Is the Brazilian ELT industry racist?

A few days ago, the Rio de Janeiro Secretary of Education criticized the actress Tais Araujo for her TED Talk in which she shares some of the challenges she will soon encounter as a mother of black children. The Secretary described it as ‘racial stupidity’. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear that. It made me think a lot about my privileges and the industry we work at.

I’ve been working in ELT for 15 years, the last 4 working independently. For 11 years, I was part of the staff language schools, which was enough time to have a lot of black coworkers, but it did not happen this way. I have worked with very few teachers of color and had one myself. This one teacher is not considered black here in Brazil. People would refer to them as moreno, one of the many euphemisms we use here to deny the existence of black people.

Perhaps I had been unfortunate to have worked at places with very little racial diversity. I decided to ask people at BrELT to see whether the bubble I lived in was representative of reality.

To my surprise, most people said they had had coworkers who were black in all settings: bilingual, public, private schools, language schools that aimed at lower, middle and upper classes. Then I realized I was asking the wrong question: having a black coworker and equity do not walk hand in hand. I humbly asked to hear black teachers’ experiences and the responses were shocking.

In Brazil, due to my light skin, I am perceived as white. That has granted me a lot of privileges. Never have I been told that I don’t look like a teacher. Never have I been inquired about my qualifications, even when I did not have any. When arriving at expensive zip codes, never have I been asked if I was there to clean.

Going back to my initial question, is the Brazilian ELT industry racist? Yes. And no. More than half of the Brazilian population identifies as black or pardo, which could be translated as a person of color. When we know not nearly half of the teachers we work with are black, it is undeniable there is something wrong. However, I do not think the Brazilian ELT industry is particularly racist, at least not more than our society. We live in a country where education is not a right, but a privilege and privileged people in Brazil are not usually black. According to the last census by IBGE, only 12.8% students in the tertiary level are black. Not all English teachers hold a degree, but how can black people become teachers if they are not even being granted access to university?

Once we understand there is a problem, we need to think of a solution and I am afraid it is very difficult to come up with one. Black teachers need to be given opportunities and it is delicate to talk about that. Not everyone is in a position of hiring teachers, so we might feel giving opportunities does not depend on us, but it is more than giving people jobs. I would like to end this article with a simple question, a discussion that needs to be ongoing and not just around Black Consciousness day: what have you done to include black teachers? Black teacher, how do you think we could change this scenario?

Thiago Veigga

T. Veigga is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer based in Rio. He holds a post-graduate degree in Media-Education (PUC-Rio) and has worked in the ELT industry for over 14 years. His interests include teacher education, entrepreneurship and pronunciation instruction. He blogs at https://tveigga.wordpress.com and hosts the web show ELT TV.

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