But You’re Not What We’re Looking For

Mary Romney-Schaab explores employment discrimination in English language teaching

8 a.m.–11 a.m. Monday–Friday
Located near Yuancun metro station
Nonnatives with a good accent are
White only
Pay negotiable

Please don’t add me, just posting for a friend. WeChat ID:

(Quinn, 2019)

About you:

  • Native English speakers from Canada, the UK, America, New Zealand or
  • Have a recognized EFL qualification (TEFL/TESOL/CELTA/DELTA)
  • Have a university degree
  • Teaching experience preferred but not essential
  • A clean criminal record
  • Excellent physical and mental health
  • Must be able to commit to a 9.5-month contract

(Casal-Data, 2017)

Now (Not) Hiring: Linguistic Racial Profiling
As shocking as English teaching job advertisements like these may seem to many of us in the US, they are not unusual on a worldwide basis. In addition to teaching experience being optional, two salient aspects that assault our professional and social sensibilities are the racialized and linguicized requirements for employment. Advertisers in the global English language teaching (ELT) marketplace are at liberty to request, and even require, “White native speakers of English” from certain countries for a few reasons. One is that discrimination (based on race, age, gender, nationality, native language, or any other characteristic) is not illegal in the vast majority of countries and therefore is not always hidden when the employer wants to prioritize certain requirements and preferences. But perhaps the more insidious, underlying reasons why White native speakers of English are preferred are what we need to explore. Here are some of the causes and consequences of employment discrimination in ELT and some suggestions on ways to address it.
Because English is the key to participation in academia, science, and technology, among other areas, it is one of the most sought-after commodities in the world. We can extrapolate the magnitude of the demand for English worldwide when we consider the size of the market in only one country. “English is big business in China, with an estimated 400 million people learning the language” (Quinn, 2019). The objective here is not to target any one country or region of the world for criticism or accusations of racism but rather to present some examples of how linguicism1 and racial profiling result in employment discrimination in our profession.

Driven by Fallacy, Perpetuated by Fantasy: Reasons for ELT Employment Discrimination
The main causes of the kind of employment discrimination exemplified in these advertisements combine native-speakerism with racism and the myth of the idealized native speaker. English was disseminated throughout the world for economic, sociocultural, and political reasons, not linguistic ones. The same forces that originally associated English with power, prestige, education, and high culture continue to exist today. So, many people worldwide, including English language learners (ELLs), associate English with those who hold wealth, power, and knowledge, which is also associated with Whiteness. They fail to recognize the diversity of Inner Circle countries, comprising people of all races and ethnicities, on all levels of achievement.2 It is the self-serving images that Inner Circle countries have traditionally perpetuated of their own societies that propagate myths about who their model citizens are. These countries either ignore their populations of color or perpetuate myths about them, in which people of color are projected as poor, uneducated, unattractive, unclean, violent, and criminal. In the US, these myths are disseminated through the most powerful messengers, i.e., the mass media and the popular culture, which reach every country and are generally not questioned by those who consume them. So, when ELLs can select their teachers, they are attracted to those who represent the well-educated, the wealthy, the powerful, and therefore the best English, and these are not people of color.
Perceptions of language and race conflate to form expectations, behaviors, and practices that drive employment discrimination in the global ELT field. Phillipson argues that “linguicism has taken over from racism as a more subtle way of hierarchizing social groups in the contemporary world” (p. 241). Although I would agree that linguicism creates hierarchies, I would contend that it is inextricably linked to racism, so one cannot exist without the other, and that the foundation for both of them is Inner Circle hegemony.
In addition, the vast majority of ELT materials worldwide also perpetuate racism and native-speakerism by using only Inner Circle models and speakers of English, rather than including World Englishes and nonnative Englishes. This disregards the fact that most speakers of English are World English speakers and nonnatives and that English is a world language, not only an Inner Circle one.

“But How Can You Be Black and American and a Native Speaker of English?”: Native-Speakerism Conspires with Racism
Although the notion that native speakers are the best English teachers—native-speakerism—persists and pervades, it has been challenged in the literature for at least three decades by Phillipson (1992) and many others, including Medgyes (2001, p. 436), who outlined the advantages of nonnatives. “International teachers from outside the 10 preferred countries do not even have the chance to prove whether their skills, qualifications and experience are sufficiently matched by their English language ability” (Escott, 2021). Sometimes employers camouflage their preferences for White teachers by advertising for native speakers from the Inner Circle.
The citizenship and native-speaker status of Black Americans and other Inner Circle people of color is routinely challenged in the global ELT marketplace when they apply for jobs and/or are hired. “Indeed, the literature indicates that within ELT being a ‘native speaker’ is frequently associated with white and Western-looking individuals (Kubota and Fujimoto, 2013). For example, Javier (2016) shows how Li, a Canadian of Hong Kong descent, and Andrés, an American of Mexican descent, have their ‘native speaker’ identities questioned by students and parents, who expect a ‘native speaker’ to be white and Western-looking. This leads to racially based hiring policies whereby non-Western-looking ‘native speakers’ are discriminated against (Ruecker and Ives, 2015)” (Kiczkowiak, 2020).
The absence of qualified nonnative English-speaking teachers can corrode the linguistic self-image of ELLs by marginalizing nonnative English. Another way in which nonnative Englishes are subjugated is through ELT materials. The absence of diverse Englishes and models of English speakers in most ELT materials not only leads to an imbalanced English language education but it fails to prepare students to understand the Englishes of the real world beyond the classroom. It also perpetuates employment discrimination against nonnative speakers, World English speakers, and people of color by implicitly teaching that only Inner Circle English spoken by White Inner Circle speakers is valid and acceptable. In this way, students will not value, respect, or understand most of the English of most English speakers around the world.
Employment discrimination prevents some highly qualified nonnative speakers and people of color from being hired abroad, where the demand is highest. However, even when they can gain employment, they are often not paid at the same level as White English-language teachers. For example, “Increasing numbers of Filipinos are teaching English in Thai schools, but white colleagues get paid more to do the same job, regardless of skill” (Wongsamuth, 2015).
Because of the injustices to students and qualified teachers alike, employment discrimination needs to be addressed on a global scale. “The onus on reforming the system falls to those who benefit, particularly those educators, school leadership and recruiters… who have the ‘right’ passport” (Escott, 2021).

Myth Busters and Bridge Builders: Solutions
Several changes are needed in the field of ELT if we are to teach students more effectively and treat teachers more justly. One way to start would be to remove the norm-providing status of Inner Circle Englishes, or at least expand the domain of norm-providing Englishes. This can be done in part by creating and publishing more diverse ELT materials and requiring their use. Inclusive and anti-racist ELT materials that feature nonnative and World Englishes and people of color would indicate the pluralistic nature of English and its speakers worldwide.
As we know, many qualified ELT professionals who are nonnatives and people of color are not hired, in favor of unqualified people who fit the desired racial profile. The establishment of international educational standards for public and private language schools in which only qualified teachers could be hired would be helpful. These standards could be formulated by, and made available through, the major international ELT professional development associations and their global affiliates, based on an internationally agreed-upon set of anti-racist principles (yet to be developed).
Another role for these international ELT associations in the approach to tackling employment discrimination would be definitive anti-racist activism and advocacy. These organizations are revered by educators worldwide and wield the most influence in the profession, so ELT educators and employers are likely to follow their lead. These associations could also encourage publishers to produce and distribute anti-racist, diverse, and inclusive ELT materials.

The Resilience of a Citizen of the World: Encouragement
In spite of the prevalence of employment discrimination, qualified nonnative English speakers and people of color are employed worldwide. They are often treated unfairly, but some are, nevertheless, employed. In the US, our profession naturally leads us to explore the rest of the world. We do it academically, mentally, emotionally, and vicariously through our students, as they are a window onto the world. Our natural inclination is to see the world for ourselves. My advice would be to seize the opportunities offered by ELT, perhaps the most international profession, that allow you to explore other countries. Don’t be deterred by the threat of racism or other forms of bigotry and ignorance, because living and working abroad are the best ways to see and understand the world. They are also the best vantage points from which to see your own country because they offer perspectives that are not available to you by staying home. And most importantly, living and working abroad are wonderful ways to become a citizen of the world, discover your own resilience, and learn more about yourself. With this rallying cry for resilience, I am reminded of a civil rights anthem by one of the most influential singers of 20th-century American music, Sam Cooke, who in 1964 recorded his most eloquent social commentary, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Oh, there been times that I thought
I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will. (Cooke, 1964)

He wrote it at the height of the civil rights movement because “he could not ignore moral outrage right in front of him… Now much more than a civil rights anthem, it’s become a universal message of hope, one that does not age” (NPR, 2014).

Linguicism is defined as “involving representation of the dominant language, to which desirable characteristics are attributed, for purposes of inclusion, and the opposite for dominated languages, for purposes of exclusion” (Phillipson, 1992, p. 55).
The Inner Circle refers to the Kachru model of Englishes in the world, in which the Inner Circle is defined as the US, the UK, Canada, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, or the norm-providing countries where English originated and was first disseminated.

References available at https://www.languagemagazine.com/ptm-jan-2022-references/

Mary Romney-Schaab taught ESOL to adults in the US and Spain for over 40 years. She has an EdM in Instructional Media and an MA in TESOL, both from Columbia University. She is interested in how TESOL intersects with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).