If there’s one thing English teachers are warned about when they come to Japan, it’s to be ready for some personal questions: Where do you live? Do you have a boyfriend? … The list goes on.
When you are a woman of color, however, these questions — no matter how innocent — can take on a racialist tone: Why is your skin so dark? Why do you have an accent, do you really know English?
As a Pakistani American, those were some of the questions I received from students when I taught at various schools in Shizuoka Prefecture as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, a national effort to get people from other countries and cultures into classrooms to interact one-on-one with the Japanese.
Those questions also taught me that when someone at any age interacts with a person whose identity they have little knowledge about, they will often rely on assumptions to fit the interaction into their own worldview. So, when I was faced with invasive questions or stereotypical judgements, I responded by using my presence as a tool for awareness.
My favorite way of doing this was to respond with a few questions of my own: Who told you that people who look like me are (insert stereotype here)? Why do you think it’s OK to ask me (such a personal question)? When done in a safe setting, like a classroom, there’s no reason to believe this method of starting discussion will sound accusatory.
As an instructor, it is important to motivate students to question their own belief systems and help them become aware of their own assumptions about other races and cultures, which have likely been reinforced for years at home or society at large.
Interactions with students aren’t the only part of teaching English at schools or eikaiwa (English conversation) schools in Japan. If you don’t match the stereotype of a blonde, blue-eyed American, then you may find yourself dealing with similar interactions from co-workers and managers.
Everyone’s situation is different, but here are how three instructors dealt with similar experiences in the past.
A safe space for returnees
Alison Lee has taught in Japan for more than five years. The 29-year-old Taiwanese Canadian says that, on the whole, students and teachers have been quite receptive to her.
“I’ve had a fair share of students who don’t believe I’m fully ‘Asian’ as I speak with a North American accent. Many think I’m half white,” Lee says with a laugh. “I think they’re mostly innocent reactions and they don’t bother me.”
However, the most challenging experience Lee has had as a non-white instructor came when she worked for an eikaiwa school.
“We had to do events at shopping malls where they would ‘show off’ their foreign teachers and try to recruit new customers,” she recalls. “I did a couple of those events, but was taken off them because I wasn’t ‘performing well’ and was replaced with a white teacher. I believe I just didn’t fit their model of what an ‘ideal’ teacher was for them.”
Where Lee found her Asian heritage working in her favor, however, was when it came to working with returnee students, those Japanese children who have spent a considerable amount of their lives abroad.
“I’ve taught a fair share of female returnee students and I think being taught by someone who looks and speaks like them creates a comfortable and safe space in which the students can express themselves,” Lee says.
The ‘double penalty’
Elodie Elvira, 40, worked as an instructor in the Kanto region for more than 10 years, despite having what she refers to as a “double penalty” when it came to looking for English-teaching jobs. “I’m Black and I’m French. My accent isn’t strong, but there’s a stereotype with French people having strong accents.”
Elvira says that, while working as a teacher, she felt she was sometimes judged more harshly than her white counterparts.
“I couldn’t be as loud or opinionated,” she says. “The manager never wanted me to ask questions,” though she points out her white co-workers were able to do so.
When it came to the classroom, however, Elvira believes that any intrusive questions that came her way had less to do with her race and were based more on general xenophobia.
“I never held it against the kids,” she says. “If they live in a place where everyone looks the same and they aren’t exposed to other kinds of people, of course they’ll have questions like, ‘Why are you this color?’ … It gets annoying when it’s the adults asking, though.”
Elvira now works as a translator and interpreter and says that when it comes to those kinds of jobs, your level of Japanese is more important than your race.
“If I didn’t have N1 (of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test), it would have been hard to get out of the education jobs here,” she says.
Confronting unconscious bias
Avril Haye Matsui, one of the founders of the group Black Women in Japan and an associate professor at Aichi Prefectural University, says whiteness tends to be conflated with English, especially in Japan. This comes from the country’s past interactions with the Western world, media representation and pop culture.
To counteract stereotypes, Matsui uses in-class activities that get students to confront their unconscious biases. For example, in one activity she divides students into groups and gives each of them markers and a whiteboard. She then asks them to draw an English teacher. A majority of the groups she conducted the activity with in the past drew a white man with blonde hair; some of them drew a white woman.
“I have to admit, I was disappointed,” Matsui says. “But I understand where this is coming from. My students are all lovely, and I am their teacher, but this is their idealized image. I just want them to understand where this comes from.”
Matsui emphasizes that it’s important to let the students explore the consciousness of their biases, and then teach them to approach diversity without relying on conflating assumptions.
“Blackness is often conflated into one. My students would say that all Black people are ‘good at sports,’ and I narrow down what they mean by that.” For Matsui and other teachers, while prejudice is learned outside of the classroom, it can be “unlearned” to an extent by efforts from the teachers themselves.
She also notes an added bonus to being a woman of color teaching in a Japanese setting: “I thought it was just me, but after talking to lots of women, I discovered that students feel more drawn to us and seek us out because we understand their differences, whether they are bicultural, biracial or something else.”
When coming to Japan as a teacher and as a person of color, it’s important to remember that the discourse surrounding topics of race in society here is likely not where it is in your home country.
Indeed, in the course of speaking to people for this story, I found differing opinions on whether the term “person of color” should even be used in the first place. However, Matsui points out that, for now, it is still a term that “encompasses all of us.”
So as a person of color in a position of authority, this could be your chance to make a difference by introducing topics of race, unconscious bias and diversity to a new generation.
Support and resources await you online
The internet is filled with resources that you can turn to when you need support as a person of color teaching in Japan. One such resource that I found interesting was the Nagasaki JET blog’s “Being a POC” series. While it seems to have come to an end with an entry from Dominic Balasuriya on July 1, 2019, there are still some interesting reads on the site.
On top of these resources, there are several TikTok accounts by people of color who teach English in Japan that are worth a follow. @honeysimja is a Jamaican assistant language teacher who talks about her workplace issues and how to be assertive and approach cultural clashes, while @thepaperpat and @maydaysan provide both teaching-related content and entertaining takes on life in Japan. After all, no matter where you teach, we’re all in need of a stress reliever from time to time.
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