Colourism In The ESL Industry

Teaching English as a Second Language

I’ve been living and working in Vietnam for just over a year now and I’ve got to say, I do really like my job. I’m working as an ESL, English as a Second Language, teacher. Over the year I’ve worked for a private school and several other language centers where students go after school for extra English lessons. But while my experience has been pretty smooth, the same can’t be said for others who’ve faced colourism within the industry.

colourism within ESL

I’ve been with the company I currently work for, for around 8 months and getting a job with them was fairly straight forward. I had all the correct documents and qualifications needed. But I can’t say it’s been that straightforward for some people working at other companies. Especially for some people of colour.

Being a person of colour myself, I stand out in Vietnam.

The majority of the Vietnamese population are olive or light brown skinned. I’m more of a medium brown, and for many people that makes me a whole lot different.

Vietnam is an interesting place.

Despite the country being in a constant drive forward in terms of growth and development, the mentality of some people remains very much outdated. Not all, but many Vietnamese people associate lighter or whiter skin with power and beauty. An old fashioned ideal that is very much ever present in the cultures, not just here, but all over the world.

And for that, many westerners, despite having all the required paperwork and qualifications, unfortunately experience colourism in the teaching English industry.

But What is Colourism?

Like racism, colourism generates unfair and inaccurate stereotypes about people based on the lightness or darkness of their skin. While racism exists between people of different races, colourism can exist between people of the same ethnic or racial group.

colourism within the ESL indsutry

I myself have never faced discrimination towards the colour of my skin. From the company I work for, or from the parents of my students. Parents have asked questions about where I’m from. “Why are you brown coloured if you’re from England?” But I’ve never had anyone say anything negative or hurtful.

An issue with colour

However it hasn’t been that way for some ESL teachers. After a post on one of the popular, women-only Facebook groups, Hanoi Beautiful, many expats began sharing their experiences of colourism in the teaching industry.

Amani Baig says she’s been affected by colourism. The 25-year-old from England has even missed out on job opportunities because of her skin colour. Speaking about colourism, she says “It’s not a nice feeling experiencing that in this day and age. This has actually been putting me down recently.” Although feeling saddened by recent experiences, Baig puts the issue down to a lack of education. Adding, “I feel like Vietnamese people are unaware that in the UK for example, people are of different races. It’s just something they aren’t used to… I worked in a province where they never see foreigners and I spoke with my teaching assistant who told me they literally think all people from England are white. They just don’t understand or are unaware of different races in one country.”

“They say I don’t ‘look like an American’.”

Baig’s situation resonates with a lot of other female ESL teachers. Elizabeth Torres from America, was also been affected by colourism in the workplace. She comments “Most Vietnamese people don’t believe I’m from America. They say I don’t ‘look like an American’. Some co-workers were worried I came back from a beach vacation tanned (I tan easily) saying ‘oh but you’re so dark’, telling me to stay out of the sun. One even suggested a whitening cream.”

Creams and products containing bleach are frequently used to give whiter skin complexions. In fact the majority of everyday facial moisturizers in supermarkets, pharmacies or beauty stores all contain skin whitening bleaches.

colourism in ESL

Tratonia Spicer, from North Carolina in America was recently “gifted” double strength bleaching cream for a birthday present. She says “As a dark skin American, I also get called dirty almost on a daily basis.”

But it’s not just westerns who face discrimination for their appearance in the teaching English industry.

Ngọc Hà, from Hanoi, has experienced colourism first hand. She tells the story of when she first started teaching. “I worked with my friend as his TA [Teaching Assistant]. One day when he was away for visa run and I was in charge of the class, the ‘boss’ (a Vietnamese lady who arranged the class), told me that the parents were not happy seeing a Vietnamese face. She fired me. I drove home crying, realising that I’ve chosen a job that highlights what I hate the most, racism. It’s just so sad and upsetting.”

Thuy-Hang Nguyen says some of her Vietnamese friends only get paid a third of the westerner wage. And her friends have excellent, if not fluent English skills. She says local Vietnamese employees, teaching to the same standard as a western teacher, are treated unfairly. She puts this down to their skin colour and the fact that they are Vietnamese and not “western looking”.

Colour and money

In response to Nguyen’s comments about the pay difference, 34 year old Elizabeth Brierton commented “I absolutely think it is awful that Vietnamese English teachers with exceptional skills don’t get paid the same as me. They do more work.” Despite this, she is positive about the future for Vietnamese English teachers. Adding, “I also think in 15 to 20 years foreign English teachers will be obsolete in Vietnam and Vietnamese Teachers can take our place with an equivalent pay based on inflation.”

It’s clear there is an issue with colourism in the teaching english industry, affecting both western and native Vietnamese teachers. However through more open discussion and education within the community, the colour of our skin will no longer be a negative topic of discussion. I hope this article doesn’t discourage people of colour, or anyone for that matter, to teach English in a foreign country. It’s a brilliant experience!

To all the women who were happy for me to share your experiences, thank you. The more we talk openly and honestly about our experiences, the sooner they’ll be a thing of the past, and no matter what colour skin we have, we will all be treated the same.

The Ministry of Education and Training in Vietnam have been contacted for a statement.

Have you experienced colourism? Leave me your thoughts in the comment box below.

Thanks for stopping by and reading,


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