Vijay Ramjattan is a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. I had the privilege of hearing him speak about his research at the recent Language Policy and Planning conference. He presented findings from a study on the experiences of racialized English language teachers in Canada. In particular, he described the racial microaggressions that the teachers endured and some of the coping strategies they used in confronting these microaggressions. Below he writes about his most recent publication that explores these issues in more depth. This is a scholar that we should all be keeping our eyes on.
As a former English language teacher of Indo-Trinidadian descent who worked in various Canadian English language schools, I often remember how students would be surprised, perplexed, and/or disappointed that I was their instructor. After having experienced these reactions on a repeated basis, I came to realize that I did not have the right qualifications for English language teaching (ELT). Rather than a lack of formal education and experience, however, my unsuitability derived from the fact that I was brown. In fact, since I was nonwhite, I was perceived to be a nonnative and hence deficient user of English. Furthermore, for students wanting to connect with ‘real Canadian’ teachers, my brownness signified that I was not Canadian even though I was born and raised in the country.
My professional experiences thus taught me that students can have racist nativist notions of qualified English language teachers. That is, they can see white teachers as embodying nativeness in English as well as an English-speaking country such as Canada, both of which signal one’s expertise as an ELT professional. In order to further explore these notions, I wrote an article for Race Ethnicity and Education that used interview data with 10 teachers of colour who had similar experiences as me while working in various schools in Toronto, Canada. In the article, I describe how these teachers experienced students’ racist nativist sentiments in the form of microaggressions, banal attacks that communicate negative messages to specific marginalized people/groups.
These racist nativist microaggressions took on three main forms. First, some teachers were interrogated about their nativeness to Canada, thereby positioning them as not truly Canadian. Moreover, they felt that their learners believed them to be foreign to and thus deficient in English as seen in such things as their skepticism of various language points taught to them in class. Last, almost half of the teachers were constructed as ‘invaders’ in the classroom as students displayed visible disappointment in having them as instructors.
While the teachers were bombarded by these microaggressions on a daily basis, they often tried to resist these attacks through their self-presentation and teaching, albeit with differing results. Indeed, some teachers conformed to the hegemony of the white native speaker of English by choosing to ‘whiten’ themselves through name changes or (verbally) presenting themselves as exceptions to the idea of the linguistically deficient teacher of colour. In contrast, other teachers sought to overthrow this hegemony through such things as actively displaying their pedagogical superiority or explicitly mentioning how Canada is constructed as a white nation.
These individual tactics remind us that teachers’ activism against racist nativism (and other types of oppression) in ELT is best done through their teaching. Of course, adopting specific impression management strategies or finding teachable moments in class are not going to immediately dismantle the white supremacy inherent in the ELT industry, which ranges from racist hiring practices to textbooks modelled after white native speakers of English. Nevertheless, I have found that these local strategies can inspire students and other ELT stakeholders to strive for social change. For instance, simply speaking to former students and colleagues about my own experiences of racist nativism has prompted them to consider how they perpetuate this oppression in their own daily activities. Ideally, this consciousness-raising may help to disrupt the notion that the right qualifications for ELT are white qualifications.