Dripping with Privilege

November 3, 2009

I thought I’d share some relevant frustrations with you all.

I’ve been looking into getting some part-time* work here in Shanghai, to supplement my finances to help me basically break-even on this trip. Of course, as a teacher, and native English speaker, the most obvious work available here is teaching English.

The thing is this: here, in China, people want to learn how to speak English. The school system doesn’t really teach it that well, and people have very noticeable accents when they speak. So schools and individuals are constantly trying to find native English speakers to help them learn to speak English better. Whenever I look at the classifieds, there’s a million English teaching jobs. Of course, they are so desperate for native English-speaking teachers, that they will basically take anybody with a college degree, whether or not they know how to teach (because they – much like most folks who don’t appreciate teachers back home – don’t understand the difference between a real teacher and "figuring it out"). I even visited one school where their "native English-speaking" teacher was actually a Frenchman with a terrible accent and even poorer English grammar posing as a Canadian (Quebecois, I guess).

So you’d think lining up a job would be cake for me. I’ve taught professionally for four years in an "American" middle school (one of the hardest of the lot, too). I have taught English in Tanzania. I’ve tutored immigrants and refugees in English in the States. I’ve got over six years’ teaching experience, overall. And I’m damn good at it. Not to mention that anybody who has ever seen me with a kid for ten seconds knows that I love them, and that generally means we get along really well.

Compared to faux-English-speakers with no teaching experience? No problem.

So I’ve applied to all sorts of kindergartens. I’ve applied for tutoring positions. I’ve sent my resume all over the place.

And I keep not getting jobs. Before I even get an interview (which frustrates me so much, because I am confident that – given an interview – I’ll always get the job) I am told that I am not what folks are looking for.

Why? Because they are looking for female teachers. Because they think that female teachers are more appropriate for working with younger kids. Or because – in the case of the most recent rejection – they don’t think a male (me) could get along as well with their daughter.

Now, maybe in the case of the tutoring, it’s a safety thing for them. Maybe they just don’t want to say they feel more comfortable with a female in their house. Cool. That would be acceptable, I suppose. I can deal with that.

But these other rejections? Because kindergarten teachers are supposed to be women. Period. I’m in China. Women have their place (although it is slowly changing here). Some folks could say that them preserving positions for women should be a positive. But this particular manner seems more similar to a "positive stereotype" than progress to me. And it’s not like they’re hiring Chinese women for the jobs.

No, instead, they’re reinforcing the good old stereotypes: women are caregivers and can only do a good job if it’s taking care of people – preferably children or old people. So we’ll hire accordingly, which will make those types of work disproportionately carried out by women, which can then reinforce our stereotypes that that’s "what women are good at" because it’s so common. Keep the loop going, and, before you know it, the whole world is comfortable thinking that women are only "good at" taking care of people, because that’s what so many women do for a living, which then reinforces the flip – that they are not naturally "good at" other things (such as math, or science, or running things, etc.).** End result? It’s been hundreds of years since teaching was a profession for unmarried women – and yet, that’s still the majority of teachers.

This then leads to making people wonder why men don’t work with kids or old folks, etc. Must be that a real man doesn’t do that kind of thing. In fact, there must be something wrong with a man that does want to do that kind of work.

As a youth worker, I know the deal – men that work with kids are probably pedophiles of some sort. That’s the underlying assumption. I was the first male to ever be hired at one of my earlier daycare jobs (while I was in college), and the parents went crazy with complaints when they saw me working there. They didn’t feel "comfortable" with it. They wanted their children cared for by women.***

In my other work, I am constantly on alert to make sure I do not ever end up alone with a kid. If they are just hanging out with me in my classroom and nobody else is there yet (guy or girl, it doesn’t matter), I stand in the doorway while I chat with them. If one kid wants to hang out after school for homework help, I help them in the cafeteria. When I was recording my kids’ lyrics, I always brought another kid (or two) with me, whether they were going to record or not. This is what I have to do to protect myself – and the kid – due to assumptions about male youth workers.

And the fact of the matter is – I don’t complain about it. I don’t actually think it’s all that unfair. I certainly don’t take any of this to mean that "I understand what it’s like" for women in the workplace. It’s the job I chose and, as a man in this world, I could choose another job and get paid more than an equally-qualified woman for it. That’s the world we live in. So to put up with a little bit extra and have to be a little more careful to do a job I love?

It’s all good.

However, it’s the incessant reinforcement of these stereotypes about who’s "good at" what, gender-wise, that kills me. Give me 10 minutes with the kids, and you’ll be begging me to work for you. Just get me an interview. That particular frustration perhaps does give me a tiny glimpse into the much greater frustrations of those of you with "ethnic names" who know why your resume wasn’t enough to get the interview. Maybe a slight taste of what you ladies feel when you just can’t seem to get the promotion.

And it all makes me understand – I don’t "get it." Not at all. I’ve got so much privilege in this department. My name is as "white" as it gets – people probably picture "standard white guy" when they see my name on a resume. When they read my cover letter, it’s written in perfect, "white-majority, middle-class, college-educated" English. By the time I’ve snuck into an interview and they realize their mistake – it’s too late, because that’s when I blow them away, and they can’t refuse me at that point because it would be too obvious.

And then I get all pouty about not getting some freaking part-time work to subsidize my privileged, United States citizen’s ass, while I traipse about China seeing "what it’s like" (when "what it’s like" is the most tragic separation between rich and poor that I’ve ever personally witnessed)? Give me a break. It’s enough to make me feel like a total hypocrite.

I don’t get it. At best, I know that I don’t get it. But that doesn’t give me understanding. From my many positions of privilege, I can’t ever fully understand what it’s like in the other positions. I can never confidently speak out on those others’ behalf. I don’t represent anybody other than me and my particular background.

But at least I know it. And that’s a start. Because I’ve always believed that the day I stop doubting myself and finally feel totally confident and "qualified" . . . is the day the rest of the world will know that I’m full of sh–.

* Only part-time because I want the freedom to see what I want to see, when I want to see it, as well as keeping the flexibility to go teach at my grandmother’s school whenever I get the permission.

** One day at my old school would take care of that stereotype for you – our girls are some of the smartest kids, in whatever subject, you’ll ever see. And my boss? The most efficient, brutally productive boss you’ll ever know (hands-down the best I’ve ever had) – and just so happens to be a woman.

*** By the time I left? I had received the most positive feedback from families, compared to my co-workers.


One comment

  1. Not to disparage your frustration in trying to find jobs teaching youngsters like you did previously, I would suggest trying to just resign yourself to looking for jobs w/ older kids.

    So, maybe try looking for jobs in middle-schools (high schools) rather than kindergartens. Or have you tried tutorial centers (cram schools/ buixi ban) for kids getting ready for the gao kao (高考).

    I think that for Shanghai parents of teenage boys who need to improve their English, you would be a g-d-send.

    Have you also looked around at the International schools – see if they need any supply teachers (what in Massachusetts we used to call “substitute teachers”)

    Also, network, network, network. If you’ve made any friends among foreigners living and working in China, chances are some of them are in teaching and can give you ideas, job tips, or even jobs.

    Good luck!

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