Words by Steph, 25 VIC
After graduation, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I considered going somewhere in Asia to teach English to speakers of other languages as I was intrigued by photos I saw of happy volunteers posing with their class.
I considered going somewhere in Africa, volunteering at an orphanage or in a school, trying to help people and work in development. Naturally, having learned German and a bit of Arabic, it would be easy, right?
I had trouble explaining it at the time, but there was something about going overseas to work in a country where I didn’t speak the language that caused me to feel uneasy. I decided to complete my Masters in Teaching and remain in Australia, while working and volunteering as an English tutor with refugees from Burma.
Recognising Systemic Inequalities
After graduating, I worked as a paid English tutor for a Chinese boss and began to see first-hand the inequalities that favoured me as a white teacher. I was told by my boss that Asian parents didn’t want ‘an Asian face’ teaching their children.
A colleague of mine highlighted these inequalities from her experience teaching in Taiwan. She consistently worked 12-hour days in order to be taken seriously, while her white colleagues would put in the minimum amount of effort. As a native speaker, she was instructed to ignore the native language spoken in the classroom while her white colleagues were praised for knowing a few words. She became so used to tuning out her first language that she would ignore her own family members speaking it.
Working with refugee students in Australia opened my eyes to the types of prejudice that they might face in the future and I worked to educate myself about how their needs could be best met. I made an effort to learn about systemic oppression and the harm caused by the low expectations teachers hold of these students. In making an effort to educate myself, I discovered the reason why I had never felt completely comfortable with white teachers working overseas.
If you can’t teach in your own country, what makes you think you can teach overseas? Many people teaching English in Asia or Africa are not qualified to teach in their own country, holding no degree nor having the experience. Some of these people don’t even make an effort to learn the local language. One American woman I met had lived in China for two years and seemed unperturbed by the fact she couldn’t even say a sentence in Mandarin. Imagine if the reverse had happened in her country, a Chinese woman who moved to the USA and couldn’t speak English? People would say that she was isolating herself and should make an effort to assimilate. Some people would consider the fact that she didn’t make an effort to learn English problematic.
Why do we accept this?
The more I learned about expats going overseas, the more I became disgusted by it. I read of Dan William Hiers, a man who murdered his wife and sexually assaulted a ten-year-old before working as an English teacher in China. I read of Renee Bach, who worked as a doctor despite having no medical training and killed multiple children in Uganda through her negligence. I read of Bernhard Bery Glaser, a man who set up a “rehabilitation centre” in Uganda, who is now facing charges in connection with child trafficking and aggravated defilement.
If white people are to continue to go overseas to work and volunteer, we need to question whether what we bring to the table actually needs a white person to do it. Should a person, who holds no qualification and has no experience, be able to teach children? Should they be able to earn more money than a vastly underpaid local language assistant who often does all the work?
We have enabled a culture of people feeling entitled to go overseas and, without qualifications or background checks, work with some of the most vulnerable people in the world. We, including myself as a white person, expect other people to accommodate our needs, speak our languages and allow us to consume a diluted form of their culture. As white people, we need to take ownership of our actions and call out others who are actively causing harm, regardless of their intentions. Even if helping people in need is your calling, at least have the decency to get the proper training and qualification. Whiteness is not a master’s degree in social work, nor education, nor a medical doctorate.