Racial Appearance as a Teaching 'Qualification': Who's to Blame?

Racial Appearance as a Teaching 'Qualification': Who's to Blame?
JayKnox Sep 19, 2013 01:10

Why would someone's racial appearance have any bearing on their ability to teach a class?

And remember we aren't even discussing culture and ethnicity where, one might argue, a Sikh from India does have a genuine favourability for a class on the history of Sikhism in India.

Here we are talking about something that my be reduced to nothing more than the superficial folds of an eyelid, skin tone or hair colours and with no regard to actual teaching skills, courseware and preparation.

Well, a few years ago I saw 'racial preference' playing itself out in a nearby school and to this day I have questioned who, if anyone, is to blame? Should you blame the school for simply providing what the consumers demand? The owners for their biased choices?

Ron and Carol own and operate a small but enthusiastic 'Kung Fu Academy' a few blocks away from my home. Now in their mid-40s - they are quite an interesting story as the 'Kung Fu Couple' who first met each other as teenagers attending Kung Fu classes. Soon they were traveling to competitions as an engaged couple and by their early 20s the McManns were arriving at competitions as a married couple. Where else would 'Kung Fu Newlyweds' go on their honeymoon? Shaolin Temple of course! Oh and yes - they arranged their honeymoon plans around Kung Fu contests and conventions in China!

Both of them continued advancing in their martial arts. I know they were ranked and regarded in Canada's highest levels, did well in Europe and there seems to be a mighty impressive wall of trophies, plaques and ribbons on their walls.

Now I don't know much about Kung Fu but having spent much of my youth in Karate classes and later Boxing (and being a coach myself) I can definitely say I recognize quality courses when I see them. Ron and Carol's Kung Fu Academy was the real deal. They had a wonderfully respectful atmosphere, often fun but truly working on the proper skills, techniques and results.

But for Ron and Carol there was a real need to keep the Kung Fu Academy financially viable. Not only did they need the parents to plunk down cash for junior's classes but to get Dad and other adults to sign up and more importantly stay signed up.
See, they were facing competition from a relatively new Judo school that was stealing away potential students. It seemed the Judo master was a 'genuine Japanese expert'.

Which brings us to some of the problems Ron and Carol faced. Despite every accolade, accreditation and trophy on the wall. Despite Ron's impressive knowledge of Kung-Fu history. Despite the fact that both Ron and Carol have been trained by the most legitimate Kung Fu masters in China. Despite all of that Ron's classic Irish looks and Carol's typical Scottish skin tone earned them questions like this:

"So.. Ron, what do you think the real Kung Fu masters do for this and that?"

"Eventually I want to learn the real stuff in China but for now your school will get me started right?"

"A friend of mine is being trained by a totally real Kung Fu expert from Korea!"

"Did you guys know they have the real Shaolin Kung Fu Monks coming to do a show in the city!?"

"I heard the Judo studio is run by a real Judo expert from Japan?"

So you get the idea here. Ron was already aware of the bias but an coincidence confirmed a little of what he already knew. Every so often they would welcome a guest teacher. One month a Fillipino friend dropped by. In fact, he was a former Kickboxing and 'Muai Tai' champ but co-hosted a class. Well the new students were never more excited and Ron noticed an immediate spike in enquiries. Seems some had insisted there was some 'Chinese expert' at the Academy. Funnily enough, one person was heard saying "Aww.. no he's Fillipino.. that's not real Chinese you guys!"

Ron and Carols Kung Fu Academy finally found the lucky break it needed. Jerry Zhao. Jerry was not a Shaolin Monk or even a Kung Fu teacher at all but he had been a pretty decent Kung Fu student back in his 20s. At 38 Jerry hadn't 'Kung Fu'ed' anything for a decade and actually popped into a class for no other reason than to try and get a little exercise.

Ron and Carol quickly developed an after-class friendship with Jerry and insisted he should be teaching classes instead. Although most students will never know this - Jerry took a two week 'crash refresher' of private one-on-one lessons with Ron before appearing in the front of the class as 'Master Zhao' - a well experienced Kung Fu expert all the way from China.

Just to be clear about something - Jerry (Master Zhao) was, it turns out, actually a hell of a good teacher. He was, after all, just teaching the students almost exactly the same things Ron and Carol always had. It's just that he.. well..  he looked Han Chinese and had a rather thick Chinese accent.

The cavalcade of new students was almost overwhelming and more importantly they would often take Master Zhaos words 10 times more seriously than if they came from some 'white guy'. If Zhao told a quick story about his training regime as a boy in China? Students took this as sheer Gospel gold and would spend an hour discussing its importance and meaning after classes!

Who's to blame here?

Are Ron and Carol to blame for racial discrimination? They could have just as easily hired a more qualified Caucasian to teach the same (if not better) lessons to the students?

Is Jerry Zhao to blame for taking unfair advantage of racial biases that worked in his favour?

Are the students (and for some their parents) to blame for their superficial racial prejudice?

I'm still not even sure if I've seen a problem in the first place? We saw that the students, through their own biases, did actually improve their focus and dedication and at the end of the day, Jerrys facial features DID improve their performance and course value.

I've never really settled these questions myself. It even made me question whether I had my own unrealistic 'racial preference' when I decided the Boxing club run by Coach Ross was actually any better than the club run by Coach Tibideaux? Or did I just think an Irish accent was better?

And why did we think Trey Washington was such a great guest Coach that week we all showed up on time and full of intense enthusiasm to follow his every word? I'm starting to think it might have just been because he was a Black American from Philidelphia?

Maybe some readers have thoughts or ideas on this.

Who's fault is this racism after all?

Tags:Teaching & Learning Language & Culture


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Just for the sake of argument: Do martial arts compare to language as a productive skill? After all the artistic windowdressing, it's still a form of fighting. People do it for their own personal fitness and entertainment, so if they have some biased view of what is 'authentic', it's hard to get into a fuss over it. But with many other forms of teaching, ESL for example, the teachers are only earning a salary. Not practicing their hobby while earning a salary, and the students aren't learning for enjoyment. Biases towards people's skill levels based on anything other than language skill (or anything that could affect language skill, like nationality), is putting hardworking people at an unfair (dis)advantage. I'm British and white, so I know I benefit from the biases. But Ialso don't like it when colleagues say: "you can never make a mistake in people's eyes because of where you are from" I'd prefer to be evaluated based on my actual skills.

Nov 23, 2013 15:34 Report Abuse



I feel for you guys, but if you are white and still think you are discriminated despite where you are from think twice. Imagine all the black people here, the challenges we are faced with, unbeliveable questions we are asked. why??? because the media always expose the worse parts of africa and do not even give the people an aunce of any good thing from africa.education is an important role and being open to the world you need to learn that not evry one is well educated and have diferent ways of dealing with change and new environments,which is one thing i still think the chinese gorvenment did not fully work about on how to teach chinese people on dealing with foreigners

Oct 15, 2013 23:18 Report Abuse



I love how you've managed to cover the fact that people with no useful skills to offer are trying to run schools in China! So crafty! The uneducated person would have thought that this was about westerners trying to compete with the Chinese on their own turf...but c'mon, 'kung-fu'? It all clicked what you really meant when I read yet another forum post about a 'dj' wanting to come to China and really let the masses know 'what music is all about.' How about another entry about kickass Italian pasta-makers who can't cut it?

Sep 30, 2013 17:58 Report Abuse



Most Chinese are really kind people, so to them I am not writing, but there are those Chinese who use whitening creams, degrade workers and those "other" Chinese who are not Han, and prefer a so-called, "white" teacher. I happen to be half-Jewish-American and half-Mexican-American. I am accustomed to other Westerners who are intolerant, but when someone in China doubts my abilities because of my ethnicity... it is sickening, to say the least. By the way, I look very White, and carry my Scottish adopted name.

Sep 29, 2013 13:50 Report Abuse



Clever reversal of racism. Well written. It's all about perception isn't it? A person with Asian appearances MUST know more about Asian originated martial arts.....surely? And here? A caucasian looking person MUST know more about speaking English than an Asian.....right? And if you're black African? That's a whole new range of perceptions. What's the answer? Education and being exposed to differences rather than believing in stereotypes.

Sep 25, 2013 07:28 Report Abuse