Non-White, 'native speaking', and academic; my voyage in the field of ELT as a black professional

"Finally, it needs to be stressed that if ELT wants to develop into a profession rather than remaining a largely unlegislated industry, then it should aim to eradicate all forms of discrimination. To evolve into a profession, the ELT community needs to challenge and remove from its belief system the notion that 'some speakers are more equal than others,' to give all members of the TESOL community the justice and equality that they deserve" (Mahboob, 2009, pg. 38). 

These are profound words written by Ahmar Mahboob and still ring true almost a decade later. As a field, we have come a long way in raising awareness of the issues of racism and discrimination (however uncomfortable that has been), but we still have a lot of work to do. I wish to preface this post by saying in no way, shape or form is anything written intended to be antagonizing. I also submit that in discussing this issue, one must walk a very fine line. On the one hand, we cannot be over-sensitive such that any and everything is considered racism: on the other, we cannot be dismissive of people's lived experiences and pretend that a problem doesn't exist. It is hoped that this post continues the discussion and generates healthy and insightful dialogue with the many bright minds and compassionate hearts in ELT, but from a perspective not heard from too often in our field. Lastly, I cannot fail to acknowledge the tremendous support I've received from the many accessible professionals/academics who have helped me along the way in my career. They are (in no particular order) Maureen McGarvey of IH, Jennifer Jenkins, Adrian Holliday, Julie Ciancio, Travis Bristol, Ali Selvi, Marek Kiczkowiak, and Andy Hockley. Your encouragement and guidance have been invaluable.


No doubt, racism and discrimination exist in the world, and yes even in a nice field like TESOL (Kubota, 2002). While quantifiable data would reveal the extent to which we have a problem with racism, our eyes and our ears tell us that there is indeed a problem. We have an obligation to tackle these unpleasantries so that human beings can enjoy basic freedoms; among them is having an equal opportunity to earn a living and live a decent life. These freedoms are granted by national and international laws (United Nations), and a basic requisite of employment should always be one's competence and skill set, and nothing more. That said, many non-White and 'non-native' teaching professionals in ELT still find obstacles to employment based on factors such as skin tone, mother tongue, nationality, and religion. That we even need to articulate this in 2018 is symptomatic of a deeply rooted and terribly stubborn problem.

I now share with you my story as an ELT professional. For me, I occupy a very unique space in TESOL: a black (non-White), 'native speaking' academic. From this space, I have 1) been denied employment based simply on appearance, regardless of qualifications and 2) benefited, financially and otherwise, from being a 'native speaker'. The last space in this matrix that I occupy is having the ability to contribute to academia in ELT (in my own small way) because of the scholarly tools I was fortunate to gain from an elite education. To articulate how it feels occupying all of these spaces, often at the same time, is beyond difficult. There are feelings of anger because of marginalization (employment opportunities vanishing simply because of my appearance), feelings of guilt from "remorseful entitlement" (despite being disadvantaged at times due to color, I have an advantage due to native speakerism, and this is something I've expressed as being unfair with my 'non-native' colleagues), and feelings of tremendous hope and opportunity (that I have a platform to speak out against what I feel is not correct and provide a mouthpiece for a significant segment of the ELT community largely unheard from). All of these factors contribute uniquely to my experience as a black teacher in TESOL and have laid the groundwork for why I believe I need to be more proactive in being part of the solution to this salient problem.


My teaching experience so far in almost 15 years of teaching has been largely positive. I have been fortunate to have published commentaries, have attended amazing conferences, have held important administrative positions, and have met some fantastic people. With that, I have also had interesting experiences with issues of discrimination and race. These experiences have mainly revolved around employment discrimination and perceived native speakerism. I also want to make it clear that I'm speaking from my experience in the context of the Middle East. Other black professionals may have had different experiences (some better, some worse) in other parts of the world, and even different experiences in the Middle East. That said, I know from my conversations with countless other black teaching professionals here that my experience reverberates with many others in the field.

When I'm applying for a position, as a principle and a strategy, I generally don't hand in passport pages or photos with initial applications (unless stipulated otherwise). My rationale is that I want to be judged first and foremost on my credentials, not how I look. I was told early in my career, from white and black colleagues, that sometimes recruiters simply reject applications if a candidate is non-White. They encouraged me to "at least get in the door" by being invited to interview because at that stage, it would be more difficult to be rejected. Interestingly, some of this advice has come from white colleagues who were in charge of recruitment and operating under the directive(s) of their superior. Over time, adopting this approach has indeed exposed some recruiters for being explicitly discriminatory at worst, highly unprofessional at best.

One incident in particular was when I applied to a language institute in Italy. I initially received high praise from the recruiter because of my educational background, academic accomplishments and for being a 'native speaker'. He was very excited to conduct the interview just as a matter of formality, and he requested the first page of my passport, which I sent. Unabashed, he sent me an email within minutes saying the position was filled and thanked me for applying. Ooookay. He really went there? Bewildered, I had hoped that he was being truthful, but after asking him to explain his previous behavior (high praise if the position was already filled) and receiving no response, I couldn't shake the idea that I was “qualified” for the job but not what he was "looking for". This would happen to me two other times, once for a job in Morocco and the other for a job in Saudi Arabia. In a market underpinned by native speakerism, it seems that some 'native speakers' are more equal than others. 


As a black ELT professional, I've also often experienced the phenomenon that a 'native speaker' can only be White. Before leaving the US, I was never once questioned about my identity as an American; outside of the US in Saudi Arabia and Morocco has been a different story. In these places whenever someone asks me where I'm from, and I tell them New York City, whether I'm speaking to students, local teachers, or general people, the follow up question is almost always: "No, I mean where are you really originally"? At first, I used to spend literally 10-15 minutes giving a mini history lesson about how no one is "originally" from America (we're all immigrants essentially), and that yes black people came over from Africa, but after 400 years we've sort of forgotten where we come from exactly. I quickly picked up that some people outside the US may not view black people as being American, regardless of the countless number of black Americans who are historically or currently world famous. This has a direct influence on teaching in English class because the formula becomes "originally American = native speaker = good quality", whereas "not originally American = non-native speaker = lesser quality". When you're teaching a class, it's mind numbing to have to think about the fact that sometimes the value of your teaching will be commensurate with how convinced students are of your "Americanness": that being perceived as not originally being from America has some influence on the perception of the quality of one's teaching. In other contexts, the black experience in the classroom has been even more flagrant. Charles (2017), conducting narrative inquiry research with black teachers in South Korea, asked teachers to document some of their classroom interactions. The study found that professionals had to constantly shake students’ perceptions of blacks as “uneducated...dangerous...[and]... untrustworthy", perceptions which had been recycled in South Korean media, and the teachers had to devise pedagogical strategies to combat misrepresentations of black Americans.


From these experiences, I have grown highly sensitive to the plight of my fellow 'non-native speakers', and here I revisit the inherently biased and discriminatory nature of the ‘native speaker’ model. Ostensibly, ‘native speaker’ means someone who grew up in an English speaking country and has essentially spoken the language from birth, but in reality it has often been used synonymously with being a White speaker from an English speaking country. Used this way, the model becomes a mechanism to exclude non-Whites from employment, as I have hopefully) evidenced here. Used another way, the 'native speaker' model becomes a mechanism to exclude professionals who hold passports of non–English speaking countries from employment on the basis of being 'non-native'. It is even used to justify paying 'non-native' speakers lower salaries for equal work.

I could go on and on, but this inequality cannot. A teacher, regardless of field or industry, should only be judged on his/ her merit, competence, rapport, innovation, efficiency and passion. Any other criteria are irrelevant, and by judging one on what truly matters, the "justice and equality" Mahboob alluded to will finally be served. Racism and discrimination have no place in education, and we must work hard to ensure that every teaching professional has an equal opportunity to earn a decent living.


Charles, Q. D. (2017). Black Teachers of English in South Korea (Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University of Pennsylvania).

Kubota, R. (2002). The author responds: (Un) Raveling racism in a nice field like TESOL. TESOL Quarterly36 (1), 84-92.

Mahboob, A. (2009). Racism in the ELT industry. In A. Mahboob & C. Lipovsky (Eds.) Studies in Applied Linguistics and Language Learning. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Ndura, E. (2004). ESL and cultural bias: an analysis of elementary through high school textbooks in the western United States of America. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 17(2), 143-153.

United Nations. (1958). Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention. Geneva: OHCHR. Retrieved June 29, 2018 from Pages/EmploymentAndOccupation.aspx.