Racism In ESL (with Asia Martin)

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Do teachers of different races get treated differently? Do schools prefer white teachers? Do students care what color their teacher's skin is? We interview Asia Martin about her experiences as a black teacher in China and discuss Ross' research into racism in TEFL recruitment.

Read the research about racism in customer facing jobs

Transcript - Is TEFL Racist? (with Asia Martin)

Tracy Yu: Hello everyone, welcome to our podcast.

Ross Thorburn:  This week, we're going to talk about racism.

Tracy:  Wow, that's a really sensitive topic.

Ross:  Have you witnessed much racism when you were a teacher?

Tracy:  I don't think I experienced or witnessed a lot, but I definitely heard people talking about racism when I became a manager.

Ross:  Me too. I did notice at least when I was a teacher, for example, that a lot of schools I worked in, all the foreign teachers were white. Yeah, I agree with you. It's only since becoming a manager that I heard things.

For example, somewhere I used to work, I asked the person in charge of recruitment, "What are companies' requirements for hiring teachers?" The person said to me, "Teaching experience, not black."

Tracy:  Wow.

Ross:  Today, we can look at this from two different aspects. One aspect is we'll interview Asia Martin, who used to work at Shenzhen about her experiences on the receiving end of racism.

Tracy:  The second part, I'm going to basically interview you, Ross, about your research paper and recently published in IATEFL about racism in teaching recruitment.


Interview with Asia Martin

Ross:  Hi, Asia. Thanks a lot for coming over to the podcast. How are you doing?

Asia Martin:  I'm doing all right. I'm getting over a cold. I may sound a little nasally.

Tracy:  Asia, do you want to introduce yourself?

Asia:  My name is Asia Martin. It's been about six or so months since I last left China. I had been there for about two years working as a English teacher at a language center. I was stationed in Guangdong Province, China.

Ross:  Do you want to start off by telling us before you came to China? What were you expecting from the experience and how did that measure up to reality?

Asia:  I did a bit of research. I had a friend, he was black and he had worked in China a few years before I even went. I asked him about his experience. Without me even asking, he did warn me.

He said, "Just be mindful that some of the things that you might hear or see in regards to your skin color is out of pure ignorance. You might just the first person that they've ever seen close up." I said, "OK." I was like, "So what do you mean?"

He told me the story about how he was out of school and he took a drink from a cup. One of the Chinese girls walked up to him, who was a student, and said, "Teacher, your color didn't come off."

When I got there and those things happened, I was open in the beginning. When people were asking, "Oh, can I touch your hair?" It didn't bother me at first. It began to bother me though, however, when certain individuals came up and were very negative about it, and they did make comments.

I no longer was as accepting it being to close up a little bit. I was more so prepared for accidental things, not people who purposely had an issue with my skin color.

Tracy:  When I was working in training school, I got involved in those management meetings. I often heard sales staff talking about how much they prefer to have white teachers. When I was allocation manager, that's what my general manager and also the sales manager basically told me very directly, because it's good for our sales.

Have you ever noticed yourself being treated differently by sales staff?

Asia:  It became very clear with amongst the staff that there was a slight hints of...I'm not sure if I would say that it is racism, but I would also say that it's a bit of colorism because it's more so based on the paler you are, the farther you can go with selling to students.

The racism did come into play maybe with people watching me and not really wanting to get to know me as much maybe as teachers who were fairer skinned.

Ross:  What you noticed and what you experienced in China, how is it different to maybe what you'd experienced with regards to racism in the US?

Asia:  You really have to leave whatever you learned about racism and intercultural interactions in your own home. Not all of it, because of course, a lot of things did help me navigate being in China ‑‑ common sense and things like that, and just common decency with people. Not everything that's happening in America was occurring in China.

A lot of things that people said to me, in the beginning I was like, "Was that really trying to be racism?" I found out, "No, it's more so colorism. They have with beauty standard that they have."

They don't even see me as a threat. In the US, a lot of times, black gets associated with being the threats. I did witness that in China, but it was more so people were not really afraid of me. It was just they were afraid of me as a foreigner.

You just have to really go on with as an open of a mind as you can and really listen to people when they're talking to you and realize that the way they learned English is not necessarily how you learned English.

A lot of times, people use one word with you. You already associate it as a negative word, but they have not learned it culturally as a negative word. They're not thinking there's a cultural definition going on of how you understand the words that you're talking, that you're speaking. That plays a lot into it as well.

Tracy:  Can you tell us a bit more about the other foreign teachers that you worked with and what their attitudes about this issue?

Asia:  I had to learn how to process a lot of things. Even my colleagues working with me, at first, as being the only black person in the office, people thought I was adding drama or where drama wasn't.

Over time, it was interesting, because when students would say certain things about black people like, "Oh, black people steal," is when another American teacher came to me and she said, "I couldn't believe that the student said that."

In a way, I was somewhat like, "Well, finally, you got a piece of evidence [laughs] that proves that I'm not sitting up here making stuff up for the hell of it." Once that happened, I noticed people began to see I'm not sitting up here making up stuff.

Ross:  Do you have any advice then for anyone listening who might be working with someone who is on the receiving end of racism or maybe some other kind of discrimination? They might be the only person going through that in the school. How do you think it'd be best? Should they leave that person alone, try and engage them, or what?

Asia:  In my personal experience, it's best to definitely not allow that person to be isolated, because when I felt isolated, meaning no one heard me, I definitely no longer felt like I could really share because I was being judged simply just for expressing a negative incident that happened.

I no longer really wanted to be a part of the team, because at that point, it's like, "This is happening to me in the classroom and no one wants to really validate it."

You just have to listen. You have to validate it. Don't argue with the person. It is OK to ask questions about what exactly happened and you can say like, "Oh, I'm not quite sure if that's racism or not."

There are times where I get that people exaggerate stories and I do understand that. If it sounds like I'm using dramatic language, it's probably because it really hurt my feelings. That's why you ask questions. You don't try to call them a liar.

Tracy:  Like I mentioned earlier, I think a lot of decisions were made by management. I'm sure managers play a really important role in this topic. What about your managers? Did they help? How did they help? Do you have any advice for those managers on this topic?

Asia:  My first manager was quite open and supportive. He would give me examples of other teachers who was going through what I was going through. That was comforting to know that he had been through this as a manager in his office before.

He didn't see me as a problem. He was just like, "Here, you can go talk to this person. They went to the same thing that you went through and things like that." That was helpful.

My second manager unfortunately made it very clear that she did not like talking about race and thought that was insignificant. At least that's how I felt, probably because of her attitude in the things that she would say in response to me talking about racial issues in office.

For example, if I said, "That is the student who would cause trouble on my classes and would say things about my race," an then in response, that particular manager would say, "Do you feel that that really is important right now?" That response let me know, "I'm not going to hear about anything racial whatsoever."

Managers cannot be afraid, especially when you're dealing with an employee who is dealing with racism. If they're coming to you to talk about it, it's because they're feeling something about experiencing it in the office. Otherwise, they wouldn't come and they wouldn't say anything about it to you.

Ross:  Asia, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Really appreciate you sharing your experience on what's [inaudible 10:35] the difficult topic and some tough experiences. Thanks so much for doing that.

Asia:  Thanks, bye‑bye.


Racism in TEFL recruitment

Tracy:  Ross, what made you want to do the research about racism in teaching recruitment?

Ross:  Two things. The first one was that a long time ago, I read in "Freakonomics" about how people had researched racism in other fields using ethnic names, a name which sounds ethnically black and a name which sounds ethnically white.

They use the two names and they put them on the top of very similar CVs or resumes, send them out to hundreds or thousands of companies, and then see which name gets the most replies. From that, you can see how people are discriminating.

I read about that years ago. More recently as a manager, I'm hearing or seeing more racism in terms of recruitment. I spoke to friends about it and people said to me, "Oh, you know, if you think China's bad, Korea's worse."

I wonder how bad it is. If you are white, how much more likely are you to be able to get a job than if you're black in TEFL?

Tracy:  How did you start doing this survey? You send out the CVs to different companies?

Ross:  I basically made two CVs. One had a photo of a white person [inaudible 12:08] , one had a photo of a black person. I went on this job board website and applied for 100 jobs in China, 100 in Korea, and 50 in Europe. I did fewer in Europe, just because there were fewer jobs being posted for European countries.

Tracy:  When you started applying for those jobs, when you're started receiving responses from the different companies, is there anything that make you really surprised in this process?

Ross:  Yeah, it was pretty surprising. I expected there to be a difference, but I wasn't expecting the differences to be this big as they were.

In Europe, the white teacher and the black teacher both go at exactly the same number of responses. In Korea, the white teacher got 33 percent more post of responses than the black teacher. In China, the white teacher got 64 percent more positive response than the black teacher.

In other words, if the black teacher got applied and got 100 positive responses, the white teacher would have received 164.

Tracy:  Wow, that's a huge difference.

Ross:  Absolutely.

Tracy:  Why do you think this happened?

Ross:  I think what most people would assume is that the recruiters are racist, but I actually found some research that said that it might not be the recruiters' racism. It's almost that recruiters are scared that parents and students are racist.

The study this came from, they found that recruiters discriminated against black applicants when they apply for jobs for people who are facing customers.

They found that when black candidates applied for management jobs or jobs that were not customer‑facing, there was almost no discrimination at all. That's also a possibility here that recruiters and schools are afraid that parents and students want white teachers.


Tracy:  This week, we actually have discussion about a controversial topic. Obviously like Ross and I, one is a white person and another one is Asian. I'm not the expert actually to talk about this topic. I really hope all this information that we talked about, there's something might be useful for teachers and who are actually going through this.

Ross:  We thanks very much for listening everyone.

Ross:  We'll see you again soon.

Tracy:  Bye.