I recently learned of a website with some questionable messaging about accent and native speaker models of pronunciation. The site presented itself as something of an advocacy group fighting accent discrimination, but their messaging actually reinforced some of the selfsame problems they claimed to combat, concluding that the solution to accent discrimination was accent reduction.
I briefly engaged with their Twitter account, articulating as best I could what was wrong with their approach. When I saw a few days later that TEFL Equity Advocates had gotten wind of the site, I was glad, and I commented to that effect. Marek then asked if I’d be interested in blogging on the topic. My response was this:
“While I definitely have some strong feelings on the matter, I don’t think I’m the right person to write this one.”
I wrote that reply quickly and without much forethought. After the fact, though, I reflected: That was really—like, really—uncharacteristic. Most of the time, my opinion is forthcoming, whether it’s been sought or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my urge to express my opinion is often compulsive, bordering on the pathological. If opinorrhea isn’t yet a word or diagnosis, it ought to be, in my entirely unsolicited and unqualified opinion.
But then so why did I shy away from sharing my opinion in this case?
I believe firmly in the power of advocacy, and the issue of equity in ELT is one that I’m passionate about, that I’ve written about before. I’m also pretty damned sure I know how to lay out for this dude precisely why his website is so frigging offensive. So what gives? Am I losing my edge? My nerve? Going soft in my old age?
I sat there in the lounge at O’Hare, awaiting my flight out after TESOL 2018, and thought back on what it could be that informed my reticence. The more I reflected, the surer I felt that I’d made a good decision. But why?
What I came to realize is that something in me, in my notion of what advocacy is and ought to be, has changed.
It’s a shift that reflects another that (I now know) has been happening in the world of activism for some time, since long before the message really got through to me: Passion for a cause doesn’t always translate to ad-vocating (speaking for) as loudly and as often as possible.
Sometimes as activists we take on the role of an advocate; others it’s better to adopt the stance of an ally, which comes with a language all its own. Sometimes being an ally does mean speaking up, but a whole lot of other times it means sitting down and shutting up. If you’re passionate enough about social justice that you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you already know this and the reasons for it.
I was born with nearly every privilege there is.
This has given me the confidence and voice and platform to speak my mind whenever I please, invited or un-. People with the same privilege profile as me have been doing an outsized share of the talking and writing and decision-making for most of recorded history, generally to the exclusion of other voices. Righting that imbalance will necessarily mean that those of us who take for granted our right to voice our opinions whenever we like need to not talk quite so goddamn much.
No matter how strong my opinions may be, there are others who are better positioned to speak about certain issues, in terms of their expertise, experience, and identity. If we profess to be allies, a massive part of that role is listening and learning, referring to and deferring to those other voices. The language of being an ally is still relatively new to me, so I won’t get in over my head; read more on this from people who know what they’re talking about here and here and here.
This does not, of course, mean that I never speak up. These days, I find myself asking some questions before I speak up in a conversation that isn’t exactly “my” fight:
- Have I been asked to speak up?
- Am I the most qualified voice available to speak on this matter?
- Has what I want to say already been said?
- If I speak up, does that mean speaking over someone else?
- If I do not speak up, will someone else?
- How could my identity be informing my perspective on this topic?
Et cetera. This is hardly exhaustive.
I’m stubborn and vocal by nature, so I still fail my own test regularly (studies suggest that an increase in skull density is symptomatic of opinorrhea). I’m also in the early stages of understanding and accepting this concept, so I’m sure I haven’t put this in the best terms possible. I’m certainly not telling anyone else what form their activism ought to take. I just want to share a stage in the evolution of my own views. I’m sure I’ll reread this in two or three years and smack myself for some clumsy definitions and half-baked ideas. So be it.
I’m speaking up now because I haven’t heard much about the language of allies in the TEFL equity conversation, and I think maybe that should change.
Anyway, I’ll shut up for a bit now, and if you’re like me, maybe you will too.
Rob Sheppard is the founder of Ginseng, an online English school that proudly hires highly skilled teachers irrespective of L1. He is also co-chair of the Adult Education Interest Section at TESOL International.