Stereotype threats in English language teaching & learning

(The image above is from the cover to Baye McNeil’s book and is unfortunately cropped automatically to just show the word “racist.”  This was not my intention, and I currently feel ambiguous about it.  I will change it if it appears to send the wrong message.)

When I was in the participant selection phase of my dissertation research project, I came across Loco in Yokohama, and I was blown away by Baye McNeil’s brutal honesty.  I also noticed that he had written a book, Hi My Name is Loco and I Am a Racist, so I immediately purchased it to support him as a fellow ELT and to learn more about his story, which at first I found hard to believe.  I was skeptical that an English language teacher could have so many profound life experiences both in the United States and Japan.

I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to respond to his work.  And it didn’t take long after I completed my research to find it.  A few weeks ago, he wrote an article for the The Japan Times titled “A high price to pay for a little peace of mind”.  In it, he discusses the unending process of negotiating one’s own cultural identity, which Loco has a talent of expressing very well.  In his article, one paragraph grabbed my attention:

I put up a good fight but it’s hard to overcome the perception that one’s character and abilities are indelibly linked to one’s race or nationality. It’s a perception that many Japanese people (and, to be sure, many non-Japanese living here, too) will convey every day in 100 different ways: “We are exceptional,” they say, “uniquely different from everyone else in the world.” I resisted with all the evidence to the contrary I’ve accumulated over the course of a lifetime. Nevertheless, I have slowly succumbed to judging Japanese people as a group of exceptions rather than exceptional. I realized this, sadly, marked the beginning of the end of an ideal I held most dear.

The reason this paragraph grabbed my attention is that I am currently in the middle of reading Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele for the Culturally Responsive Classroom project at my current place of employment.  The book is about stereotype threat, an issue I believe Loco is well aware of.  It seems that the Japanese self-image of being exceptional is the opposite of stereotype threat, which is a situation in which “people are or feel themselves to be at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group.”  Although Loco is somewhat removed from the stereotype threat in the United States, he may have encountered another type of stereotype threat in Japan, in which he surrounded by “exceptional” Japanese people.

The concept of stereotype threat is still quite new to me, but it is closely linked to my interest of cultural identity of ELTs.  In the context of Japan, I can see how stereotype threat may or may not play a role in English language learning and teaching.  When I taught in Japan over a decade ago, I remember that a few older students said that even though the Japanese spend many years studying English, they perform low on standardized tests like the TOEFL and TOEIC compared people from other East Asian countries.  This could just be an excuse for not studying hard, or it could be an example of negative exceptionalism  (stereotype threat) that some Japanese perceive when they study or use the English language.  At this point, this is completely speculation from what I have experienced.

I’m also interested in finding out if stereotype threat exists among English language teachers.  In my literature review, I encountered a few studies in which sojourning ELTs in Japan feel pressured to act or behave in a way that fits the Japanese stereotypes of their home culture.  This may not be related to stereotype threat, but I more strongly believe the so-called “non-native” English speaking teachers (NNESTs) may face stereotype threats concerning their perceived lesser ability of using the English language.  I have also read articles in which renowned NNESTs have faced prejudice and discrimination in their institutions and in professional conferences.  I wonder if, in ELT education programs with a mixed group of in-service and pre-service ELTs, the NNESTs face a stereotype threat similar to girls in math.  Do you think stereotype threat also exists for ELTs in institutions where sojourning ELTs teach the same students as local ELTs?


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