Of Race and the Ownership of a Language

Dec 22nd, 2016 | By | Category: Opinion
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Ana Wu

Ana Wu


—My relationship with culture, language, and race has become intriguing since I moved to the US more than 10 years ago.

At the recent CATESOL Annual Conference during breakfast, I sat at a table with two other instructors. Previously, the common questions that I had been asked were, “I see you are a presenter. What’s your presentation about?” or the sequence: “Where are you from? Where do you work? What program do you teach in?” However, at this particular table, upon hearing my response, “I am Brazilian but I teach in San Francisco,” one person said, “But your ethnicity is different.” I left the table wondering whether this Caucasian American would have asked the same question if I were not Asian, and reflecting why people think it’s cool to ask a professional of color about one’s ethnicity just because it doesn’t seem to fit into a stereotyped cultural identity.

Fast-forward a few hours, and I am at the NNLEI (Nonnative Language Educators’ Issues) Interest Group business meeting. There, a Chinese American with teaching experience shared the challenges of landing a job in China because of his ethnicity. Schools there would rather hire a German with no teaching experience than him.

Back to San Francisco, and I thought about the book by Dr. Andy Curtis, the 2016 CATESOL Friday plenary speaker. This year, Color, Race, and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning celebrates its 10th anniversary of publication, and yet the issues and challenges it describes are still so present and relevant. In a world where you find immigrants and immigrant descendants everywhere, why is race still so connected to culture? In our teaching profession, should race matter? Should it matter more than identity or professionalism? In this same book, Marinus Stephan, an African Surinamese whose first language is Dutch, identifies a “hierarchy of nativeness” and later said in an interview (2009) that after two painful incidents with his students, he decided not to disclose his linguistic and geographic-origin backgrounds. If asked, he chose to not tell the whole truth and felt that he was betraying his own identity. Dr. Curtis said in his “2020: Where Hindsight and Foresight (might) Meet” plenary that “by at least 2025, over half of all families with children will be multicultural.” Should we wait until then to openly accept multilinguals/multiculturals? How can we language professionals deal with mistaken identity based on race, language, and culture in the classroom and in the workplace?

I would like to finish this article by encouraging members to read Dr. Curtis’s book, and to invite them to reflect on one’s understanding of the ownership of English (or any language) by a specific race. Also, think of how one can not only support multicultural/multilingual professionals but also create a safe and comfortable zone where educators can better focus on students’ needs, what is important in learning, and professional development.

Ana Wu is a member of the CATESOL NNLEI and ToP Interest Groups. She teaches ESL at City College of San Francisco. You can find more about her work at http://nnesintesol.blogspot.com/


Curtis, A., & Romney, M. (Eds.). (2006). Color, race, and English language teaching: Shades of meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stephan, M. (2009, February 22.). Interview for NNEST of the Month blog. Retrieved from http://nnesintesol.blogspot.com/2009/02/marinus-stephan.html


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