But first some stories (with apologies to those who have heard or read them before).
1. Hagwon Hiring
I was asked to help in finding possible replacements for myself at the hagwon (private language academy) which was my first full time teaching job. Through the miracles of online communication I found a young woman who seemed like she’d be a great fit. She had some experience teaching and living in Asia and by all indications she was a smart and dedicated person. In fact. she was probably more qualified than I’d been the previous year when I was hired. I thought I’d hit the jackpot when she said she was willing to come to this hagwon in a small Korean town. I mean jackpot in two ways here. The first is because I thought she’d be a great teacher and fit for the school and the second is that I stood to get a payout of about 400 dollars US for finding a suitable replacement. After a few emails and with my positive impression of her growing I brought her resume to the director who seemed happy until he discovered she was African-American. He informed me it was not going to work. You know, this being Korea and all. I didn’t like it on either the moral or financial level but I went back to work on the project. The next candidate I found was another USAmerican female who met the criteria I was given and also struck my intuition as the right type or person. Up I went to the director’s office. The problem with this candidate? Well, she was Asian-American and the students might be confused by this. How could someone of Vietnamese descent be a “native English speaker,” anyway? I clarified with the director that what he really wanted was White People. Let me be clear, there are not a whole lot of things I did when I was 23 that I am super proud of now but telling the director I was not interested in continuing to participate this (farcical) candidate search is one of them. The epilogue to this sad little tale is the two eventual replacements were a White Canadian couple who were semi-disastrous in terms of teaching and to the business of the school (according to my sources) and the husband was disastrous as a person (according to my not so humble opinion).
2. The parents might not like it
A long while back a mixed-race friend was hired at a hagwon upon the recommendation of a friend of hers from college. The hagwon owner in small town Korea was a bit apprehensive about the skin color of her future employee but she liked and respected the opinion of the person making the recommendation and decided to follow the advice. The director was concerned that students would leave her school. She didn’t seem to harbor any racist views but was simply concerned with the bottom line. Maybe their parents would think a teacher with darker skin would be less qualified or less native or less something than a blonde and blue eyed teacher might be. So it was with some trepidation my friend was hired. The results were extremely positive. My friend was a great and compassionate teacher who I believe the students loved and learned a lot from. Maybe they even told their friends and enrollment went up and the school owner made an even bigger pile of money. The hagwon owner was pleased with her hiring decision and vowed that she would not consider skin color when hiring in the future.
3. Dark skinned engineers need not apply
A friend of mine told me a story that blew my mind. He was working for one of the big ship building company in Korea (It was not Hyundai Heavy Industries or Samsung Heavy Industries) and he accompanied the HR team on a recruiting trip to India. His job on the trip was to assess English ability, potential, and potential fit for the company. When reporting his assessments he was told a few of the candidates he rated highly were simply too dark to work in Korea. He couldn’t really comprehend what he was hearing so he asked some follow-up questions. Apparently the HR team thought lighter skinned people would fare better in South Korea. They thought their Korean staff would treat this lighter skinned Indian workers better. They thought the lighter skinned employees would adapt to Korea more easily. They made their hiring decisions accordingly. I have always hoped those engineers who were denied the chance to work for this company based on their skin color ended up working for a competitor and made some massive and profitable breakthroughs in the field.
4. Remind me who is overly concerned about race again
In a prestigious university in Seoul the foreign staff was asked for input on a list of potential colleagues. One of the applicants happened to be black. Somehow the race of the candidates was an issue for the (largely male and entirely white) staff. No, they weren’t racist, of course, but they expressed their concern their students might be. They weren’t sure how a black professor would be received, this being Korea and all. The (Korean) admin in this case had no issue regarding the race of applicants and didn’t’ believe the students would either but the (entrenched) workers had no problem bringing it up as a concern.
A) Who are the most moral people mentioned above? Why?
B) Who are the least moral people mentioned above? Why?
C) What motivates those making hiring decisions?
D) What would you have done if you were me in story #1?
E) What helped change the owner’s mind in story #2? What do you think was most persuasive?
F) Am I crazy and naive to imagine the company in story #3 suffering for their skin-based hiring practices?
G) Why would those mentioned in story #4 bring up race?
H) What, if anything, can be done to combat racist hiring practices?
I) Who is responsible for combating racist hiring practices?
My fear is that I might be on the verge of over-simplifying very complicated issues here. I mostly just wanted to share the stories in the hopes that they might provoke some thought and discussion. I am sure that there are lots of similar and related stories around Korea and around the world.
I think the argument I am dancing around is something like this:
Aside from being terrible on a moral level, racist hiring practices make bad business sense. Taken a step further it might mean, “Let certain idiots be racist as they are shooting themselves in the foot.” I think this can be applied on the level of a small language school or a big ship builder or even a region or nation. For example, on the larger scale, if Japan has more enlightened hiring policies and practices than Korea I honesty believe there will be an impact in terms of overall English ability and national competitiveness in favor of Japan. This can be applied all the way do. If Korea (or anywhere) wants to make hiring decisions on things like melanin content then perhaps that is their poor decision to make.
I’m worried I am stepping away from the moral considerations too easily but at the same time I can’t see much way into change without doing so. As I patiently await being tarred and/or branded as a neo-liberalist I wonder what other remedies there are (other than the market) for silly hiring practices. Can this be legislated? What would this even look like? How else can perceptions change other than cases like story #2? Are such views on race something that will be grown out of as more and more students have interactions with teachers of color? How can education play a role?
As I consider these issues I can’t separate them from thoughts regarding native speakerism. I think they are inextricably linked in places like Korea. I mean, I think race becomes more of an issue when “native speakers” are so highly prized and are often hired for the sole reason of being a “native speaker.” If qualifications and teaching ability are not seen as important for the teaching positions then basing hiring choices on other superficial things like race is only a small hop, skip, and jump away.
Returning to the discussion questions above, what alternatives are there to letting the market sort things out? I don’t want to sound as though I am throwing my hands up in despair and saying race will always play a role. I also don’t want to expect a nation with a very different history and make-up than the country of my birth (which surely has its own problems) to adhere to my personal views.
What am I missing?
I’d like to share a few related links. Please feel free to add more in the comments. The first is a very interesting blog post where the writer conducted some undercover research on recruiters preferences in hiring. She created profiles of two invented women of different races and tracked the results. The second is a newspaper article entitled, “The hagwon color line: Korean language institutes and their inexcusably racist employment habits.” Finally, I previously wrote “Some thoughts and stories about ‘native speakers’ in South Korea” and I think there are quite a few connections to the above (including one of the same stories).
1) I keep thinking about how I didn’t focus enough on applicants who suffered through such ridiculous hiring practices. I don’t think it is enough to say, “Yes, this is silly and in time it will all be sorted out. The market will take care of everything.” I mean real people have faced real problems with these issues and I don’t wish to gloss over this.
2) I guess I wasn’t as clear as I could have been regarding how I see native speakerism fitting into all this. What I wanted to say was how issues of race and language are quite intertwined. The image of “native speakers” seems to have a lot of crossover with race. In this post, I was trying to talk about just race, but I think that proved to be difficult because of how prevalent native speakerism is.
What I wanted to say in the post is that if we are going to use superficial criteria like passport held, as opposed to teaching skills, to make hiring decisions then other superficial criteria like skin color seems to be an easy next step. So, if it is not about teaching it is not about teaching.
Also, as I hinted at in the comments, look at the passports deemed acceptable (actually required is the right word) to for “native” English teachers in Korea to hold. Lotta white folks in those countries. Is that by accident?