Between Privileges and Precariousness: Remaking Whiteness in China’s Teaching English as a Second Language Industry

Research Highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021) Between Privileges and Precariousness: Remaking Whiteness in China’s Teaching English as a Second Language industry. American Anthropologist, n/a(n/a). https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13657

This research examines the multiple and contradictory racialization of white identities in China’s booming ESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) industry. China represents a new geography of whiteness studies beyond Euro-America due to the transformation of corporeal whiteness into a minority identity as a result of international migration. This research makes distinctions between white privilege as a form of structural domination in western societies and white skin privilege as a form of embodied racial capital in China, which can be easily transformed into white skin vulnerability. It interprets the tension between white skin privilege and precariousness as a concurrent and mutually constitutive process that foregrounds the open-ended nature of white racial formation in China. By focusing on the intersections between global white supremacist ideologies and local Chinese constructions of self/other relations, this project explores new forms of racialization beyond the black/white, superiority/inferiority binaries in the western context.

The rise of China as a global superpower has generated abundant debates in western media, which contribute to the “China threat” discourse in the political, economic, and security domains (Jacques 2009; Xie & Page 2010). However, little attention has been paid to the racial implications of shifting power relations between China and the West. Existing literature on international migrants in China mainly focuses on black Africans in Guangzhou (Bodomo 2012; Haugen 2012; Lan 2017; Mathews 2017). The relative absence of whites in migration studies literature points to the racialization of “migrant” as a category reserved mainly for non-white people (Lundström 2017). This research denaturalizes whiteness as an invisible norm by rethinking it in a context of international labor migration and cross-cultural interaction. China represents a space of rupture where white skin can be decoupled from white hegemony due to the transformation of corporeal whiteness into a minority identity. Since mainland China was never fully colonized by any single western power, there is no historical legacy of an institutionalized structure to support white supremacy. Rather than commanding institutional power, corporeal whiteness is often conflated with foreignness and subjected to the disciplinary power of multiple Chinese gazes. By critically interrogating China’s role in contributing to the reconfiguration of whiteness, this research sheds light on the intricate yet contentious ways that white supremacy may reproduce itself, albeit in distorted and fragmentary manners, in multiple social and cultural contexts.

The social construction of whiteness in China is mediated by multiple and intersecting factors, which both obscure and intensify the racialized nature of white identities. Indigenous distinctions between Chinese and non-Chinese became institutionalized in the state’s waishi (foreign affairs) policy, which contributed to the conflation of whiteness, westernness and foreignness. The elastic meanings of “foreigner” often hide the racialization of white identity due to the latter’s unmarked status within the foreign category. Although the vulnerabilities experienced by white migrants in China’s ESL sector are also faced by non-white migrants, there is a certain degree of flexibility in the white experiences that is absent from that of non-white migrants. That is, the flexibility to move between markedness and unmarkedness, between different categories such as “foreigners”, “native speakers,” and “westerners.” This research interprets the tension between white skin privilege and precariousness as a concurrent and mutually constitutive process that foregrounds the open-ended nature of white racial formation in China. The racialization of native English speakers as white may lead to unethical hiring practices which facilitate the hierarchical ranking of different groups of white migrants. Although white teachers may enjoy preferential treatment over non-white teachers in finding employment, white skin privilege cannot shield them from state immigration control and workplace exploitation. The fetishization and depreciation of white bodies often go hand in hand due to the commodification of whiteness in the profit-driven ESL industry.        

The slippery boundaries between white skin privilege and precariousness indicate the possibility for some white English teachers to degrade from professional talents to low-skilled migrants with dubious legal status. Recalling Cezard’s artistic portrayal of low-skilled white migrants in China at the beginning of this article, it seems that one no longer needs to wait until 2050 for that to happen. In addition to white face jobs in the ESL sector, the rise of white monkey jobs, where white bodies are reduced to a spectacle for curious Chinese gazes in provincial Chinese cities, presents another example of new types of precarious whiteness in China’s stratified labor market for “foreigners” (Toropov 2019). However, instead of reading these as symbols of the crisis of white identity, which presumes white domination as the norm, I interpret the Chinese case as contributing to the fragmentation and pluralization of whiteness in a global context. While stratification in white identities may lead to the emergence of multiple versions of whiteness, of which the precarious white English teacher is just one example, it should not hinder us from interrogating the persistence of white supremacy as a global power system.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.

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