Racism, Elitism, Exoticism: An Indian at an International School

Mythily Nair
·6-min read

International schools are institutions that teach a syllabus that is different from that what is the local national curriculum of the country of its residence. Originating sometime in the 19th century, they cater to students who are not citizens of the host country, such as children of diplomats, employees of international organisations. As globalisation sets the tone for the 21st century, there is a rise in the prevalence of international school education. The IASL’s checklist for international schools include:

  • it having a multinational and multilingual student body

  • it administering an international curriculum

  • there existing a multinational teacher population

  • English being the language of instruction

As demographics change, we begin to question the strength of the characteristics set out for international schools: what are they doing to address past hegemonic structures that existed?

International Schools: Breeding Grounds For Elitism, Neo-Colonial Beliefs

Of course, the international schooling system isn’t without its merits. I grew up in one myself, immersed in a system where the norm of racial diversity instils immense tolerance of constructs that are still taboo in the East — of different family structures, the prominence of LGBTQ+ members and why it’s necessary to be an ally, and so on.

It strives to make us the embodiment of ‘global citizens’.

However, international schools are also breeding grounds for elitism, reinforcing hegemony over the local education systems, and largely are just a cesspool for neo-colonialist beliefs. There is a lot of reform required, in not just the education it provides, but also the kind of culture that exists within it, and this article will go on to argue some of the things that need urgent attention within the South East Asian British international school system.

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Bias In Appointing Teaching Staff — And Reinforcing The ‘Nanny Stereotype’

Achievement in an international school can only be found by getting accepted to a university in a White country, not in an Asian school, no matter how good it is. It’s a widely accepted cultural belief that, say a Tier 2 British university is a better option, than a HKU or an NUS — which is widely considered more prestigious in terms of the kind of academic standing they hold. Additionally, these international schools are also very poorly equipped to handle applications for universities within Asia, which is ironic considering its geographic location.

This just goes to show that there continues to be a subtle demarcation, a bias against students who choose to remain in the region for their higher education, under the veil of “we don’t cater for such colleges here”.

8 years in an international school, I’ve had the privilege of being taught by some of the greatest educators I’ve met. But upon further contemplation, I’ve also noticed that there was a very clear racial bias in the way teachers were distributed in my school — the majority of the teaching population was White, with teaching ‘assistants’ or support teaching staff mostly being Non-White/Asian/Indian. Why is this problematic?

Well, it reinforces the ‘nanny stereotype’, a colonial hangover we’ve yet to get rid of, one that notes that women of colour are best suited ‘take care of’ children.

The only space where the number of non-White teachers either matched or exceeded White were either in the ESL department (English as a Second Language) or the Maths Department, typecasting an inability for non-White teachers in the international schooling system to teach subjects that aren’t conventionally ‘Asian’.

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Why We Accept The Perspective Of ‘Dominant’ Groups

There is also the question of posing teachers as aspirational models. Teachers were also held up to the same jarring, discriminatory standards; one with a degree from Cambridge was considered as having achieved more, an ideal for students, that reaching Ivy was a marker of immense status. This created “bifurcation of consciousness”, a concept brought about by theorist Dorothy Smith, one of the originators of Standpoint Feminist theory.

Smith speaks about the way that ‘subordinate’ groups are conditioned to view the world from the perspective of the dominant group, since their perspectives are embedded in the practices of that world.

We hence begin to idealise achievement as being only the achievement attained by going to one of these prestigious institutions.

In an international school, social acceptance amongst the student body is also determined by how much you bend to their norms of ‘beauty’ and acceptable level of exoticism. A 2013 The Guardian article notes the identity crisis amongst expatriate students of international schools, noting that they feel “uniquely rootless” and lacking a “cultural identity”.

But when one comes to school with a deep pride in their cultural heritage and is mocked for it, it deeply realigns the way one assesses themselves within the hierarchy of ‘acceptably attractive’ in the racially diverse environment.

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What The International Schooling System Urgently Needs

Growing up, I believed myself to be at the bottom of the ‘pecking order’ due to my ethnicity, thanks to comments I’ve overheard like “she’s pretty but I wouldn’t date her because she’s a bit too dark”. This deeply ingrained colourism and creation of a hierarchy based on origin, racial heritage also extends to economic class — this is, after all, a school for those who can afford its exorbitant fees.

Extremely wealthy students of Asian descent (notably non-South Asian) would hold elevated rank due to their social prominence; White or biracial students were the ones who one must aspire to look like, act like or be like, the physical embodiment of ‘modernity with traditional values’.

Somehow it became implicitly understood that their word and behaviour were Gospel, an archetype everyone must squeeze themselves into.

What can we do differently? Well, to start with, be transparent. Be transparent about hiring processes, about why the teacher (racial) population in the school is distributed the way it is. Acknowledging, would be the next step.

Notice that there are changes happening to the world around you; racial structures and hegemonies that need to be acknowledged and taught. Introduce colonial history into your syllabus. Acknowledge the negative structures you’ve contributed to, and work on reflecting on the same and taking steps forward. There’s no other way to be ‘.global citizens’.

(Mythily Nair is presently a student at IIM Indore, and is interested in writing on cinema, storytelling, gender & body, and education in India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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