Meet MaWSIG webinars: To be or not to be (tokenistic)

In this post, MaWSIG Coordinator Aleksandra Popowski summarises the talk she gave at the first in the series of our Meet MaWSIG webinars.

According to the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary, tokenism refers to ‘actions that are the result of pretending to give advantage to those groups in society who are often treated unfairly, in order to give the appearance of fairness’. Simply put, tokenism is inclusion for the sake of inclusion. It is inclusion just to show how diverse and open-minded you are, when you are really not doing anything or changing anything.

When we start writing materials or coursebooks, we need to ask ourselves why we are including certain characters, topics, communities and cultures. Is it because we want to tick boxes or because we see their actual value and feel they need to be included?

As there is a lack of research on tokenism in ELT materials writing, we need to rely on what we know about tokenism from other fields, as well as our common sense, judgement and teaching/writing experience. This can help us to establish some rules or principles to help us avoid tokenism.

These are my suggestions for avoiding tokenism.

No single stories

Learners live in the real world, not in one perfect dimension where everyone has the same skin colour, speaks the Queen’s English, drinks tea and plays bridge. Our realities are much more diverse and colourful than that because there are no single stories about a country, community, or culture.

African novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a wonderful and inspiring TED talk about the danger of the single story. She talks about how she had single stories about the West and even her own country, but she soon discovered that there are a lot more stories out there.

I realised that people like me – girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails – could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognised.

(Adichie, 2009)

When we talk about reflecting realities, that is exactly what we mean: tell a variety of stories about a country, community or culture. There has been a lot of criticism around the notion of reflecting learners’ realities, claiming that it is not possible to reflect them all. I agree; it’s not possible to reflect the realities of all learners around the world, but what we can do is tell more than one story.

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

(Adichie, 2009)

Do your research

Before you start writing materials, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I know about this topic, community or culture?
  • What are my beliefs, attitudes and opinions about it?
  • Will they influence my writing angle and if so, in what way?

Make an informed decision about what to include in your materials and remember: no single stories.

Avoid showcasing

Do not put issues such as disability, race, culture, gender or sexual orientation on display as something unusual, as something you don’t see every day, which now has to be discussed. They should be part of the stories we write in our ELT materials, in the images we use and the dialogues we create.

If you want to include a particular character in order to bring in more diversity, that character needs to have a personality and a real purpose for being in your materials. In short, their inclusion needs to have real meaning. Having diverse characters just because we want to discuss a particular issue is what makes us tokenistic in our work. But if we make them real, part of everyday situations that have nothing to do with their race, gender or sexual orientation, then we are moving away from tokenism. Diversity accepts and embraces experiences, difference and struggles, but without making these features the only relevant thing about a character. The most important thing, though, is that this character should not be alone. We need to include a greater number of diverse characters – not just one or two – because that’s what we have in reality.

Create connections

Make characters and texts relevant and relatable. Create connections across a coursebook or a set of materials.

We are writers after all. We’re not writers of grammar and vocabulary exercises only. We are story writers. Make stories real and relatable for the learners. Humanise the characters.

I’ve looked at some of the coursebooks I’m currently using. A name that appears in Module 1 is not mentioned again, at all, not even once. Why? Do we want to teach our learners different names? Why can’t we humanise these names, make them real for the learners?

Recycle names, characters, events and situations. Create stories around them throughout the materials; put them in different situations together. In this way you bring them to life, and they are not just there to illustrate a name from a certain culture or a certain gender. Of course, we cannot do this with every single name in our materials, but we can make at least some of them more real and relatable.

Have a sidekick

Ask a colleague to look at your materials, to try them out and make sure you’re not being tokenistic. You need someone who will tell you, for example, that you have only a couple of images of people of colour or disabled people without any real purpose (which makes them tokenistic) or that you have a situation that encourages bias and prejudice. As a practising teacher, I believe that we need to give teachers a more prominent role in piloting and evaluating ELT materials. They are the ones using the materials and they can be the best judges of what works and what does not work. Although there are focus groups and teachers who pilot materials for publishers, teachers need to be more involved in the materials development process from the very beginning.

In order to avoid tokenism, it is important for all those involved in the ELT publishing industry to educate themselves about diversity and inclusion and what these terms really mean.

We have a long way to go before we see any great changes in our industry; however, I believe that making even the smallest change is already a step in the right direction. And since we are the ones writing the stories, I believe that the change begins with us.

Reference

Adichie, C.N. (2009). The danger of a single story [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

Aleksandra Popovski has an MA in Professional Development in Language Education from the University of Chichester, UK. She is a translator, teacher trainer and invited speaker at international conferences. Her professional memberships include TESOL (US) and IATEFL (UK). She is the current president of ELTAM MK (English Language Teachers’ Association of the Republic of North Macedonia) and Coordinator for the IATEFL Materials Writing SIG.

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