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The Racism of Teaching Abroad

November 1, 2019 19 Comments

I’ve debated for many YEARS about whether to write this post about racism of teaching abroad. Don’t think that this post was written lightly or with the intention of being clickbait. Even after it was written, I debated many times about whether to publish it. Why was I so conflicted you may ask?

Well, for one I never want this post to be a deterrent for people who are wanting to teach abroad. I never want to come across as discouraging especially as I have benefited from so many great opportunities due to teaching abroad. But please don’t think its been an easy journey or that I currently enjoy a utopian professional life.

Teaching abroad has a dark underbelly. When you hear about it, you may dismiss it as just someone’s bad experience or a once-off incident. However for people of colour it’s not ever a once-off thing. It’s like a disease that permeates and affects each of us but in many different ways in many different countries.

I’ve been in the game for a while now (5 years) in 3 different countries and I’ve observed the racism of teaching abroad over and over again. I don’t know whether raising awareness will change the institutionalised racism rife in this industry. But I do believe that if you’re looking for a job, it’s something you should aware of especially if you can’t figure out why the process is stagnant for you.

It is still very much possible to get a teaching job abroad if you’re a person of colour, a woman, a hijabi, a plus size person or whatever obstacle you may think could potentially affect your chances.

Besides that, there are many factors which may affect your chances of landing a job abroad… racism is only one factor to consider.

Please note that I am only basing my experiences on places I have taught and experienced the racism of teaching abroad. If you have experienced differently, please share your experience in the comments below.

Please do not comment about discrimination you have received if you are a white person. This post deals with racism and the benefits received from having white privilege only.

Your look is supposed to match their idea of your nationality

There were so many times I applied for a job and received an interview. While I was so ecstatic to proceed to the next step, I never enjoyed the look of disappointment on their faces (especially if it was over Skype) when they realised that I wasn’t white. Apparently if you speak English- you must be white. The idea that someone could be American or Australian but not white is quite baffling to some narrow minded schools abroad. I know for a fact that I have been rejected for job offers in favour of less experienced and less qualified individuals from the same country as me, just because they were white.

Sometimes they would ask about my ancestry as if trying to prove that the colour of my skin and my ability to speak English was far fetched. I always just shut these conversations down swiftly because… they are pointless.

Your skin colour determines your ability to teach a language

The most common things I have heard is, “Oh you speak really well!” and “Wow where did you learn to speak such good English?” based on the fact that I wasn’t white. It doesn’t matter that I only speak English and come from country where medium of instruction is English in all schools. How dare I be brown and be fluent in this language?

I once accepted a job and upon signing of the contract, the HR officer informed me that I would have to take an equivalency test to prove that I could speak English at the native speaker level. I was pretty angry and told them I wasn’t interested in doing that and didn’t have the funds to undertake such an expense. They told me I was bound my contract and had to get it done before I started school officially began the next month. Well I went traveling, didn’t bother about it and when I started school no one questioned me about it ever again. It was simply a tactic from the school to undermine me because I wasn’t white like the rest of the people they had hired in my batch even though I am qualified in ENGLISH EDUCATION at a Masters level unlike some of the white people they hired who didn’t even have teaching degrees. Mind you I was fully prepared to resign if they told me my job was dependent on it.

You’re passed over in favour of lighter skinned colleagues

So you think you’ve went through the interviews, gotten your documents tested, made the big move and now your problems are over. WRONG. Almost every year that I have taught abroad (although this usually only happens in private schools and not public ones) I have stood by on the first day of school and observed the parents looking at me. then I watch them make requests to move their child to another- WHITER- teacher’s classroom. They have no idea about my experience, ability or teaching style. But my face tells them that a whiter teacher is more able to teach child than I am.

It’s slightly demeaning but I try not to let it get to me.

This year alone 6 students, urged by their parents, took their things and walked next door to my white, blonde, blue eyed colleague’s classroom with little interaction with me. I didn’t wish for them to return. I have no desire to interact with parents like that.

In 2014 I started watching the ABC show, Scandal. There was a line that resonated with me then and still proves true today:

You have to be twice as good to get half what they have.

Man this spoke to me. It sums up my life not just as a teacher abroad but as a traveler abroad. The constant struggle of having to be twice as good in interviews, twice as concsious of your accent when speaking English, twice as polite every time you pass through immigration when you enter a new country… it becomes exhausting and to be honest, I only persevere because I know that moving back to teach in my home country comes with worse challenges (less money, no more opportunities to travel).

You can watch the full scene here, it’s really a fine piece of acting by Joe Morton.

As I said in the beginning of this post, this isn’t meant to deter anyone but rather, to make you aware of the racism of teaching abroad. Often I feel that people think teaching abroad is some sort of utopia but it come with its own set of challenges, some of which are specific to being a person of colour or being from a non-privileged country.

I remember the time I was asked to “Americanise my accent”… am I teacher or an actor?

The next time you see me on a beach in the Maldives, please don’t be jealous of me. I have put up with a lot to lead this lifestyle. I still do on a daily basis. While nationality and skin colour plays an unnecessarily cruel role in the industry of teaching internationally, I have never let it hold me back. I never felt like I wasn’t deserving of such opportunities so I just keep moving forward. This is what happens when you’re the child of two parents who grew up as minorities during South Africa’s Apartheid- I always felt like I had to seize the opportunities my parents didn’t have. You will find your way too… it may not be a smooth path and there will be tribulations but please don’t give up hope!

My main advice here is not to take the racism of teaching abroad personally; if you feel that you’re being discriminated against just stop the process; explain to the company/recruiter that you’re no longer interested and continue your search. When incidents occur at work, remember your purpose for being there. A part of me would love to stand up for myself and transform the racist ignorance but I also know that I don’t have the emotional capacity for every time that happens. I would be emotionally exhausted. To be honest… maybe I already am.

Do you have a story to share about teaching abroad especially if it relates to racism? Please share it in the comments below!


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  • Chloe November 1, 2019 at 7:21 pm

    I think you’re doing really important work, and I am sure you are inspiring people just by refusing to back down. I love the phrase “put your body where your politics are.” That doesn’t mean you have to take on every emotional burden- It’s hard, but you’re just doing it anyway 💪

    • expatpanda November 2, 2019 at 4:09 pm

      Thank you for your kind words… yes its difficult but yes its also necessary to keep showing up in order to challenge the status quo!

  • Kay November 2, 2019 at 6:16 am

    Thank you so much for writing this. I see so many of my friends making the journey to teach abroad, friends with background education in teaching, certificates in human behavior, a passion for enriching people’s minds….and then they show up to class and a student asks them why “they look like that.” It’s so heartbreaking to hear. So thank you for sharing some of the very true realities because, while there are great perks, there are also a lot of shadows.

    • expatpanda November 2, 2019 at 4:08 pm

      I too feel sad when I see it happening to others (far less affected when it happens to me) and that’s why I decided to write this post. While every job has its pros and cons, I think its important for people to know what they’re potentially getting into.

  • kdeange November 4, 2019 at 6:02 pm

    So much truth here. I hate, hate, hate it when I see the discrimination in my school. I know for a fact the 3 brown skinned women in my department are highly qualified and capable of teaching our subject yet I see students and our admin dismiss them. It makes me see red. I hate that we live in a world where just because I’m white and someone else is not I’m given an upper hand. Things need to be based on qualification and ability not skin color.

    • expatpanda November 5, 2019 at 7:34 am

      I think a lot of people struggle with blatant discrimination based on a concept their countries have long since moved past. This is why teaching in this region is a transient job- just something people pass through. Its different in other countries but here, the turnover of teachers is unbelievable for a multitude of reason but this is definitely one.

  • Rachel Boren November 5, 2019 at 10:58 am

    This was such an eye opening post!

    • expatpanda November 5, 2019 at 11:07 am

      Thank you for reading and glad you learned something new!

      • Terri February 18, 2020 at 9:37 am

        I’m fully aware that racism is alive and well today – worldwide. It breaks my heart and infuriates me. I’m a white teacher and I’ve begun the process to teach abroad but I wasn’t aware this is such an issue. I don’t want to work for an organization where there is rampant racism against anyone. I moved to Hawai’i in the fall to teach and I’ve experienced it here as a non-native.
        You are so beautiful, with skin color and hair that I have always envied. I’m embarrassed for my ignorance but I would think people in UAE and that part of the world would be racist against people who DON’T look like you.
        Your post has given me a lot to consider and provided a point of view I needed to see.

        • expatpanda February 19, 2020 at 9:50 am

          I am grateful that you took the time to leave me this comment. I am also happy that you have learnt something from my post and glad you feel passionately about equality in education. Unfortunately we can only raise awareness and hope that mindsets become changed… I really hope people change their outdates perspectives and stereotypes.

  • Barry Whelan January 30, 2020 at 12:21 pm

    Well done for sharing! So valuable.

    • expatpanda January 30, 2020 at 12:37 pm

      You’re most welcome.

  • Sarah Belal April 19, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    This is very true. I used to work in a school and then I found out that someone who has a high school diploma gets paid 4 times more than me (Bachelor of Science) only because they have an American passport (she was the same nationality as me but was able to obtain the passport and she has lighter skin). I am not degrading anyone here really but I felt this is completely unfair, it made me very upset and I left the school once we finished the end of year exams.

    • expatpanda April 19, 2020 at 4:49 pm

      I am so sorry you had to go through that experience Sarah. I have also been in that position where people with less experience and no proper qualifications were paid much more than I simply because of their nationality and skin colour. It’s frustrating and definitely speaks volumes about the integrity of the school. I am glad you were able to leave that toxic environment.

  • Michelle January 16, 2023 at 8:32 am

    Wow! You’ve said it!!!! This resonates with me on every level. I get you. Thank you for sharing.

    • expatpanda January 16, 2023 at 8:50 am

      Thanks for reading! I think it’s important for people to mentally prepare themselves.

  • Bruce July 5, 2023 at 9:03 am

    I’m late to the comment section but thank you for your insight. It helped put things into perspective.

  • Haddasah March 25, 2024 at 8:45 pm

    Thank you for this article. I am currently trying to find a job abroad and it is so difficult ! I kept asking myself why, now I understand it is because I am black. The recruiter will ask you for a photograph of yourself and then you’ll never hear from them again😔

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