Steve Schertzer

Racism in the TEFL industry

The Hines-Ward effect

"Wanted: ESL teacher. No experience necessary. Must be happy and
have a nice smile. Must also be female under 30 years of age with long
blond hair and big knockers. Don't bother sending resume. Just show
up wearing a mini-skirt."

"English as a Second Language Teacher wanted. 25 to 29 years old.
Must be young in appearance and enthusiastic. Must have all your
teeth. No facial hair or fat people. Send resume to..."

"Wanted: One ESL instructor. Must be young, under 25. Must be
beautiful, an Angelina Jolie look-a-like preferable. Must be white.
No black people or Filipinos."

Okay so these are fake ads. But not all of them are in the ESL world. In fact, racism and ageism abound in the TEFL business. Those who have been in this business longer than it takes to make a grilled-cheese sandwich already know that. And those who may not have been blessed by the hand of God, or good genes, also know that. If you find these silly ads at the top offensive, then you're not alone. Most of us do. Or we should. Just ask Gloria. Who's Gloria? Well, let's read her story from the January 21st 2007 edition of the Korea Times and find out.

Non-Whites Face Discrimination in English Job Market: No Rules on Race Discrimination in Schools.

By Park Chung-a

A 32 year-old American college graduate was refused a job as an English teacher in a private institute (hakwon) in Apkujong-dong, Southern Seoul, last week, allegedly for her mixed race heritage.

Her resume (minus photo) was accepted on the first round but she failed her interview. She said she was told by the interviewer, "I'm sorry but we only want to have white people. We want a native speaker that parents approve of."

It was the fifth time that she had been turned down from private language schools as well as public schools because of her skin color.

From the same article, Reporter Park writes,

Another 34 year-old black American male college graduate encountered the same embarrassment. He had more than 10 interviews for English teaching positions in language institutes and schools, only to hear that he could not be hired because he is not white.

"I was told repeatedly by recruiters that the schools would not hire black people. It's always the same story. I'm not prejudiced but.... it's the parents, it's the directors. Not only are they racist, but they lie about it and deny it, which I think is worse," he said wanting to remain anonymous.

Many hakwon recruitment notices on the Internet say that they have only white native-English teachers.

When parents and students come to hakwons for inquiry of consultations, hakwon owners deliberately seat white teachers beside their consultants at the front counters of their institutes, to show off that they have white people.

"I admit that there is a tendency to recruit only whites as teachers for our image. However, it's hard for us to make changes since it's the parents who prefer to have their children taught by white teachers. I know it's a shame but we can't help it," said the owner of an English-language institute in southern Seoul.

Now let's hear from Gloria herself, in her own words from an abridged version of a letter she wrote to the Korea Times dated January 11, 2007.

Dear Editor:

I would love to make a comment to your newspaper about a shocking experience that I had today. I got a phone call from a company that had viewed my mini resume, minus photo, on some Web site.

They had asked me to send my full resume with photo. No problem, I sent it. I then received an email from the director, or whoever she was, telling me THE COMPANY IS LOOKING FOR ONLY WHITE PEOPLE! (Bold type, hers.) What was even more degrading, is when this "person" had enough gall to tell me that Korea is a racist country and always will be, so I shouldn't take it personally and not to feel bad because the blacks have it worse here.

She closed her statement by saying, "I don't know why you came to Korea, but you should go back to America because Korea will not change, so you may continue to feel this kind of prejudice."

HELLO? WHAT? (Bold type, hers.) Although I'm not 100 percent white, (my mother is Korean and my father is German), I was born, raised, and educated all my life in America. So I was "surprised" to hear this comment. If Korea doesn't consider people with one foreign parent to be "white", nor are they "Korean", what do they consider them to be?

I actually came to Korea because I have always admired Korea and the Korean people, so I felt this was a great opportunity to come and get in touch with my "roots." But never have I been so ashamed to have Korean blood run through my veins as I was this afternoon!! Makes me feel totally sick to think that this country is trying to "westernize" itself through hip-hop, western fast foods, languages and cultures. KOREA, if you want to play with the big boys, YOU NEED TO GROW UP FIRST!!!! (Bold type and exclamation marks, hers.)

Obviously this kind of racism is not unique to Korea. All over Asia non-whites have always had trouble finding a job in a private language school and the public school system where looks tend to prevail over experience and merit. Poor and ignorant hiring practices among those in charge is only one the many problems facing the TESOL industry. Ageism is another. Japan is infamous for hiring mainly young teachers. Those over 40 years of age will have a lot of trouble finding work there. And last year when I was in Mexico, one school told me that they were only looking for teachers under 25. I wanted to ask how many of their teachers had pubic hair, but I though that that question may be too rude. It seems ironic that many Asian cultures, where older citizens were once revered for their wisdom and experience, are telling many older citizens of Western nations that their wisdom and experience is neither wanted nor needed.

An interesting social phenomenon is happening here in South Korea and I wonder if it's happening anywhere else. Two people come to mind, two people that are openly celebrated in Korean society: Hines Ward, the wide-receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who is half-Korean and half African-American, and Sandra Oh, the Emmy award winning Canadian-born actress to Korean parents. Oh currently stars in the TV series Grey's Anatomy. That the accomplishments of these sports heroes and entertainment celebrities are celebrated in a society that still views half-Koreans as little more than circus freaks seems to be a wonderful step forward. Or is it?

Is it the Korean-ness of these people that have made them the stars they are today? Or the westernization? Is it only the Korean aspects of their race that the Koreans are celebrating in relation to Hines Ward and Sandra Oh, or do they see how a certain amount of westernization may have contributed to their stardom and overall success? And what of Tiger Woods, who is half-Thai and half African-American? Same question: Do the Thais see Tiger's Thai-ness as the only contributing factor that has made him the world's greatest golfer? Or does his Americanization have something to do with it as well? These are important questions seeing that more people are travelling than ever before, and that more people are marrying and having children with those of another culture and race.

The reason that the accomplishments of Hines Ward, Sandra Oh, and, for that matter, Tiger Woods is celebrated in Korea and Thailand can be related to the very fact that they are successful. They have nothing more to prove, (at least in the minds of those who celebrate them.) They have already proven their worth regardless of what society they happen to live and work. Call it the "Hines Ward Effect."

Back to Gloria and the not-so-unique problems she and others are facing when trying to find teaching jobs in Asia. Gloria, and others like her, do have a special talent. They can teach English as a Second Language. But since half-Koreans or half-Thais or half-anyone is still viewed as barely half-human, and since these well-intended teachers haven't proven themselves, (at least in the eyes of those wishing to hire them), then they are really screwed, especially in a society that elevates sports figures and entertainers to an almost God-like status. That's certainly a huge hurdle to overcome.

Let's go back to the article from the Korea Times on January 21st, 2007.

According to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development, there are no regulations that enable authorities to punish employees of schools or hakwons for discriminating against people based on skin color in employment.

An official from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea said since this case is not a criminal lawsuit, the victims of such discrimination, or a third party who knows of such discrimination on behalf of the affected person, can file a complaint with the commission.

But who knows if a complaint of this nature will be taken seriously enough to warrant any punishment for those who discriminate against non-white English teachers. What is really shocking is the fact that in many Asian societies, this kind of racism is not even seen as a crime, but as a minor inconvenience. Something to be understood and accepted as "just the way things are over here."

Yes racism still exists in America and other Western nations. But there's a difference. Back home, racism is random and viewed primarily within the act itself. Back home we separate the racist act from the racist person; we classify the racist acts mainly for sociological and prosecutable purposes. We punish the racist person and prosecute the racist act.

Here in many parts of Asia, there is no classification of racist acts because no distinction is made between the racist act and the racist person. Therefore, racism here is not seen as random acts committed by a few bad apples. Racism here is systemic. It effects and infects the entire population of a homogeneous nation. It is also seen as part of their history and thus, in their blood. Since we in the West are not as intimately tied to our history as an Asian nation that considers itself to be homogeneous or "pure blooded", systemic racism will continue to be a huge obstacle to overcome for those foreigners living and working in this part of the world.

At the risk of putting a theological spin on this, Christianity tells us to hate the sin, love the sinner. Here we are told to accept the sin, understand the sinner. Remember what Gloria was told by a representative of the school about Korea being a racist country and that it will never change? And this was a Korean talking. So as a foreigner, who am I to disagree?

In the end, this part of the world may change. Very slowly and gradually, it is changing. Not because it wants to, but because it has to. If countries in this part of the world want to remain competitive, it will have to become more accommodating to other races and people.

Racism on any level can never be entirely stamped out. What people in this part of the world must do is begin to separate the racist act from the racist person if only for legal and prosecutable purposes. Perhaps the best that we can do is to help Asian nations move from systemic racism to systematic, or random acts of racism so that, once and for all, we can understand what causes racism and where it comes from. Only then can teachers like Gloria get the justice they deserve.


I'm a South Asian who grew up in Japan and worked/lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a long time. I have been trying to get an online ESL teaching job. I have a BA, a TEFL certificate, and 10 years of experience teaching ESL but I have been rejected outright after they see my CV (no idea why). I think my name gives it away that I'm Southeast Asian. I feel like I'm a good teacher and most importantly, I'm willing to grow and learn. This doesn't seem to matter. I pass the credentials but after doing the demo (they see my face) and then it feels like they're already rejected me.

I feel like I have to work harder than my white counterparts to get a job in this field. I practice a lot, have props, TPR, watch videos on how to teach young learners but once they see me, it's like I'm doomed.

Maybe I'm overthinking. But I know that discrimination is real in Asia. I grew up in Japan so I know. For us folks, we have to work harder and have above average skills, CV, education to get a job in this field. Even that is not enough because you can't do much about the color of your skin. I have even tried to look "whiter" by covering up my face in foundation and have contemplated about dying my hair brown or blonde (my hair is black).

What's going for me is that I'm pretty attractive (not boasting) so I think that helps. If you are good looking, blonde, young, the Asian recruiters will be knocking at your door.

In any case, I haven't given up yet. I'm still trying to get a job online teaching English.

By June, Germany (21st September 2019)

Being a "Kennedy" doesn't help. Having a massively "whitewashed" resume and life, doesn't help. Ivy league universities on the CV...doesn't help. All it does is get me invited for, first, in-person interviews "back in the day" (I'm 46) and now, invited for Skype interviews; I'm starting to think that Skype interviewing is the new way of weeding out "blacks" or other "undesirable dark-skinned minorities" like South Pacific Islanders, dark Latinos, Middle Easterners, etc. I'm Irish and French by nationality but when people see me they think I"m "from Africa" and do that "can you even speak English" thing. (I got that a lot during my Maths teaching days, the "can you even do Maths" sort of rubbish spoken only after seeing me; never based on my voice over the telephone). Sometimes I think I'll have to go get my PhD in Mathematical Computational Physics before anyone will even think I'm competent in Maths let alone English.
There must be some countries in the world where people who "look Black" CAN get jobs teaching something. I'm thinking of the countries where at least 80% of the population is dark-skinned like Bolivia or Panama or maybe Indonesia or Sri Lanka? Polynesia, of course, is an option. I AM French Polynesian. But I don't want to keep going all over the world on job offers only to have them dashed to pieces when they see the colour of my skin. Being Irish and French Polynesian, I do have a "standard" last name but like I said, that doesn't help. When people see an Irish surname they're obviously expecting me to be white, redheaded and freckle-faced like my father and one of my sisters. If I PUT "French Polynesian" as nationality (it's France it's not its own country) then there goes any consideration for, after all, ENGLISH teaching jobs. What am I supposed to do, lay down and die when the money runs out because no one will hire me after they bloody well SEE me?

By Penny, Mexico (22nd February 2018)

I am an older African-descended man thinking very hard about applying for TESOL positions abroad, even contemplating seriously investing more than five thousand dollars in CELTA certification (including exorbitant housing fees during the month-long class). I have, therefore, combed the Internet for information about teaching credentials, certification, experience, and global attitudes towards people like me. And I am grateful for having found this website--and in particular, for Mary's frank admissions above.

Please allow me to share some background. I attended an Ivy League college on full scholarship due in part to my standardized exam scores and an international project I was fortunate to conceive of and bring to fruition. After college I taught ESL in the States, earning universal accolades from students and state administrators alike. Later, I completed a doctoral degree, and subsequently another, distally related graduate degree, all at Ivy League schools. All in the sciences. (It is a myth that STEM degrees circumvent under- and unemployment. Recent studies show there is an overabundance of PhDs in the sciences, and separately, that even a Harvard degree conferred on black graduates does not overcome racism in hiring here in the USA). I had played the educational game, yet had very little to show for it. Over a period of nearly twenty years, whenever I'd submit my resume for a post I'd get an enthusiastic reply immediately. Inevitably, however, recruiters and hiring managers would, once they'd overcome their awkward shock on meeting me, invariably dismiss me. "Over-qualified," or some such euphemism, was the favored phrase. Meanwhile, I languished in the world of underemployment until I hit my 40s, and then couldn't even get an interview for positions requiring only a high school diploma. Yes, I removed the graduate degrees from my resume. Then I removed the college degree. I had become, in my own country, a pariah.

And so I thought to become certified to teach ESL and go abroad, perhaps saving enough to find a way to survive the next twenty years. I am healthy and possessed of all my mental faculties, and very much wish to work and contribute to my communities. I sent out dozens of inquiries to certification companies. Those who got back to me largely told me I would find it difficult to be employed due to my age (again, I'm in my forties). I daren't confess to them that I'm also black. The few who thought my age wouldn't be a problem--again, they didn't know I'm black--were salivating over the chance to process my credit card for nearly $3000 for their certification courses. I always hesitated because I'd read over and over and over again from black instructors teaching overseas just what a struggle it had been. Yes, some were optimistic. One of the reasons I found Mary's comment above so provocative was this: "When I was younger, I was somehow able to transcend the racist attitudes, mostly by pretending that none of it existed." Harvard Medical School researchers have confirmed her personal admission. Many who experience racism deny it. It appears it's a psychological defense mechanism. Yet that defense doesn't obviate the pernicious physiological effects of chronic racism. So I took the optimistic (the minority) perspectives of other blacks teaching abroad with the proverbial grain of salt.

Every ad I come across for posts outside the USA--posts I am objectively eminently qualified for--requests a photo. So, despite my frustration, I recently looked up professional photographers near me to consider parting with over $1000 for photographs--how it shames me to admit it--that in ways I cannot conceive of minimize whatever others might find offensive about my "blackness," so that I can get a job outside the USA. So that I can survive. Multiple Ivy League degrees and fifteen years of experience haven't allowed me to survive well in the USA. I thought a CELTA--and have even thought about pursuing an online MA TESOL with licensure in the US so I could apply for the most competitive posts--would bring me a moderately paying job outside the USA. But it seems there is no country that welcomes humans of my phenotype. I long to learn that I am wrong.

Mary finished her comment above with, "Now, I feel that any job will do, as long as it pays the bills. I have none of the zest and positive sense of the future as I once had. I'm simply a part of this debtor nation, another cog in the wheel of commerce." I couldn't have written it better myself. Thankfully, I can remain anonymous here, because as I discovered during a faculty dinner after having been offered a post at an Ivy League medical school, honesty about race relations in the USA is utterly unwelcome. Asked by the wife of that school's president why I felt it was so challenging recruiting "qualified" minorities, I answered frankly but diplomatically that, as one of that school’s own faculty was famous for having published and teaching, cultural experiences at traditionally socioeconomically and racially homogeneous universities could be for minorities sufficiently painful to eclipse the professional potential an Ivy League education might garner. The next day my invitation to join that school's faculty was rescinded. And that experience would become the norm for my professional academic life. Be silent, I learned. Do not give your opinion--and most certainly do not honestly share your experiences.

I'm sorry for the long, long comment. But my frustration is at its zenith. I am fearing for my own survival since I cannot procure employment, despite my accomplishments--neither within my country, nor without. I would go anywhere—even places that might be unsafe for Americans, because I am dying here in the USA without work. I am convinced the single greatest determinant of my consistent life experience, in this regard, is the simple fact that I happen to have drawn the African-genes card at birth. A young Jewish student who'd become a close acquaintance after having taken several of my classes at a university where I was teaching once remarked, "God help you if you're a black man in the United States." Apparently, he could have ended that sentence four words earlier without changing its truthfulness.

By Carl, Chicago, IL (18th April 2016)

As a dark skinned black American, I can confirm that there is more than just a modicum of veracity to this article as the harsh reality is that race remains the trump card when it comes to the procurement of international ESL teaching positions. However, the aforesaid should not be construed as an invitation to waddle in the wretched waters of despair and capitulate to the ubiquitous racism and hypocrisy that abounds amongst foreign recruiters, employers and especially white expatriate educators who seem to possess few inhibitions when it comes to demonstrating their open contempt for blacks and other people of color. I've written an article that addresses this issue in detail called: The Color of English: A Black American's Perspective on the Global Predilection for White ESL Teachers. I don't know if the link will show, but if you Google the title, it will appear. If black educators are interested in teaching in the Middle East, just visit my website to contact me and I'll be more than happy to share what information I know.

By Shawn, USA (18th September 2015)

Nilay, I completely understand what you are saying about spending money for expensive TEFL programs but finding few employment opportunities. Also, A. Templar, I've have similar experiences. I've obtained a B.A. in English and a Masters degree in Library Science. Yes, I've had opportunities with unusual and surprised looks when I show up, in person, for interviews. Obviously, my interviewers didn't expect an African-American woman. I had wanted to pursue a CELTA certificate; but, I have my doubts. It deeply hurts and degrades me to have spent so much time, effort, and money on education but not be able to enjoy the income, status and benefits of education. One year out of grad school, after nearly 200 resumes/CVs sent out, I became so depressed. I worked some temp jobs at $8.00 an hour to pay bills. I deferred some of my big loans; but, one can't defer these forever. That situation really changed me, altered me in a way that left me feeling numb, and changed how I perceive the world. I watched my colleagues get good jobs. I was one of 3 African-Americans in my graduating class of 120. I know that many of these persons do not have the prior business experience that I had prior to pursuing higher education.

It's difficult to deal with the pain of social rejection on the basis of skin color. When I was younger, I was somehow able to transcend the racist attitudes, mostly by pretending that none of it existed. Older now, I know that these attitudes do exist and play a large part in keeping large groups of persons unemployed; as well as making life difficult when they are employed.

Now, I feel that any job will do, as long as it pays the bills. I have none of the zest and positive sense of the future as I once had. I'm simply a part of this debtor nation, another cog in the wheel of commerce.

By Mary, (12th May 2013)

Although I do agree that there is racism in the ESL industry the two comments above prove that some people just cannot speak English well enough to teach it. I wouldn't hire either one of them, not because of their ethnicity, but because they have poor grammar. Its sad when people chalk up their not getting hired to racism. It is an excuse holding them back from the truth that they just can't speak English very well and have no place being an English teacher. I think the discrimination as a whole (not just Korea) may just be that they want to hire truly native speakers and NOT those who speak it as a second language. I have noticed many foreign sounding names and black people finding jobs in Korea and all over the world that are very qualified and they do well (however, I know they must have to try VERY hard). That being said, my boyfriend knows grammar better than I do but he has an Arab name. He was raised in the U.S. and doesn't have as many qualifications as me (I have teaching experience) except he majored in English (I majored in Education). I have been getting contacted a lot more often than he is, but its hard to say why. When I get to an interview I recommend him to the employer and when they hear his name they sound disappointed. I do think his name is holding us back from getting hired together but I can't be sure.

By A. Brown, USA (6th June 2012)

I am absolutely agree with that racism policy is still exist in TESOL industry.I applied almost each country for teaching job but result is very disappointing.I spent my hard earned thousands of money for TESOL certificate and IELTS qualification but I have not received any interview call .I applied to become volunteer also but they want money for volunteerism .so,now I accept my defeat in TESOL industry and started my old sales profession.I hope one day situation will change and everybody will get equal opportunity on based of their merit.

By Nilay, India (26th January 2012)

I am a person from Argentina raised in the USA and holding a US citizenship. I was teaching privately english classes in two Eastern Europe countries for couple months each time, until recently I completed my course to be certified in TEFL/TESL and I have sent over more than 150 resumes to different schools in Mexico, Costa Rica and some Eurpean countries from EU member and non-EU, however the result is the same, no answers at all. Then I created a ficticious name (anglo) with no experience at all just graduated from University and only 2 entry jobs as experience, and I have sent my resume under this person name (I don't want to state the name) to at least 20 schools, and in just a couple of days, my requests have been answered with some job offers.
It is obvious that the racism and discrimination is spread throughout the world. It's really unfair and I would say 'inhuman' that we still have this in century XXI. I think that we should denounce those schools that discriminate and post them here. Any opinions or ideas, what can be done?

By A. Templar, USA (12th May 2010)

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