the absurdity of the fixation on being white and its far‐reaching implications. Leaving aside the duplicity of the school and Michael, it is very obvious that the poor learners are shortchanged, as they are unlikely to make any headway in learning English. It is also clear that everyone is implicated in this crime: Michael has no qualms about using his skin color to make a quick buck; the schools are driven solely by the lure of easy profit and the parents of students who have bought into this charade without any critical thinking whatsoever.

How have things come to such a pass? Well, we need to go back in time and retrace the trajectory of how we ended up here. However, it is beyond any shadow of doubt that it has to do with the colonization of the mind whereby the oppressed are made to see the lifestyle of the oppressor as naturally superior and the only way to get “ahead” in life is to adopt their lifestyle including their linguistic capital (accent).

Likewise, the prevailing ethos of the “free‐market” economy pioneered mostly by white people revolves around the dehumanizing profit motive with the result that very little attention is paid to the substance of an activity. Everyone involved in this pathetic situation is driven by profit, which has an inbuilt tendency to commodify, standardize, and trivialize everything. In such set‐up, the students are seen as customers that must be attracted by hook or crook, which in the case of language education entails preying on the ignorance of the learners and their parents.

Since these processes of commodification, colonization of the mind, and cultural hegemony have been historically driven predominantly by Europeans, their skin pigmentation has come to be associated with “progress, success, prestige, high class, etc…” and the dominated have‐for the most part‐successfully internalized the values of the dominant. It is amazing how much you can get away with if you happen to be white.

anes mohamedAnes Mohamed holds a PhD as well as an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. He has been engaged in teaching English since 2002 in different countries. He is currently an assistant professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. Apart from research publications, He has developed and published a 4-level English Textbook. He comes at language teaching from critical perspectives. He can be reached via email here. You can also connect with Anes Mohamed on Linkedin here.

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  6. While this is undoubtedly the case, I think there’s one key point that is missing. The private English teaching industry has and likely always will position itself in contrast to public schools. The whole business is predicated on the idea that state schools don’t do a good enough job, therefore you have to supplement your kids school education. It feeds of the dissatisfaction of people studying English for years at school and barely reaching elementary level. And in creating this contrast, they inevitably present the most superficial aspects, such as native speakers, or people who fit the students’ idea of a native speaker.

    I’ve worked in Asia, and while a lot of the schools will often hire non-native speakers of various races, the one thing they won’t do is hire a local teacher. Consequently, people who look local, but were actually American/Australian/British, in my experience, were far more likely to be the subject of complaints from students (or more likely parents of students) than people who looked clearly foreign but weren’t white. An Asian American colleague once had a parent insist on observing the lesson to check that he wasn’t teaching in an ‘Asian’ way. And shamefully, the school allowed it. But that highlights that part of the issue is this idea that what they’re paying for in no way resembles the public system that has already failed them.

  7. I agree that private schools pander to the prejudices of the students’ parents in their quest for profit maximization. However, as I indicated in the article, the myth of native-speakerism is much older, and it is rooted in linguistic hegemony: the way the dominant speaks sets the norms of proper speech.

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