Let’s Keep Talking About Race in EAP – Reflections on Learning and Next Steps

MINNEAPOLIS , MINNESOTA – MAY 31: The makeshift memorial and mural outside Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Today marks the sad anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Whilst we are relieved to see that some justice has been served in his case, we are well aware that similar injustices continue to affect families and communities across the world. We have also seen the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affect people racialised as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. It is clear there is still a lot of work to be done to move towards race equality. 

Last summer, we posted a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In that post, we posed a number of questions on race and racism within our EAP community and we have subsequently sought answers via events we’ve attended and some we’ve hosted. We promised that events we held would “…encourage learning, reflection and, ultimately, action”. In this commemorative post we share what we’ve learnt, where we’ve gone wrong, and how we plan to keep working towards addressing race inequality issues in EAP. 

Lessons learnt


In our BLM statement, we highlighted that the absence of discussions on these topics in EAP was notable. Keen to start to address this, we put on a webinar entitled Let’s Talk About Race in EAP: Practitioner Perspectives. 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, transnational education, the internationalisation agenda, Western epistemology, critical pedagogy and decolonisation.

To help us continue our learning, we turned our attention to our foundations in the fields of English Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, and work which was being done to examine race and ELT. One important article released in May 2020 entitled Worth the Risk: Towards Decentring Whiteness in ELT (by J.P.B. Gerald) argues for a critical examination of whiteness in the field of ELT, and the deleterious impact that it has on racialised students and teachers. Gerald expanded on his article in an IATEFL ESOL SIG webinar held in August 2020, and was subsequently invited to attend an EAP in Ireland reading group which focused on his article and the implications for our sector. This led to a fruitful discussion, which, along with Gerald’s presentation, can be accessed here. It was refreshing to see these ideas being explored in EAP circles.

We were also able to gain useful insights from turning our gaze to the HE sector in general. One promising development was the landmark Advance HE declaration that many Scottish universities have now endorsed, acknowledging that:

“Racism exists on our campuses and in our society.  Call it  what it is and  reject it  in all its forms. We  stand united  against  racism.” 

Whilst acknowledgement is a great step forward, it is not always a simple task to recognise racism in all its forms, especially with regard to structural racism, which is covert and often difficult to hold to account (Eddo-Lodge, 2017:64). Indeed, sometimes attempts to hold it to account are off the mark. In a webinar hosted by Cardiff University in May 2021 entitled Decolonising ‘Safe Spaces’: Talking Race, Faith and Culture in Post-Race Eduscapes, Prof. Heidi Mirza made the point that much of the change that has occurred with regard to race relations in HE can be regarded as performative, a ‘tick box’ culture, and that true equality, the ‘holy grail’ of social justice education, can only be achieved when teachers become transformative agents, developing reciprocal relationships with their students, and giving them their love, their care and their time. Mirza’s conceptualisation of racial justice here is not new; it builds upon the notion of engaged, ‘transformative pedagogy’ championed by bell hooks, through which a teacher helps to build community and creates an environment in which students come to ‘recognise the value of each individual voice’ (hooks, 1994:40).

This connection between equity, justice and the adoption of a relational approach in the classroom was further underlined in Dr. Maha Bali’s conceptualisation of a pedagogy of equity and care in her plenary talk at the BALEAP 2021 conference, entitled Creating Equitable, Caring Communities Online (which we outlined in a recent blog post). A particularly useful analogy which she proposed to demonstrate the role of the teacher in this relationship is that of the teacher-as-host in the space of the classroom, recognising that

“they own that space, that they have power in it, and that they are actively responsible for making students feel at home, as welcome guests. The perception that all members of a class are always naturally able to participate as equals in that space is an illusion; marginality can be both visible and invisible, and equitable conditions need to be actively and consciously created by the person who wields the most power in that space, and who therefore has the responsibility to wield it with intentional equity – the teacher.” (EAP4SJ, 2021)

That this conceptualisation is relevant not only for teachers in the classroom but for us as a SIG committee hosting discussions about race and other social justice issues pertaining to our field is a lesson we learned the hard way.

Learning from our mistakes 

This lesson came about as a result of an exchange which occurred in the plenary session of the Visions of Social Responsibility World Cafe which we hosted at the BALEAP Kent PIM in November 2020. Having been discussing the concept of white privilege in a break-out room discussion, one participant expressed their view in the wrap-up session that, though they were white, they did not feel privileged, as they felt marginalised in the sector by English not being their L1, and had been getting by on precarious contracts for years. With little time, and perhaps not enough preparation to respond to this challenge, we acknowledged this form of marginalisation but failed to make clear that, despite this, the participant would still be benefitting from white privilege – as explained well by John Amaechi in this video. Thanks to feedback from another participant we realise that by not fully explaining how other marginalisation differs to those associated with race, some of our members who identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic may have felt unsafe in that space. For this, we apologise unreservedly. 

This critical incident prompted us to reflect deeply on our role as a SIG, and the concept of “safe space”, which we had been so keen to enact. Prior to this incident, we had felt that our role was to create spaces in which participants could be free to speak openly and without judgement about their thoughts, feelings and experiences on a number of SJ-related topics, in line with the conceptualisation of “safe space” employed by Jackson (2014, in Flesner & Von der Lippe, 2019:277). However, we were not taking into account the structurally asymmetrical nature of the power relations which can come into play in discussions of sensitive topics (Callan, 2016, in Flesner & Von der Lippe) such as race and white privilege. We realised that, as outlined by Applebaum (2008:412), by giving space to a white participant to express this position unchallenged, the effect had been one of re-centering whiteness in this exchange and re-marginalising the experiences of those who are already marginalised in our field and beyond. 

In the light of this insight, Maha Bali’s conceptualisation of teacher-as-host has renewed potency. If applied to our role as hosts of SIG events, it becomes evident that, in an inequitable world, simply creating a space for discussion is not enough; a good host is responsible for ensuring that the conditions in which that discussion is conducted are equitable, and that all participants not only feel welcome but also feel included and able to contribute without fear of being (re)marginalised. The challenge then becomes how to reconcile this with encouraging an open and constructive discussion of thoughts, feelings and ideas. There is no straightforward solution to this challenge, but there are a number of steps which we intend to take to move things forward.

Next steps

These include:

  • we have created a Padlet page containing a range of useful starting points for EAP and ELT practitioners interested in developing their thinking and practice in the areas of race and white privilege. The resources there range from short bite-size videos to books, articles and webinars with foci including issues relating to race and racism in EAP/ELT, Higher Education and  wider society. We hope there is something for everyone. This Padlet can be accessed here, and we encourage you to explore the resources there and to add any further useful resources to this resources bank too
  • we commit to making space for colleagues to learn about issues of race and racism and discuss/share actions we can take to be anti-racist in our EAP practice and within our institutions. Our first action on this will be to hold a Reading Group on Friday 25th June 12.00-13.00 BST. The article we will be reading is Race and Language Teaching by Dr Kerry Soo Von Esch, Dr Suhanthie Motha and Prof Ryuko Kubota. Further details about this session will be available soon and publicised via our website, our Twitter feed and the EAP4SJ and BALEAP JISCmail lists
  • we will actively provide a platform for the voices of colleagues racialised as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic to be centred in our conversations around the holistic enhancement of EAP practices
  • in response to the recent announcement of the BALEAP Enacting Social Justice in EAP Practice funding stream, we strongly encourage EAP practitioners to apply for this, and it is a fantastic opportunity for issues around race, racism and white privilege to be spotlighted in one or more of the proposals
  • through our work in other areas of social justice within EAP, such as climate justice, we intend to keep reiterating the links with racial justice to keep this issue on the agenda and to foster a sense of shared solidarity

Final thoughts

We have called this blog post “Let’s keep talking about race in EAP” … and that’s exactly what we intend to do. It hasn’t always been a smooth journey – it’s been a steep learning curve for us and we’re still learning. We apologise for the errors we have made and we commit to do better. 

A key learning on this journey towards creating a sector which is self-aware when it comes to race and white privilege, and is willing and able to take steps to tackle race inequality, is the vital importance of a variety of voices in the conversation, which helps us keep learning from each other. We were very happy to recently welcome Lorraine Mighty onto our SIG committee, who has brought, among many other things, the perspective of a Black EAP practitioner to our work, which is something which we were previously sorely lacking. Our thinking and development has been greatly enriched from diversifying our committee in this way.

We recognise that there are many other people who are marginalised based on other protected characteristics, class and/or native speakerism. We will aim to make space for multiple conversations to happen but as a small group of volunteers we’re conscious of the limitations on what we can realistically achieve in any given year. We welcome any suggestions on activities that our members may want to lead on which align with our broader SIG aims. So please do get in touch if you have any ideas you would like our support on.

That said, discussing issues of race, racism and anti-racist practice will be one of our areas of focus over the next year. With this in mind, we would like to reiterate our pledge from our BLM statement last year – “As the EAP for Social Justice SIG, as teachers, and as human beings, we stand in solidarity with all who have to live with such effects of racism and white privilege, however subtle or overt, every day of their lives. We also stand with those who wish to work actively towards eliminating it in its many forms”. 

We look forward to working with you over the forthcoming year and beyond as we continue to make the changes needed to our individual practice and institutional structures to address race inequality. 

References

Applebaum, B. (2008) ‘Doesn’t my experience count?’ White students, the authority of experience and social justice pedagogy. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 11:4, 405-414. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13613320802478945

EAP4SJ (2021) ‘Teasing out the social justice strands from the BALEAP 2021 conference’, EAP for Social Justice, 27 April. Available at: https://eap4socialjustice.net/2021/04/27/teasing-out-the-social-justice-strands-from-the-baleap-2021-conference/  (Accessed: 23 May 2021)

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury

Flesner, K. & Von der Lippe, M. (2019) Being safe from what and safe for whom? A critical discussion of the conceptual metaphor of ‘safe space’. Intercultural Education, 30:3, 275-288. DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14675986.2019.1540102 

Gerald, J.P.B. (2020) Worth the Risk: Decentring Whiteness in ELT. BC TEAL Journal, 5:1, 44-54. Available at: https://ojs-o.library.ubc.ca/index.php/BCTJ/article/view/345 

hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York

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”.

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