The lure of white subjectivity (by Dr Sunny Lau)

Last year, one of my education students (let’s call her Saira) asked to meet with me. Saira was an international student from South Asia who spoke at least three languages other than English and majored in Teaching English as a Second Language. She was musing about leaving the program here in Quebec to pursue instead a postgraduate teaching diploma in the UK. Since it was her plan to teach in Europe, she believed that having British teacher certification might help “cancel out” all negative images associated with her as a non-native English speaker, and that it might also afford her a better chance of getting employment than the certification from Quebec.

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My heart sank as I listened to her rationalization.

Partly I did not want to see such a conscientious student leave the program; partly I knew the barriers erected by monolingual bias are greater than a diploma from an inner-circle country (Kachru, 1997) like UK, or even Quebec for that matter, can easily dismantle, particularly those barriers that we have come to endorse ourselves.

Well, perhaps the most discouraging thing was that she had actually taken a course with me in which we critically examined issues of linguistic purism and ownership. As well, we explored how accent discrimination, language hierarchies, and their associated intersectional (race/gender/ethnicity/class, etc.) ideologies impacted our teaching and our students’ lives.

Saira’s insecure feelings about her employability and desires to be acknowledged as a “legitimate” English speaker and teacher moved me to reckon with the real material impact of native-speakerism on minoritized individuals.

Reflecting on my own journey of becoming an English teacher and then a teacher educator, I too have been equally battling with these contradictory feelings. If I am honest with myself, the desire for recognition and approval from white listening subjects (Flores & Rosa, 2015) lingers, even though I have dedicated myself to decolonizing English education. The white listening subjects are not necessarily white, but they are those who have internalized the race-based monolingual bias against minoritized English learners/speakers…, including ourselves.

Even now, with over thirty years of English teaching and teacher education experience, my family or friends would rather ask my white English-speaking husband (who is in the field of history education by the way) questions about English grammar or for help with their application letters, rather than seeking advice from me whose expertise is in second language teaching and learning. These small, seemingly insignificant everyday incidents can accumulate and inflame the deficit discourse of minoritized speakers that I have tried so hard to quash.

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Looking back, I did build around myself a protective wall of teaching credentials, awards, and publications to prove that I’m as worthy as other English speakers. These institutional and material recognitions did provide me with a footing on a platform where people have come to see what really matters is an educator, “native-speaker” or not, who embodies the qualities of a love for teaching and learning, value for linguistic and cultural diversity and equity, pedagogical and discipline knowledge, and effective communication, to name a few. Yet, it can often take one of those smallest everyday incidents to challenge my sense of legitimacy and to have this whole protective wall of mine crash down on me, like a Jenga block being yanked from an already wobbly tower.

Saira’s words have touched me to consider once again how teacher beliefs are constituted intersubjectively and shaped by an array of socio- cultural, political, and economic factors. She reminded me that change does not happen over a semester, nor would mere rational discussions do the work. As Motha and Lin (2014) elegantly put it:

The lure of English sets off intense yearnings and compels individuals to make tremendous, sometimes unfathomable sacrifices in order to gain access to the language; it is simultaneously capable of arousing significant internal conflict, ambivalence, repression, and even animosity (p. 332).

Perhaps the way forward is not for teacher educators to denounce minoritized students’ inner yearnings for approval, but rather to acknowledge, re/cognise, and even empathize with, those complex desires. It is in re/cognizing these vulnerable feelings that open dialogues can take place to re-examine, negotiate, and re-arrange desires in a non-coercive way (Spivak, 2004; Motha & Lin, 2014).

Saira’s honest disclosure of her insecure feelings with me reflected her courage in openly addressing the elephant in the room and her trust in me to be her ally in battling with monolingual bias, both from within and without. Instead of getting frustrated with her continual subscription of monolingual standards, I am learning to listen with more empathetic ears.

Promoting multilingualism and multiculturalism requires advocacy and change at policy and institutional levels. My dialogue with Saira, however, reminded me not to forget how individuals in micro contexts continue to be measured and judged by fixed notions of language competence. The question is how we as teacher educators can continue to support these students in face of the immense pressure to conform to monolingual standards, engaging them not only in critique but also in re/cognizing those contradictory feelings in order to navigate the complex sociocultural, socioeconomic, socioemotional demands placed on them.


Benesch, S. (2012). Considering emotions in critical English language teaching. Routledge.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

Kachru, B. B. (1997). World Englishes and English-using communities. Annual Review Of Applied Linguistics, 17, 66-87.

Motha, S., & Lin, A. M. Y. (2014). “Non-coercive rearrangements”: Theorizing desire in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 48, 331-359. 10.1002/tesq.126

Spivak, G. (2004). Righting wrongs. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2/3), 523-581.

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