Navigating ELT, or Teaching English as a Second Language While Black

I was recently invited to speak on a panel entitled “Navigating ELT” at The New School, a forum for MA TESOL students and new teachers. The topics for the evening included hiring practices, online teaching, or anything I cared to say about my career trajectory. This was my response.

Dear M——-,

Thank you for the kind invitation to join the panel “Navigating ELT” on June 23.

I admit I was surprised to receive such an invitation. I do not, as I have often been reminded, hold an advanced degree in ELT, TESOL, ESL, or any of the other various clumsy iterations used to refer to the field. Nor am I a published scholar in the field—here too, I have been reminded often enough that my work in the performing arts, including publications and productions in three different countries, hold little meaning. By “often enough,” I mean “often enough” to lead me to question why on earth I am being asked to join this panel. Would I have been asked a month ago? Who knows. But I don’t think so. And while I am flattered to be invited, I wonder what my presence could bring to the panel and if my absence would perhaps be more impactful. Allow me to explain.

When I reflect on my career trajectory in what I will for now resign myself to calling TESOL, I am reminded of a gathering I attended at Pace a couple of years ago. The room was full of administrative leaders in TESOL in higher education. Almost everyone there was white. Given the relatively small size of the group, the organizer offered an icebreaker: each person was to introduce themselves and then share with the group the “weirdest food” they had ever eaten. One after the other, attendees laughingly swapped tales about eating chicken feet, live octopus, and yak testicles, with the thinly veiled smugness characteristic of white Americans who’ve sampled life as a racial minority. As the microphone approached my table, I thought frantically of how to intervene in this performance of blatant exoticization, having all too often been the subject of it. I am a descendant of people for whom, by necessity, pigs’ intestines became a delicacy and dirt from a riverbed a viable source of minerals. Growing up, I would delightedly gnaw the ends of chicken bones and suck out the marrow, copying my grandmother, who wasted nothing. How dare I, how dare anyone, especially those who claim to champion “linguistic and cultural diversity,” call another culture’s cuisine weird?

Microphone in hand, I mustered a smile and explained that the weirdest food I had ever consumed was Tang. There was a moment of confused silence, then a woman at my table exclaimed, “Tang! I remember that stuff!” (In case you don’t remember: Tang is an orange-flavored drink beverage that gained popularity in the US in the late 70s and early 80s. Tang came as a bright orange powder, consisting mostly of sugar. You were supposed to dump the powder in a pitcher and add water to make the drink, but children who didn’t know any better, like me, would dip their fingers into packets of Tang and eat the stuff straight. It was all-American processed poison, marketed primarily to women and their kids, and by far the weirdest thing I have ever knowingly consumed.) The annoyance in the room at my attempt to bring us from fantasy to reality was palpable. Why did I have to spoil the fun? Why couldn’t I just play along?

The field of TESOL has a problematic history. As Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe remind us, the English language has long been a tool of conquest; we need only list the countries in the world where English is an “official” language and note the alignment with the British colonial project. I am not, obviously, the first to stumble upon this troubling fact. But what has bothered me throughout my career in TESOL is how unbothered my colleagues, the majority of them white and American, seem to be by this troubling fact. Even as they pack their scholarship and pedagogy full of worthy topics—social justice, human rights, linguistic and cultural diversity, and, my personal favorite, “intercultural communication”—instructors largely fail to reflect critically on the fundamental injustice that made teaching English almost anywhere on the planet a viable career choice. That fundamental injustice, as the global Black Lives Matter movement has made abundantly clear, is directly related to the American legacy of slavery. And yet, throughout my career in TESOL, I have met too many instructors willing to denounce injustice anywhere in the world except in their own backyard.

At the start of my tenure as associate director of the IALC at Fordham, I attended a workshop in intercultural communication led by One-to-World. The topic of the session was culture shock. Students endure a great deal of discomfort and anxiety when they must negotiate an approach to learning profoundly different from and even at odds with their own. For expediency’s sake, we apply labels to these differences: “individualist” versus “collectivist,” “the guide on the side” versus “the sage on the stage.” The facilitator issued the familiar warning, so oft repeated as to be cliché, that one must proceed with caution when making such vast generalizations. Then she projected a graphic of a world map on screen. She showed us two lists of countries: one of places where approaches to classroom pedagogy leaned more in the direction of individualism, the other of countries where collectivism was the more prevalent model. Predictably, the former list mostly included what one would call “western” nations: the United States, Australia, all the countries of Western Europe. On the latter list were China, India, and countries on the continent of Africa, inarguably the majority of the world.

I noted with fascination that nearly every country on the first list had once been a colonial power. Either that, or they were, like Canada and the United States, a “successful” colony, a colony that had endured. (Some might argue, “What about the American Revolution?” Indeed, what about it?) Among the second list were the places that those on the first list had colonized: Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, West Africa. Was there perhaps a correlation between the so-called “individualist” approach to pedagogy and the legacy of colonial rule?

The facilitator, having evidently never considered this before, looked at the screen and cocked her head to one side. One of my colleagues—white, male, American—quickly piped up: “Denmark was never a colonial power.” I gently contradicted him. Denmark colonized what is now the US Virgin Islands. Go to St. Thomas, and you can drive down streets with Danish names. Go to St. Croix, and you can see the fort where the Danish army imprisoned and sold enslaved Africans. Go to St. John’s and you can see the ruins of sugar plantations.

And then, of course, there’s Greenland. You’ll find a little bit of Denmark there too.

The facilitator smiled at me. “Sounds like a topic for a dissertation,” she said. “Maybe you should write it.” And with that, she moved on to the next slide.

Her response was not that different from the twitchy looks on the faces of my colleagues at the gathering at Pace. There I was again, making everyone uncomfortable. Wasn’t it enough that I was allowed to be in the room at all? Wasn’t I satisfied with a title and a salary at a major university? Didn’t I know not to push my luck? I owed them silence in exchange for the privilege of being there; I owed them complicity. This is the message Black people receive over and over again when we dare to speak up in white spaces. And I have yet to find myself in a space in TESOL that isn’t desperately white.

After the workshop, I was reprimanded for my comment. It was a hidden reprimand, of course, as such things usually are—unconscious, though unconscious does not mean not deliberate. Everyone had left the room except me and two colleagues, one of them the defender of Denmark, both of them white, male, and American. The two of them launched into a conversation about family ancestry. They swapped accounts of their forefathers’ migration from one part of the country to the other, north to south, east to west. One even knew which countries in Europe his ancestors were from and could trace his ancestry as far back as the 19th century. I listened in silence, as I was meant to. We’ve all found ourselves in conversations that we realize too late we’re not part of. You wait politely for an invitation into the conversation, but none is forthcoming. You’ve been roped into the role of witness, unobtrusive, invisible. You either accept the role or disappear entirely.

In the time between the start of the conversation and the moment I realized I was being excluded from it, I listened to my colleagues boast about their ability to trace their ancestry, knowing but not acknowledging the violence that had robbed me of that very privilege. I cannot list the countries from which my ancestors hailed. I cannot tell stirring tales of migration across land and sea in search of prosperity. For all I know, the prosperity my colleagues’ ancestors found came at the cost of my ancestors’ enslavement. But there was no space to explore this very real possibility. My colleagues had reasserted their version of events; they had snatched the narrative out of my hands. It was a moment of pointed violence that I have mentally replayed again and again. My punishment for speaking up was to bear witness to my own erasure.

This kind of erasure happens regularly in our field. It happens every time a Thanksgiving celebration is held in a classroom with no mention of the National Day of Mourning. It happens every time the United States is characterized as “a nation of immigrants.” It happens every time international students are assured that they too can pursue “the American Dream.”

Many white professionals in TESOL, I suspect, assume that, because they interact with people from all over the world, they couldn’t possibly be racist. How could they be after all those years living abroad, all the sweet, inspiring students they’ve taught, all the “weird” foods they’ve digested? “We are diversity,” I once heard a colleague say of the ESL department where we both worked. Indeed, a diverse field of professionals, united in a common disdain for Blackness. Anti-Blackness is, after all, a global phenomenon; if it weren’t, then we wouldn’t be seeing Black Lives Matter solidarity protests as far away as New Zealand. At best, the so-called Black “minority” is held at arms’ length, as objects of fascination; at worst, our experiences are denied and our bodies destroyed. Most international students I’ve encountered never imagined they could have anything in common with Black people. They had been instructed to despise people who look like me and to associate true American-ness with whiteness, only to arrive in the United States and find themselves targeted for abuse as their reward for trying to “fit in.” An Asian colleague (referred to here by the pronouns “they/their”) once told me a harrowing story about how they were heading home on the subway one evening when, with no warning and no provocation, a white woman spat in their face. White Americans, the colleague confessed to me, were really not all that friendly. No kidding, I wanted to say. The marginalization I have experienced as a Black woman in the United States has often, for better or worse, served as a point of affinity with my students, provided they are willing to look beyond the very mythology that drew them here in the first place.

There’s more I could say about my career trajectory, and I guess I could add a few helpful insights into my experiences with online teaching and hiring practices. But articulating my ambivalence toward this invitation, I find myself compelled to speak plainly about the kinds of incidents and interactions that have made TESOL a very difficult field for me to embrace. I would not have invested the time in writing this lengthy explanation if I did not think there was some value in sharing it. Perhaps bringing my experiences to light can encourage future teachers to re-evaluate their approach to the profession and take whatever steps they can to create more honest, meaningful, and inclusive spaces. Or perhaps it’s enough to simply convey the message that I’m exhausted—which I am— and that attendees are welcome to read this email instead.

Looking forward to your thoughts,