By Nunana Nyomi
I am both a victim of and a beneficiary from structural racism.
As a black man, I am still dealing with the fresh pain resulting from recent racial injustices culminating with the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, as an international education professional, my livelihood depends on an industry that benefits from and perpetuates structural racism. Wrestling with this dichotomy has led me to the conclusion that international education must make anti-racism a core value. Despite our best intentions, we, in the international education community, must admit that we have not done enough to confront and dismantle the racist structures that underpin many of our societies.
I recognize that there are many fine examples where international education has broken barriers of cultural understanding. However, I invite professionals at international education institutions (schools, universities, and organizations) to pause and reflect with me about just how far our institutions may still have to go to eradicate structural racism. Please note that I am not a spokesperson for all blacks and people of color. These are my personal observations based on my own experience.
International education’s dependence on structural racism
International education, in large part, serves a relatively exclusive group of individuals. Many international schools charge tuition amounts only affordable to expats and wealthy locals. This year, international schools have received US $51 billion in tuition revenues. At the tertiary level, predominantly white western countries make up four of the top five host destinations for international students and international students contributed US $41 billion to the economy of the US, the top host destination. International education is so financially dependent on the elite players in a western-dominant global financial system grounded in slavery, (neo)colonialism and hegemony, that we should not be surprised that our institutional stances on diversity have fallen short in achieving racial equity.
Much like oil company statements on climate change, our institutional mission statements read like sanitized PR campaigns distracting from our complicity in maintaining racialized inequity. Our institutional mission statements are centered around words like “interculturalism”, “global citizenship”, and “international mindedness”. The ubiquitous use of these words projects a certain universalism within international education which masks a deeper understanding of cultural differences. The Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC™) describes this as minimization. According to the IDC™, “when minimization exists in organizations, diversity often feels ‘not heard’”. To address this, our institutions must incorporate anti-racism into their mission statements. Anti-racism seeks to identify and dismantle racist structures and attitudes in order to eliminate racial inequity. By pursuing anti-racism, as opposed to the buzzwords we are used to, international education will truly confront its shortcomings and work proactively to change. What would anti-racism look like at our institutions?
Adopting an anti-racist approach: Four actions institutions should take
1. Fix the inequities in staff recruitment
An anti-racist approach would look beyond our standard fare celebratory features of the many nationalities represented in our student bodies and examine why this diversity isn’t reflected in our staff and leadership. It would force us to address the inequities such as 93% of the leaders in American international schools being white. Anti-racist institutions would eliminate practices such as exclusionary definitions of native English proficiency and nationality restrictions only to western passports for teacher recruitment. As we remove the racist structures which have perpetuated the largely white western staffing of our schools, our institutions will be better equipped to enrich student learning and create cultures of inclusion.
2. Engage in pedagogy that empowers students to embrace their identities
An anti-racist approach would demand regular intercultural competency training for staff and ensure that teachers know how to apply those skills within the typically diverse classrooms they teach. It would empower students by encouraging them to share their own cultural and linguistic backgrounds instead of imposing a western-dominant English-centric international school monoculture. On a personal note, I regretfully lost my own mother-tongue while growing up internationally due to the perceived pressure to ‘fit in’ to schools that taught me to assimilate and not celebrate the value of my unique linguistic identity. Our institutions should adopt methods centered on cultural and linguistic identity empowerment such as Dina Mehmedbegovic’s autobiographical approach with children and adults. An anti-racist institution would truly value the diversity within its students (and staff) by celebrating the power of their stories and engaging in transformative citizenship education.
3. Use the power of education to transcend economic inequity
An anti-racist approach would seek to break the systemic racist and socioeconomic inequities inherent in our financial system by providing greater access to education. I am well-aware that our institutions are facing unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, within any challenge there are opportunities. How can we leverage online education to scale up tertiary education access to more people than the roughly 7% of the world’s population who are globally mobile international students? How can we collaborate better in sharing research, scholarship, and open-source resources with institutions in the global south? How might we partner with such institutions and scrutinize our own tuition models to provide and enhance access to the world’s high achieving low income students? Anti-racist institutions could make this pandemic a watershed moment for international education.
4. Affirm that Black Lives Matter
An anti-racist approach would recognize the global nature of the public outcry and affirm the Black Lives Matter movement. International education institutions outside of the US have been non-responsive or slow to issue statements of solidarity. When statements have been issued, many fail to explicitly mention that black lives matter or the complicity of their institutions in enabling racial inequity. Our institutions remain out of touch with the transnational nature of black discrimination which spans countries as different from each other as China, France, South Africa, Brazil, India, and the Netherlands just to name a few. How would an anti-racist institution support the well-being of black staff and students currently struggling with the ongoing images of murder and injustice flooding our social media feeds? Many black colleagues are not ok but feel pressured to put on a brave face and get on with their work. How could our institutions start to embody anti-racism by showing care for the blacks in their communities?
Just like many in international education, I have not done enough to push for an anti-racist agenda. At times, I have been comfortable justifying to myself that I am doing my part to further the cause of global citizenship despite this system being built largely for the world’s elite. Recent events have reminded me that the cost of remaining silent is too high when working in an industry that shapes the education of so many young minds. Anti-racism has the potential to revolutionize our approach to staff recruitment, pedagogy, and racial inequity. Therefore, it is time for international education to strengthen its mission by adopting anti-racism as a central guiding principle in order to bring about meaningful change.