The ugly truth in the ESL industry is routine prejudice against blacks, and other people of color is condoned.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I lag…
A gradual crescendo of laughter erupts from the class as I interject to tell Eun Hee, a 20-something Korean English as a Second Language student, that the correct word is laugh while emphasizing that [gh], like [ph], shares the same pronunciation as the letter [f]. I sternly remind the other students that they are all here to learn and improve their English and to always be respectful while others are reading. With a slight nod of my head, I gesture for Eun Hee to continue:
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Good! I figured this would be an ideal place to pause in order to allow the students to analyze what has been read so far. I have chosen a poem by Langston Hughes, a celebrated black American writer of the famed Harlem Renaissance movement, as a means to introduce my combination TOEFL IBT [Test of English as a Foreign Language—Internet Based Test] and college preparation class to not only one of my favorite poets but, more importantly, as a means to examine what has historically been a rather contentious issue in the United States.
Although Los Angeles is often viewed as a bastion of liberalism and a mecca for multiculturalism, in part due to the plethora of ethnic enclaves like Little Tokyo, China Town, Thai Town, Little Armenia, Olvera Street and Korea Town, the latter having the distinction of being the largest in the US, racial divisions are as keenly delineated as the ubiquitous boundaries that separate these ethnic quasi mini municipalities from the larger Los Angeles urban sprawl that encompasses them. Though it can be argued there is a significant amount of cross ethnic fertilization amongst African Americans, Hispanics and Koreans, the fruit, however, that has emerged from the aforementioned hybridization of ethnic communities has often yielded a bitter-sweet produce whose pungent stench percolates just below the façade of amicable relations and, invariably, comes to the fore in incidents such as the brutal police beating of motorist Rodney King that ultimately served as the impetus for the LA Riots in 1992 and rather poignantly illustrated the tenuous racial relations between communities that were once thought, by in large, to cohabitate in relatively tranquil environs.
I remain cognizant of the fact that most of the students in my class were not even born when the LA Riots occurred and, as a consequence, lack the intimate understanding of a cataclysmic event whose reverberations continue to define intercommunity relations amongst a once thriving dominant black demographic, which is now in steady decline, in contrast to the Hispanic and Korean communities that continue to multiply exponentially. While the topic of contemporary race relations is certainly a focal point for class discussion, it would be quite disingenuous on my part not to divulge a more personal ulterior motive that has driven me to include Hughes’ poem, I, Too.
“If the writer is the darker brother, does it mean that he has a lighter brother? And what difference does it make if one brother is darker and the other is lighter?” asks Eun Hee with a quizzical look on her face. Another student opines, “The kitchen is where I usually eat, so I don’t understand what’s wrong with eating in the kitchen.” It immediately dawns upon me that I have my work cut out for me today as the class appears to be feasting on a literal interpretation of the poem, as if it were a piping hot pizza with all the trimmings ready to be devoured with the fingers, as opposed to delicately digesting the subtle symbolism and nuanced vernacular which the writer posits for contemplation that—despite its simplicity—is more akin to a singular savored strand of vermicelli meticulously twirled around a fork prior to consumption. There may be those who challenge the utility of such an endeavor in a TOEFL class, but the fact of the matter is that it is impossible to learn a foreign language sans acquiring some knowledge about the culture to which it pertains.
In the case of the United States, despite all the assertions of it being an amalgamation of a multiplicity of races, ethnic groups and cultures, invariably, one racial group, to the exclusion of all others, predominates in the popular narrative that is disseminated domestically and internationally. It is precisely here that a rather vexing quandary lies and my ulterior motive which—for all intents and purposes—is more tantamount to a quest, seeks to critique the veracity and prevailing presuppositions that reinforce and effectively ensure the smooth maintenance of a myth that has damaging and far reaching repercussions on a global scale.
Before addressing the queries the students put forth about the poem, my mind—seemingly uncontrollably—drifts back to the first day of class when, to the apparent dismay of most of my students, it dawned upon them that their teacher, contrary to what they had probably envisioned, was not the “typical American” as depicted in the popular sitcom Friends, but was instead of a much darker hue; much like the main protagonist Sydney Poitier—in the 1967 film To Sir with Love—whose smooth pearl black complexion and incandescent smile contrasted considerably with his inquisitive youthful Caucasian cohort.
It was fairly conspicuous that my presence immediately evoked a rather visceral reaction that left many questioning whether they had indeed enrolled into a TOEFL class that would ultimately prepare them to matriculate into a four year university or if they had, somehow unwittingly, enlisted into a course where they were going to learn the latest Hip Hop lyrics, lingo and Rap songs gracing the top of the music charts. While the former was obviously the case, it was the latter, however, that intrigued me and ultimately called into question the origins of this seemingly intrinsic connotation with black skin and the apparent extrication of intellectuality as a plausible association amongst those who possess copious portions of the aforementioned phenotype.
Although I had entertained the idea previously, it wasn’t until 2011 that I seriously contemplated teaching ESL overseas. At this particular time I was already an adult education credentialed educator who had 16 years of pragmatic ESL teaching experience with adolescents and adults. Teaching overseas appealed to me on many levels since foreign travel, languages, cultures and cuisines have always fascinated me—partly due to the fact that I had spent a year in Bolivia as an international exchange student when I was in high school—but also because I strongly believed that there was a lot that I could impart to students in an international setting predicated upon my professional and personal life experiences. Excited about the prospects of teaching internationally—with all the obligatory documentation and paperwork at the ready—I initially set my sights on Asia as a viable option to start an overseas teaching assignment. However, after sending out an inordinate number of resumes for ESL positions that, at least based upon the desired requirements, seemed tailored made for someone with my educational background and teaching experience, an unnerving pattern began to gradually emerge.
Since a personal photo is de rigueur when submitting a resume or CV for an international teaching position, I began to ponder whether or not there was an acute nexus between this disheartening trend of non-responsiveness from would be Asian recruiters and employers and the preponderance of melanin visibly displayed in the photo of the prospective applicant. Upon further analysis, and to my utter dismay, there indeed appeared to be an undeniable nefarious undercurrent—much like an ocean whose understated undertow carries one unsuspectingly into deeper foreboding waters—in the application process that essentially situated black applicants at a significant disadvantage to their white counterparts.
Perhaps it was sheer naiveté on my part to think that one’s teaching experience and credentials would ultimately prevail in a global arena that surely subscribed to the virtues of meritocratic principals but, as it would turn out, the disconcerting reality was that—in this high stakes game of linguistic poker—appearance, contrary to conventional wisdom, trumped academics and the house, comprised of an unquantifiable cadre of foreign recruiters and employers, effectively controlled the deck. The more ESL job websites that I perused and recruiters that I contacted in my search, the more evidence emerged that appeared to confirm this truism as ads that specifically delineated a preference for white ESL teachers seemed to become more and more obvious. Although this phenomenon appeared to be particularly acute in posts for ESL positions in China, Taiwan and Vietnam, it’s worth stating that the aforementioned countries by no means have a monopoly on the practice as Korea, Japan and Thailand, amongst others, seem to possess an equally peculiar penchant for white teachers.
The ugly truth that is often discounted and inadequately dealt with among many within the ESL industry is that routine prejudice against blacks, and other people of color, is not only very blatant but—for all intents and purposes—is essentially a de facto practice that is tolerated and condoned as if it were an immutable reality which, if ignored, will somehow miraculously rectify itself and, as a consequence, ultimately ensure a state of equanimity in a conspicuously skewed selection process riddled with racism. To be sure, it would be all too easy to place the preponderance of culpability at the feet of foreign recruiters and employers or, paradoxically, to even exculpate these same individuals by subscribing to the supposition that their reprehensible comportment is simply indicative of a kind of innocuous ignorance or cultural cognitive dissonance.
Either scenario, in the final analysis, would not only be a grave oversimplification and distortion of the phenomenon but would also effectively extricate from the equation the incontrovertible role that many white expatriate educators play in the perpetuation of the process and who, either explicitly or tacitly, subscribe to the status quo despite being fully cognizant of the perniciousness of the practice and the adverse ramifications for those teachers who are the object of its hideous manifestations. With that said, it’s worth mentioning that there is indeed another culprit that, ironically, hides in plain sight, but whose propensity for seduction—through the utilization of subtle and not so subtle messages—informs a global populace as to who ultimately constitutes a “real American” and, by extension, remains “uniquely qualified” to properly speak and teach a language which has increasingly become the international lingua franca that millions aspire to acquire.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
As the students mull over this current stanza in Hughes’ poem, I’m not only thinking about how they are internalizing the material at hand but also contemplating how their perceptions of their ESL teacher have substantially changed for the positive since the first day of class. Even with this new state of semi enlightenment, I wonder if the aforementioned transformation will ultimately stand the test of time and translate into quantifiable advances in their overall perceptions and subsequent interactions with black people at later stages in their lives. Perhaps my preoccupation is predicated upon the acknowledgement of the existence of an impervious force that invades millions of households worldwide on a quotidian basis and, given its propensity to influence the attitudes, beliefs and sensibilities of even the most erudite amongst us, is, undoubtedly, the greatest impediment towards effectively mitigating the preponderance of negative imagery that abounds concerning black people.
The media, in conjunction with race-conscious foreign recruiters, employers and complicit Caucasian expatriate educators, constitute the capstone on a tripartite pantheon whose architecturally flawed façade—structurally compromised due to its duplicitous design, pretentious parameters and prejudiced-laced-pillars—constitutes the firm foundation by which conscious and subconscious messages extolling the intrinsic intellectual superiority of white people reverberate relentlessly around the world and, as such, serve as the quintessential fertile soil upon which the global predilection for white ESL teachers organically germinates, maturates and disseminates.
Before analyzing some malignant manifestations of the media, particularly as they relate to the unabashed denigration of black people, it would be prudent to examine a phenomenon that courses through the very veins and capillaries of most multiracial societies that possess an inordinate number of dysfunctional pallid corpses who are so narcissistically enamored with their insipid inner hands that they would much prefer to have both appendages amputated in their entirety before ever acknowledging the endogenous pulchritude of their sunburned outer epidermis.
This phenomenon, better known as a chromatic hierarchy, is an essential component to the injurious influence that American media exert domestically and internationally. At the crux of this chromatic hierarchy is the supposition that whiteness, by virtue of “genealogical supremacy,” should rightfully reign at the apex while blackness is perpetually condemned to its nadir. This insidious and all-pervasive hierarchical structure, which acutely delineates what is socially aesthetically acceptable, informs, whether at the conscious or subconscious level, the decision making process stems from a variety of societal contexts. Indeed, the challenge, invariably, is to locate a country where—in some shape, form or fashion—this Ponzi chromatic scheme does not operate to psychologically inculcate into the psyches of black people, and those who find themselves in the middle to lower rungs of the hue-phobic pecking order, an irreversible intrinsic inadequacy that, ultimately, viciously extricates them from the very essence of their humanity and, by extension, renders the aforesaid susceptible souls to a genocidal ethnocentric quandary in which the maintenance of one’s sanity is mutually exclusive from supine submission to the status quo.
It’s worth pointing out that this chromatic hierarchy does not operate in seclusion as—in juxtaposition to it—there exists an intellectual hierarchy which, like its chromatic counterpart, superciliously presupposes that intellectual acuity and whiteness are somehow inherently synonymous. Together these two form a rather peculiar incestuous congenital fraternity whose exclusive membership not only adroitly abdicates any association with blackness but, most disparagingly, fails to acknowledge even the remotest ancestral affiliation to an African matriarch of antiquity who, indisputably, bequeathed the very first breath of life to all of humanity. It should be vociferously stated that both hierarchies ultimately coalesce to form a distinctive duplicitous double helix that—historically and contemporarily—constitutes the very DNA of American society which has a rather hypocritical, lurid, and unapologetic history of succumbing to repugnant racist pseudoscientific psychobabble.
What is particularly salient about these quixotic hierarchical structures is that, as one approximates the apex of the chromatic, one is automatically acknowledged to be at the apogee of the intellectual. Predicated upon the aforementioned, it becomes abundantly clear to even the most obtuse amongst us that there is a ubiquitous synergistic symbiotic relationship between the two and it is precisely this devious dualistic dynamo that coalesces to effectively extricate blacks from the selection phase of the hiring process for many international ESL teaching positions.
The American media, in conjunction with other international media outlets, regularly reinforce the fundamental tenets of the chromatic and intellectual hierarchies through explicit and implicit stereotypical messages that, in domestic and international contexts, efficiently undermine the cognitive competencies of black people. It is not necessary to go into intricate detail about the plethora of derogatory imagery and capricious caricatures of black people in American history that have intentionally insinuated an inextricable nexus between black physiognomy and the animalistic antics of primordial primates. As it turns out, one’s ascendency to the most popular domicile in the US, which supposedly entitles the preeminent popularly elected politician who dwells therein unfettered access to a societal carte blanche, fails to guarantee immunity from such unabated racial invective and disgraceful discrimination even when one’s slightly sun kissed skin is clearly situated in the upper echelons of the caustic chromatic scheme. Indeed, it would appear—despite protestations to the contrary—that race unquestionably trumps class and those who find themselves firmly nestled at the nadir of this dubious ethnocentric color conscious pecking order are, by in large, doomed to wallow in the wretched waters in which monetary gain can only modestly mitigate their misery.
The fact is that ingrained societal stereotypes that assert the alleged innate athletic ability and artistic proclivity of blacks on the one hand, while simultaneously deemphasizing their intellectual acuity on the other, are difficult to eliminate and, as a consequence, their capacity to influence how others perceive and act toward black people cannot be understated. This is particularly true internationally as many individuals in foreign contexts—especially citizens of Asian countries that have a high demand for ESL teachers—may not have the opportunity to personally interact with black people and, as such, must rely heavily on skewed media depictions in an attempt to ascertain—however improbable—the general disposition of a highly gifted people whose intellectuality, by in large, remains resolutely subordinate within a recalcitrant racist American society that is either unwilling or unable to extricate itself from its amorous relationship with historical asinine notions of unbridled black buffoonery.
Although egregious explicit racial stereotypes are an easy target, the ones that operate at the subliminal level are much harder to perceive and eviscerate. There is a general subtext disseminated by the American media that perpetuates the myopic perspective that only a select segment of the American populace is somehow capable of contextualizing the diverse and innumerable complexities of the human experience. This erroneous supposition, which acutely adheres to the sinister structure of the chromatic and intellectual hierarchies, effectively situates Caucasians upon the preeminent majestic throne of cognition and, in so doing, adroitly affirms the aforesaid as the indisputable sole custodians of the keys to knowledge and, subsequently, arbitrarily anoints them as the singular eminent earthly souls uniquely qualified at interpreting—from the most mundane to the most vexing—all the universal and earthly exigencies facing humanity. It is precisely at this juncture that the media’s presumptuous prestidigitation precipitously lulls the global populace into a hypnotic induced psychological stupor that dutifully dulls the psyche into absolute acquiescence to the specious premise of white intellectual hegemony.
The alleged intellectual dexterity of the pallid populace is not only absolute but is relentlessly reified in American society on a quotidian basis as innumerable media outlets intentionally stack the deck—with reporters, journalists, correspondents, commentators, and guests—in favor of those who approximate the apex of the chromatic hierarchy and thus, relegate blacks, and other people of color, as periphery players in a pernicious game whose prejudiced predetermined parameters systemically and systematically disenfranchise their ability to be perceived—at home and abroad—as equal partners who are as adept at contextualizing domestic and international affairs as their white counterparts.
Due to the ubiquitous nature of the aforementioned phenomenon, the English spoken by the dominant white media, which meticulously orchestrates the conspicuous absence of blacks from the massive media milieu, is thusly interpreted domestically—but especially internationally—as the proverbial philological Holy Grail and the linguistic archetype that all others should aspire to emulate in order to be considered fluent in the global lingua franca. Thus, there is an irrefutable inextricable nexus—in the deepest recesses of the global psyche—between the English language and whiteness that simultaneously subverts and extricates blacks from the linguistic paradigm as competent phraseologists who are sufficiently erudite to master eloquent English elocution.
Given the magnitude of the influence that American media exert domestically and internationally, it becomes easier to comprehend and contextualize the pervasive duplicitous disposition that many foreign recruiters and employers exhibit when confronting the prospects of employing black educators for international ESL teaching positions. It is almost as if many of the polities that earnestly procure ESL educators have been placed under an insidious irreversible incantation that unconditionally guarantees—under the guidance of an “omniscient” pallid instructor—the English language acquisition process will not only be substantially accelerated but, in addition—at least in the subconscious realm—the mesmerized pupils will magically be endowed with the same aesthetic attributes and societal privileges of their white messiah mentor.
As ludicrous as it may seem, such asinine aspirations are spoon fed to culturally ill-informed Asians and other nationalities, who aspire to learn “real English” from “real Americans,” by innumerable international educational institutions and language schools that are—for all intents and purposes—more driven by cupidity than any genuine concern for the legitimate linguistic aspirations of their students. While the financial lucrativeness of such an asinine approach may not necessarily engender many skeptics, it will, however, leave a multitude of gullible students—and others who assiduously attempt to master the Anglophone vernacular—lifelessly languishing in a hue-less linguistic labyrinth whose white washed walls effectively sequester all cultural sensibilities and successfully thwart the aforesaid aspirants’ capacity to properly contextualize American social reality.
At the end of the table, I see a frantic hand waving back and forth signaling a desire to read the last stanza. Although I usually prefer to alternate between students, Eun Hee’s ecstatic smile and bright eyes convince me to make an exception this time around as she appears destined to make amends for her previous faux pas. She stares at me intensely for her cue and—with a slight nod and smile—permission is granted. Poised and confident, it’s easy for all to perceive Eun Hee’s enthusiasm for Hughes’ poem as it’s readily apparent that she thoroughly comprehends its literal and figurative significance. Gazing around the classroom and its occupants, who are rather reminiscent of a mini United Nations, I ponder whether these erudite ESL students, whose scholastic sojourn in the United States has brought them into close proximity to at least one darker American, will eventually go on to serve as cultural ambassadors destined to proselytize their respective polities.
For sure, only time will tell, but their willingness to affirm the humanity of one means it is also certainly plausible in the aggregate. After all, our unanimity is universal and it is precisely this truism that serves as the epitome for all of them to emulate.
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Photo credit: Flickr/DryHundredFear