Color politics reign on campuses

Dear Minister of Education Yoshiaki Takaki:

Over the past decade, some school boards have been reprimanded for only hiring “blond-haired, blue-eyed teachers.” A top-ranking executive of a now-defunct English conversation school chain also admitted in an interview that the company would routinely turn away qualified applicants who were non-Caucasian.

Why do the majority of the Japanese people seem to prefer white-skinned people as English teachers? It would appear that somewhere along the way, the thinking that Caucasians are better English teachers than nonwhites has become a permanent feature of the Japanese mindset. In my experience, linguistic imperialism (i.e., the mistaken conception that only white-skinned individuals speak proper English and only they are able to properly teach it) still reigns supreme in Japan.

Linguistic imperialism openly ignores the fact that most of the individuals Japanese EFL (English as a foreign language) speakers interact with are non-Caucasian, and the fact that there are more non-Caucasian native speakers of English than there are Caucasian. In my four years as a university EFL instructor, I have met only one other male, non- Caucasian instructor. At a large Tokyo area university, from 2008 to 2009, out of approximately 70 instructors, I was the only nonwhite, North American male instructor.

The two black, female university teachers I met were basically attempts by their respective institutions to appear politically correct (i.e., tokenism). No doubt they were fully qualified, but they were being used by their institutions to demonstrate that the organization was racially tolerant, ethnically diverse and progressive — a situation that was far removed from the truth. The uncomfortable truth was that their plight was quite similar to that of colored people in the workforces of Western industrialized nations some 30 years ago.

In Japan, the unwritten and unspoken convention is to treat people from various countries and ethnicities differently depending on where they come from and by the color of their skin. Caucasians garner the lion’s share of consideration and opportunity from the Japanese, whether they deserve it or not. This practice is not only racist but elitist as well.

Why does this situation continue? The truly insidious thing about discrimination and prejudice along ethnic/color lines in Japan is that most Japanese as well as Caucasians are fully aware that it’s happening. Generally, the Japanese deny it in order to “save face” and do nothing about it since it seems to correspond to their worldview. Most Caucasians, however, take advantage of it since it socially and economically benefits them.

Diversity is a term that is apparently only given lip service in Japan. It is not actively pursued. And this is a fact that’s detrimental to all. Reliance on strictly Caucasian English instructors reinforces negative assumptions and stereotypes regarding non-Caucasians, since students are unable to increase their cultural awareness by directly interacting with them. This situation is likely to endure as long as linguistic imperialism and color-based discrimination remain in effect in Japanese university English departments.

The impression I’ve gotten so far to date in Japan is that the contributions of people of color may be needed, but do not appear to be especially valued or wanted.

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