How I Tackle Issues of Race and Identity in the Classroom

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Sometimes teaching English in Japan can be one of the most enjoyable experiences in the world. At other times it can be frustrating, awkward and unintentionally hilarious.

One area that has the potential to be any and indeed all of the above is when it comes to explaining cultural differences to your students, and on occasion to your Japanese coworkers, too.

Much is often written in the various blogs, books and opinion columns in certain newspapers about the supposedly unique problem Japan faces with understanding multiculturalism.

Of course going into extended discussions on the idea of ethnic homogeneity isn’t exactly an effective way to explain to school kids why your eyes are bigger and bluer than theirs.

However, even when you are keeping it seemingly light and fun, you still need to tread carefully when discussing issues of culture, race and national identity in the classroom.

After all, if you work in a more rural part of Japan, and if you are not of Asian descent, chances are you may be one of the first non-Asians the kids have ever seen in person.

After all, if you work in a more rural part of Japan, and if you are not of Asian descent, chances are you may be one of the first non-Asians the kids have ever seen in person.

Classroom insularity

The way certain subjects are taught in Japanese schools can also, albeit unintentionally, create something of an insular attitude. I especially notice this when I am trying to teach my kids something about geography or political systems outside of Japan.

Take the example of an elementary school 3rd grade class I taught in Osaka a couple of years ago. I only had this particular class once per term, and I was given the very broad lesson aim of “teach them something about foreign countries.” Yep.

So, I made a PowerPoint quiz game using pictures of various landmarks, foods and famous people from around the world, and the kids would try and guess which country they were from.

It didn’t go as planned.

The first slide was a picture of the Pyramids of Giza. “O.K., kids, where is this?” I asked. One kid thrust his hand in the air.

“Gaikoku!” He shouted.

He then went on to offer the same answer for Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower and The Statue of Liberty.

The term “Gaikoku” literally means “foreign land.” As I was to learn, to some younger kids in Japan the world only has two countries “Nihon” (Japan) and “Gaikoku” (everywhere else).

Subtle ways to broaden perspectives

There is of course a subtle and immediate way to remedy this.

Anytime a student uses the phrase “Gaikokujin” (foreigner) in my class to refer to someone, I politely correct them with the appropriate nationality.

I tell my students I am “Scottish” not “foreign”.

Thankfully, these days it’s no longer an issue for me and my current crop of students genuinely seem to have gained a newfound sense of cultural awareness out of this small, simple correction technique.

It’s important that you’re careful of your tone when offering such corrections. You don’t want to seem condescending and you also need to keep things light and non-confrontational.

Do mix politics and English

Recently, thanks to political events in the US and UK, things have gotten a bit complicated when students ask me some questions – questions which I, in all honesty, don’t have complete answers for.

Of course, the ALT training manual approach would be to say “keep politics out of the classroom.” However, I don’t necessarily subscribe to this idea. I personally feel compelled to do what I can to foster a sense of curiosity and critical thinking in my students.

So, when a student asked me what I thought of the man currently calling himself president of the US, I gave an honest answer.

Likewise, another of my high school students asked me if I thought leaving the EU was a good idea for the UK. I answered truthfully again.

To dodge such awkward questions not only risks creating a controversy where there needn’t be one, but it also can make the students less enthusiastic about speaking up in class in the future.

But of course, it is important that you don’t hesitate to take charge if you feel students have overstepped the line in their questioning.

For example, a friend of mine faced a difficult situation in his school last year.

He’s from Canada and is of mixed Asian/Black descent. He rightly stopped his lesson and stepped out of the classroom when one of his students asked him why he looked like a member of ISIS. Both the student in question and the school later apologized.

Probably the best piece of advice I can give when asked a potentially incendiary question by a student or colleague is to try and find some familiar common ground, an area where you can put your answer into a context easily understood by a Japanese mindset.

A takeaway experiment

As a final thought experiment, how would you handle this question: “Which do you like better, Japan or China?”

Bear in mind I was asked this question midway through a cultural presentation about Hong Kong. The students know I lived there for a number of years and there were three students from Chinese family backgrounds in the class.

This really was the proverbial minefield.

Making it up as I went along, I said: “I like both of them. Because, really, they aren’t all that different. There are things I like about Japan and things I don’t like. In the same way, there are things about China I like and don’t like.

“But I love the ordinary, working people of those countries equally. You both have similar values. You love your family, you love your friends. You go to school and work hard, so that you can get a good job in the future.”

“China and Japan have far more reasons to be friends than to be enemies.”

This answer was met by applause from the students and a massive sigh of relief from my Japanese co-teacher.

Minefield avoided, at least for now.

What have been some of your experience of issues of race and identity in the classroom? How do you handle difficult topics like this? Let us know in the comments! 

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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