Let’s Talk about Race in EAP: Practitioner Perspectives

– EAP for Social Justice SIG –

We were delighted to welcome participants to our second webinar, Let’s Talk about Race in EAP: Practitioner Perspectives, which took place on 27th August 2020. We heard from two EAP practitioners, Henry James Robinson and Lorraine Mighty, who shared invaluable insights into how their lived experience of how race, racism and white privilege intersect with EAP touches on a wide range of issues and practices within the sector, including those related to employment, trans-national education, the internationalisation agenda, Western epistemology, critical pedagogy and decolonisation.

This webinar came about as part of our intention to put Black Lives Matter on the agenda in EAP circles, to shine a spotlight on how race, racism and white privilege intersect with EAP. We go into more detail about this in our recent Black Lives Matter statement, which you can read here. Though there has been some renewed discussion about these areas in the contexts of HE and ELT more widely in recent weeks, there has been very little focus on this in EAP circles, despite the clear relevance of this topic to our field … so this webinar was our attempt to start to redress this by creating a much-needed space for the voices of practitioners with lived experience of this to be heard. The webinar recording and Powerpoint slides are available here.

We would very much like to hear from you in this developing dialogue, so if you have reflections / questions that you would like to share, please leave a comment in the discussion thread at the bottom of this page.

Musings from the participants (an anonymised sample)

The presentations prompted rich discussions amongst participants in the chat box, and in the interests of capturing some of this we are including an anonymised sample of these comments below:

Colonialism and decolonisation

“I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness. I wanted to get that off my chest.” (Boris Johnson)  

I think it’s time we stopped being embarrassed and started being honest.

To dismantle racism, we need to go beyond decolonising the curriculum. The curriculum doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We probably need to decolonise the universities – structural inequities

Will the gatekeepers of the curriculum allow it to be decolonised?

We also need to decolonise our minds – the attitudes and assumptions we have

The work of Achille Mbembe (Cameroonian thinker), such as his book NECROPOLITICS, far too little known inside critical pedagogy in ELT//EAP, decolonzing the curriculum.

And yes, there is a tendency to regard African students as not thinking ‘critically enough’ (without pausing to question who defines what).

 ‘who defines what’. Yeah totally agree

Let’s examine the west-ocentric materials !

A great place to start is for ELT publishers to stop creating materials that see Africa as one country and underprivileged.

If I may add, despite having studied in Sri Lanka all my life … we, too, studied a curriculum strongly influenced by colonialism. This includes in history, where we studied colonisation in a very factual, clinical way, and not unpacking the layers and assumptions of hegemony that fuelled it. So many of us are on a similar journey right now, learning and coming to realisations about this issue (or these issues).

Yes, I think we need more material that showcases the differences in races/cultures. One area I’d like to explore is history…I think it would be useful to focus on black narrative (non-white narratives) of history.

There is a high risk of neo-colonialism through transnational HE, too. How could UK universities that open branch campuses in Asia and Africa avoid that?

Racism within HE

An open letter from the Black Medical Society Aberdeen detailing racist incidents that medical students have experienced in a range of settings: shorturl.at/IMV28


I think that if we look at racial discrimination exclusively as a BAME issue, we allow white ethnic minority people to fall through the cracks. Essentially, we need to address it from the point of difference, which does not stop at the colour divide.

Relevant article from IATEFL GISIG e-zine FUTURITY, July 2020, here slightly expanded: https://www.academia.edu/43630360/Pandemic_Politics_Teaching_Critically_about_Racism_the_Mass_Uprising_and_the_System

 I was listening to Michael Holding (the cricketer) talking about some research on teachers shown a classroom video and told to ‘watch for bad behaviour’ and their eye movement showed they tracked black boys (there was no bad behaviour)

I think unconscious bias is also a key factor in the mix.

it is often not unconscious, but dysconsciousness, an uncritical habit of mind

The violence of Western intellectual superiority should be dismantled

Racism is not about being bad people, it transcends the binary good people= not racist // bad people=racist. It s not about IF racism manifests itself but How!! (from White fragility – Robyn DiAngelo)

… we should dispense with the embarrassment around these issues. It’s difficult but necessary. I’m thinking particularly of how we literally talk about racism. What we need in my view is more explicitness and detail. When we couch our references and experiences in vague, academic, ‘distanced’ or hedged terms it’s no wonder we lose the ear of even those sympathetic to the issues around racism.

I remember speaking to a medical student who said their course-books primarily showed pictures of rashes etc on white skin hence the students learnt how to recognise illnesses/conditions as they appeared on white skin but not how illnesses manifested on others skin colours.

the Medicine department had a listening session with a couple of the students: https://youtu.be/HKCZ-koJx-k I think these are welcome first steps, but based on the incidents I read in the open letter this was a wider issue that needs a much more robust response. Will be interested to see how this situation develops.

this article is about a book in the pipeline talking about exactly what you highlighted https://www.sgul.ac.uk/news/mind-the-gap-a-handbook-of-clinical-signs-on-black-and-brown-skin

BAME attainment gap

this is often referred to as the BAME attainment gap https://universitiesuk.ac.uk/news/Pages/Universities-acting-to-close-BAME-student-attainment-gap.aspx . But more recently, some academics are reframing it as the White attainment gap to highlight it’s about the privileges that are afford to some rather than the deficit of others

Yes I agree some Widening Participation rhetoric such as ‘target schools’ is quite illuminating on what HE focuses on. Are students from diverse backgrounds really welcome or do HE focus on their stats.

White allyship and responsibility

I came across this useful website, and, in particular this section on “how to be an ally” (as a white person) in action against racism. https://www.theconsciouskid.org/how-to-be-an-ally  

see “White fragility” (DiAngelo)


I am personally taking issues with people saying ‘what can I do to be anti-racist / decolonise the CV’ – isn’t it our PERSONAL responsibility (I am speaking as a white person) to do the work, research and understanding our white privilege

I agree. the resources are out there and it is our own responsibility.

the problem is EAP departments not taking the issue seriously on a systemic level and leaving the responsibility to the wider university. As an EAP lecturer, I have talked to managers on this but they seem not to realise our department had a responsibility to act.

I’m talking about being dismissed when speaking out on systemic + interpersonal racism as a brown woman. My managers have interpreted it as me “complaining” about my personal exp rather than seeing it as highlighting a small part of a systemic issue.

How disrespectful of these colleagues. So much for education. I’m regularly astonished by a lack of self-awareness and willingness to learn among some teachers. And the arrogance of gate-keepers. I’m thinking of in-house training as we’re encouraged to offer this in my FE college.

White people asking for help (and I am referring to us as a group!) is yet again another sign of feeling privileged and entitled

Trans-national education

Thanks, Henry. I agree with you about the superior attitude of White EFL/ESL teachers in developing countries towards BAME colleagues as well as locally-engaged teachers (who have similar qualifications and experience). Organisations like the British Council need to do more about that, more seriously.

I agree, but perhaps we could say ‘some/many white EFL/ESL teachers in developing countries’? I learnt so much from locally-engaged colleagues when I was teaching abroad, and they were always my ‘go to’ when I needed support on matters related to local culture and language. In my experience we worked really well together as professionals with different skills sets and understandings of the context in which we were working.

We should add that ‘locally recruited colleagues’ are on a lower pay scale … and often ‘locally recruited colleagues’ often aren’t on permanent contracts, but on hourly rates without the benefits that foreign teachers receive

Sadly I don’t believe it is ‘better now’ – Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury have worked tirelessly on this https://teflequityadvocates.com/2015/01/15/a-call-to-action-luke-meddings-hugh-dellar-and-scott-thornbury-on-the-nest-vs-nnest-debate/

I was a locally-employed teacher with the BC in Sri Lanka. I agree that, for the most part, my UK colleagues were pleasant people, certainly socially, particularly where navigating aspects of local culture were concerned. However, in my experience, there is an unspoken hierarchy, fuelled by the pay gap between UK-recruited and locally-engaged colleagues … That sometimes translated into overt incidents of racism (e.g. a UK colleague telling a Sri Lankan teacher that the latter should teach an elementary class because their level of English was closer to the students – this, when everyone in that staffroom had a CELTA + required minimum levels of teaching experience) that were not taken seriously enough.

this is interesting (especially as I taught in the BC in Sri Lanka, Colombo as well). Sadly, we had so few Sri Lankan tutors when I was there (25 years ago). There was really just one, who was a UK educated and experienced Sri Lankan. I can only hope that things are better now and that recent events will ‘force’ change. I have spent many years trying to persuade many UK HEIs that ‘non-native’ EAP tutors are equally capable as ‘native’ tutors. The tide is turning, but admittedly too slowly.

This is very interesting, Lorraine. I’m currently examining the privileging of Western epistemology in the curriculum of ‘critical thinking’ as a module at university in the context of transnational HE in West Africa (Ghana, where I am based), seeking to interrogate how conflating Western philosophy as universal, and not contextualising and taking into account West African philosophy as part of the curriculum, could have an impact on student experience and identity.

What a coincidence. When I taught at the BC in Colombo, the staffroom comprised about 30% Sri Lankan teachers, so definitely an improvement!

Yes, re: Afronography. My issue is the insider-outsider position: a South Asian in West Africa. Despite a shared colonial history, I am not in a position to draw parallels because of how the British Empire was structured and treated the Indian and African continents.

Internationalisation in HE / EAP

On the topic on internationalisation and EAP – just reading an excellent book by Bee Bond ‘Making Language Visible in the University: English for Academic Purposes and Internationalisation’ – highly recommend

I personally think that the internationalisation of UK universities is reproduces unequal power relations and is a clear legacy of colonialism; how can we decolonize our universities when they are seen as the only valid repositories of knowledge?

it is assumed within EAP that students whose first language is not English are deficient. Why don’t we see these students as gifted

I have asked for our materials/brochures, etc. to refer to our EAP students as ‘those who have English as an additional language’ for this reason 

How about learning Chinese students’ names and trying to pronounce them properly? (and not encouraging identity-wiping English nicknames)

Yes I agree, even written in western script/pinyin Chinese names are not always straightforward to say. However, I do think we have an obligation to do some basic study of pinyin pronunciation so that we can pronounce them correctly and not confuse students. I agree with your point about Western nicknames being rather uncomfortable, but some students do like to use that as a way to create their own sense of identity.

Don’t you think that the current internationalisation of universities, is counter productive to critical anti racist pedagogy, as this is a clear legacy of colonialism? You clearly mentioned how our western institutions and western epistemologies are seen as the norm or the only valid repositories/forms of knowledges

How do speakers feel about the UK’s continuing commitment to EAP in China in the light of the well documented large scale human rights abuses in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) which includes linguistic repression.

what do you think of the differences between local BAME students and international students in terms of experience of racism and literacies. e.g. I had many int students experiencing outright racism but not really concerned or conscious about what really constitutes racism here

Critical pedagogy

bell hooks’ ‘Teaching to Transgress’ is a must read

bell hooks ‘Teaching critical thinking’ – also a good one.

Good point Lorraine. moving away from the technical, apolitical approach of EAP dominating our universities. which in fact reproduces many unequal power structures

 yes this is an area which needs further examination. A similar issue with Socratic vs Confucian approaches to learning and particularly critical thinking is quite well researched already. This is a useful paper: Tweed, R. G., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Learning considered within a cultural context: Confucian and Socratic approaches. American Psychologist, 57(2), 89.

I love the points by Jenkins and Wingate and Canagarajah and find that non-directive approaches are lovely in practice (helping a student find their own voice while navigating the requirements of the assessment criteria related to language and communication on their degree programmes). But, in the past this has backfired when a student I worked with (as a writing centre tutor) has gone back to their supervisor only to be met with a big ”no, follow the rules”.

 Potential ways forward

The HERAG (Higher Education Race Action Group) JISCmail is a good one too…

Suggestions about dismantling structures of higher ed and society seem beyond my ability ?? What can I do as a classroom teacher??

I’m curious to know what support for real change is coming from the upper echelons of the University hierarchy.

This Zoom call is full of like-minded people, but how can we make change within departments that refuse to admit race is an issue in EAP? I have been dismissed multiple times when trying to raise this.

NEW FORMS OF UNIONIZATION? Part of what is needed are progressive ELT teacher mini-unions, along the lines of IWW in Scotland: https://iwwscotland.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/sewn_leaflet_for_web_use.pdf An IWW-connected local union would focus very centrally on issues of racism, decolonizing and much more. That kind of solidarity is sorely lacking among many colleagues. Reds in Ed is a US-based very active new organization: https://redsined.org/ How do you see new forms of unionization for EFL/EAP teachers.

Twitter: @TeflUnion / Facebook: Tefl Workers


General feedback on the event

Thanks also for creating the space for this to be discussed, space we all need to continue creating for ourselves and our students 🙂

Such an important event. As educators we have to continue questioning the foundations of what we do and speaking out about the issue of racism that is rife in our universities. Allyship is key. A huge thank you!!!

Thanks for giving this theme the attention it deserves.

Published by EAP 4 Social Justice SIG

What is the EAP for Social Justice SIG? Welcome to the website for BALEAP's EAP for Social Justice Special Interest Group! This SIG is intended to provide a forum for EAP practitioners to discuss, deepen their understanding of, and address concerns related to, social justice within and around EAP, whilst also broadening and strengthening the evidence-base of the impact that social justice initiatives can make in this field. Through bringing this often-sidelined area into the spotlight and examining the knowledge, skills and values that a social justice lens can contribute to EAP, this SIG aims to encourage more EAP students, practitioners and managers to take action and play their part in fulfilling the vision of the university as the “critic and conscience of society”.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about Race in EAP: Practitioner Perspectives

  1. I really enjoyed this webinar. So many important points discussed. I also found it interesting to read the comments posted here. There are great suggestions for further reading and action. Thank you!


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