Confronting Native Speakerism (Part Two)

Last week I shared what I learned about Native-speakerism – a neo-racist ideology that elevates native speakers of English (most often white Western speakers) into a position of cultural superiority.  This produces wide-ranging impacts in classrooms, between co-workers, and between English teachers themselves.

I found this workshop both eye-opening and disheartening.  Moreover, it produced an ethical knot that occasionally festers in the pit of my stomach.

On one hand, I agree with the points of my discussion group.  Native-speakerism puts many mother-tongue English speakers at a major disadvantage in the Korean job market – the disadvantage of speaking with an accent or being a person of color.  Therefore, it seems like a no-brainer to oppose such an ideology.

Spending some quality time with the old, itty-bitty kitty was an equally easy decision :).

However, I also cannot shake the fact that I myself benefit from this discrimination.  I don’t have amazing teaching qualifications. I don’t have a masters degree or teaching credential.  I have a B.A. in linguistics and one year of teaching experience mixed between substitute teaching and private tutoring.  Some days I feel underqualified for the title of “teacher.”

I worry that my university-employed English-teaching peers (if you can call them peers) dislike the fact that I am here.  In their eyes, I am one of those teachers who “dilute the overall quality of teachers in Korea”.  If they had their way, I would never have a job in Korea in the first place. I am unworthy of the opportunity I have here.

But of course, university-employed teachers don’t care how I feel.  As Ben Shapiro often says, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Fair enough. But if I admit that my EPIK acceptance stems from a system of privilege and oppression, and I wish to stand against that oppression (and thereby disrobe my privilege), then perhaps I ought to pack my bags and move home.

But I don’t want to leave.  I’m not ready to leave.

If this is the solution, then perhaps willful ignorance is best.  I can absorb myself in work and try to ignore the aligning sociological factors that provide me a job in the first place.  I am unwilling to sacrifice my life in Korea just to make a “woke” statement. I don’t know if that makes me weak, ignorant, bigoted, or all of the above.  But it’s something I refuse to do.

This job entails some self-deception and mental gymnastics at times.  When I zoom into the moment-to-moment interactions in class, I love my job. The students are kind, respectful, and always find ways to make me smile.  However, as I zoom out and consider my role within the school and education system, I become more and more discouraged.

At least I have friends like Gato (true story) to elevate my spirits.

I teach groups of 16 to 30 students for 50 minutes per week.  

I meet with a private Korean tutor for one hour once per week.  I do not regret this investment. I have learned a lot (especially practical expressions that I use on a regular basis).  Yet I am depressingly far from achieving “Korean fluency.”

Teaching a large group of students for 50 minutes per week is woefully insufficient to produce fluent speakers of English.  Language mastery takes thousands of hours and years of work – especially after the onset of puberty

When I compare my salary and benefits to the tangible results of my work, I cannot help but feel guilty.  In elementary school, students can still learn languages effortlessly with large amounts of L2 input. This is why children who immigrate to a new country before age 10 often become fluent in their new home’s official language.  The same cannot be said for high school students.

Sometimes I worry that I am paid well for a futile effort. I consequently worry that my co-workers know this and resent me for it. Again, native-speakerism rears its ugly head. I receive preferential treatment and a label of “other” because of my linguistic and cultural birthright.

Yet what do I gain (or how does the system improve) through my departure?

“If you leave Korea, then some other underqualified native speaking teacher will just replace you.” 

Removing myself from this system of privilege and discrimination would not change the system itself.  But does that futility justify playing along?  “If it weren’t me, then it would be someone else” is not an excuse to continue perpetuating a discriminatory social system.

와 와 와? More like 왜 왜 왜!

So what should I do?  One person suggested learning Korean to fight back against native-speakerism.  If native teachers learn Korean, they can sit in on departmental policy discussions and advocate for themselves as a teacher.  Rather than allowing others to put them in the “native English teacher” box that exemplifies native-speakerism, competent Korean-speaking foreigners can propose responsibilities that extend beyond just “leading speaking activities.”

How long would it take to learn enough Korean to influence school departmental policy?  It could take as much as several years. In a sense, native-speakerism works in reverse in a Korean school meeting.  As foreigners, it is easy for others to discount and ignore our ideas if our Korean pronunciation, grammar, and word choice falter.  In other words, while learning some Korean can earn us a seat at the discussion table, speaking mistakes can cause the very isolation that foreign teachers lament.  

“Okay, Ian. We gave you a seat at the table. Welcome. Now please sit over there, shut up,  and listen.”

I would sit at tables in Yeosu any day :).

Over many difficult conversations with friends of color in America, I still struggle to grasp ideas of white privilege.  That’s not to say that I believe white privilege to be mythical. But rather, just as a fish may fail to understand the concept of water, years of mainstream American cultural immersion inures me to white and male privilege.  It takes conscious thought and effort to acknowledge its existence.

Native-speakerism in Korea feels different in this respect.  Now that peers have pointed it out to me, I cannot unsee it. I cannot unsee the tangible and unearned privileges I get in Korea as a “Western” native speaker of English.  Moreover, I cannot bring myself to surrender this privilege outright. To do so would be a tacit admission that I am underqualified for my job and unworthy of the life I have grown fond of.  

While I can subtly push back against this ideology in my classes by including videos and resources of English speakers of color, I question if I can resist this system with my entire being.  I have too much to lose. Which suggests to me an even stronger resistance to anti-racist and anti-sexist activism in the U.S.  As a beneficiary of these privileges, I still resist the idea of shedding covert advantages out of fear of unearthing my deflated (if not worthless) social value.

Knowing is not half the battle.  It’s barely 10%.  The real work comes when we are willing to act upon that knowledge.  When it comes to confronting privilege, my battle is only beginning.


I feel privileged whenever I get to visit Yeosu on the weekend.

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