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Beware the ELT Buzzwords: Inclusivity, Equity, and Diversity (Pt. 1)


“Deploying the ideologies that these terms embody can backfire in ways that many don’t realize


It’s hard to attend an ELT workshop, seminar, presentation, or teacher training session these days without someone trying to appeal to the audience by name-checking the three terms associated with current notions of ‘sensitivity’: inclusivity, equity, and diversity.


I understand the initial appeal of these terms. I mean, who among the LTP readership would say, ‘I don’t want to be inclusive in my classroom. I refuse to accept physically disabled people’? Does any reader of this site actually aim to promote inequality in their classroom? Is there any modern teacher who actually states that they hope to develop, ‘Only one kind of student, completely uniform in both thought and content, having one common response’? Hey, it’s not as if there is a massive movement among teachers to promote exclusive, uniform, and unequal classrooms.


But ok, you might want to employ these concepts as a part of your English teaching ideology because you care about being progressive, because you want your students to become better, broad-minded people. Fine. But deploying the ideologies that these terms embody can backfire in ways that many don’t realize and can end up bringing about the opposite of the intended effect. How so? Well, let’s look at these terms one by one. In this blogpost we’ll start with:


Inclusivity: “…to inform and engage Japanese students about the status of traditionally marginalized people”


When used by language teachers, ‘inclusivity’ rarely refers to calls to include all the students in class activities, even those who might be considered marginalized. There is no ‘dominant narrative’ in which English teachers are regularly excluding students based on identity to serve as a foil for our moral outrage.


Now, teachers could raise the banner of inclusivity when referring to the manner in which some foreign teachers are excluded from meetings or decision-making bodies in Japan (and elsewhere it seems) although this would incur the caveat that one might actually regret one’s demand’s being met when it results in your having to read 50 pages of Japanese text and writing a lengthy report on the same as a required part of your new position. Having the exact same responsibilities as ‘local’ teachers is often neither productive nor stimulating. But, sure, I agree that there may be some value in at least maintaining the veneer of belonging…


But primarily, talk of inclusivity in ELT circles refers to society as a whole. English teachers typically use the term to inform and engage Japanese students about the status of traditionally marginalized people.


“Why/How can one assume that these issues are not dealt with in more general Japanese social discourse?”


The first problem with this that comes to mind is why it is incumbent of foreign English teachers to enlighten ‘the Japanese’ on socio-moral issues? I’ve dealt with this dubious attitude in previous blogposts but today I would like to add three additional considerations:


1) Why/How can one assume that Japanese don’t deal with these issues in their other classes? Why/How can one assume that these issues are not dealt with in more general Japanese social discourse? Because they are. If you read Japanese or are conversant in Japanese media you would realize that there is a plethora of commentary and discussion about LBGTQ issues, women’s rights, the disabled, bullying etc. In fact, if any reasonable effort is made it’s unmissable.


“…guilty of perpetuating a soft form of racism.”


To be honest, it amazes me how some advocates cannot see that these topics are far from taboo or hidden in Japan (and, indeed, in many other parts of Asia). So, foreign English teacher, please check your motives if you wave the banner of inclusivity, so that you are not guilty of perpetuating a soft form of racism. There, I said it. A mild variation perhaps. but racism nonetheless.


Racism in that one automatically assumes Japan is ‘behind the West’ on such issues because… well, it’s Japan… being Asian and all… Racism in assuming that the Japanese have a collective hive mind because ‘they are obedient to authorities’ or ‘are not taught critical thinking’ (!!!). Racism in maintaining the belief that Japan hasn’t yet learned (unlike oneself)the simple moral precept  that bullying weaker people is wrong. Racism in assuming that the concept of being sensitive and considerate to those who are different is somehow difficult for the Japanese (or other Asians) to grasp. In other words, racism occurs when unfounded (or just flat out false) stereotypes and generalizations serve as templates for self-constructed classroom soapboxes.


“Bold ‘I’ statement are generally considered boastful, uncouth, or childish.”


Overstating my case? Ok, if so, let’s drop the ‘R’ word and replace it with ‘cross-cultural incompetence’. For example, one might say, ‘But in fact the Japanese never discuss these things, they avoid these difficult topics’. And you’d be partially correct, because not only the Japanese, but most Asian societies, do not consider heavy or delicate topics to be suitable casual or social chat fodder. Right place, right time, right company. It’s called propriety.


Moreover, as a rule, the Japanese (and most Asian cultures) do not value flaunting one’s identity – bold ‘I’ statement are generally considered boastful, uncouth, or childish. So the gay, transgender, or other-identity/marginalized person in such cultures simply does not ‘come out’ in the same way as they often do in the West (‘I’m proud to be _’). To assume that this hesitance, this indirectness, equates to a lack of social awareness or concern or implies the fear of severe social backlash, is an (egregious) misread of other cultural expectations and norms.


The Case of ‘H’


This brings me to point 2, based on an example explained to me by one of my previous students. Let’s call him ‘H’.


2) When H was in junior high school, he realized that he was sexually attracted to males – that was just the way he was. Gradually his classmates became aware that he was gay. At first, some were shocked/surprised and there were a handful of initially adverse reactions but, before long, everyone knew it and no one cared too much or actively thought about it anymore. H was comfortable with his identity in high school and college.


That is, until the foreign teacher in a college English class decided to bring up the LGBTQ rights and related issues. This, H felt, put him back in an unwanted spotlight. His classmates had gotten over his sexuality, treated it as normal, and now here was a teacher who was opening old wounds, but equating the excoriation with creating ‘awareness’. H wished he would just shut up and stop shining the flashlight on people like himself.


Imagine, H told me, being the only person in a class confined to a wheelchair, while the teacher goes on at length about how we should treat the physically disabled as equals. That disabled person would surely feel like a spotlight was being thrust upon them and their disability, reminding everybody yet again or their difference, as if they were demanding special or unique treatment. This often has the uptake (according to H) of people becoming hyper-sensitive and overly-affected in their interactions with him.  This attempt at sensitive ‘awareness-raising’ backfired completely.


But wait, there’s more.


“…the very foundation of the teacher’s pedagogical worldview betrayed a non-inclusive prejudice.”


H also claimed that his English teacher had no idea of his sexuality (nor presumably the existence of other sexual minorities in the class). The teacher just naively assumed that his audience was made up of ‘The Japanese’, that there was an existing monolithic-identity hive mind. Ironically, this teacher was treating his charges as if sexual or ethnic/racial minorities (i.e., Koreans, Chinese, haafu) could not possibly be included in the audience.  In other words, the very foundation of the teacher’s pedagogical worldview betrayed a non-inclusive prejudice. Hmmm.


3) Here’s another possibility to be considered:


Are English classes on inclusivity typically teacher-centered?


Classrooms in which teachers flaunt inclusivity (of marginalized peoples) are very likely to be teacher-centered. How so? Very often, the teacher who raises such issues in English classes sees themselves as marginalized people (including that of being a foreigner in Japan). In short, ‘raising awareness’ of such matters puts them in the spotlight and ultimately serves to benefit… guess who? Today’s lesson is about… ME! Not exactly, er, inclusive, is it?


Now, one could (and, on occasion, some have) made the claim that, because I am a straight white male, I am incapable of fully understanding marginalized people. OK, but if we must play identity politics then foreign teachers should also never, ever, presume that they’ve grasped the monolithic mindset of ’the Japanese’. Particularly so when most don’t read Japanese nor are conversant in wider Japanese social or media circles. In short, many foreign advocates simply don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to their (often rather staid, old-fashioned) generalizations about Japan/Asia (and, in particular, its social mores or education system).


“…most foreigners don’t really grasp the deeper issues, and they certainly don’t have a monopoly on caring about them”


Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the testimonies of my own kids (all Japan-educated haafus) or the case of H. You can also listen to the voices of the many Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese teachers (including teachers with marginalized identities) I’ve met and talked to at length and who despair of foreign English teachers making unfounded assumptions about their countries and treatment, seemingly unaware of the different norms of cultural discourse or the local socio-political status quo. Yes indeed, the sensitive teacher may have misdiagnosed the ‘problem’ or the degree to which there is a ‘problem’ at all. Instead, too many ‘caring advocates’ pump up their own ‘advanced’ moral and social values, and end up further marginalizing both themselves and the very people they claim to be ‘including’ as a result.


As a lesbian Thai colleague told me recently, ‘Yes, there are issues, and occasionally struggles, for marginalized people here but most foreigners don’t really grasp the deeper issues, and they certainly don’t have a monopoly on caring about them.’


Marginalized peoples figure prominently in Mike Guest’s novel ‘The Aggrieved Parties’ : 

A gay couple in Cambodia, one a member of an ethnic minority. An impoverished rural Cambodian villager. An American war orphan who has never seen his ‘homeland’. A Japanese woman suffering from a debilitating neurosis…


Mike’s Goodreads blog, ‘Honeyed Badger Feet’, can be viewed here.


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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