Tutoring While Not-white

Pixelated image of students discussing
Image Credit: Graphic Design by Joe Arton

In this post, Aerin Lai a PhD student at the department of Sociology, describes their experience of becoming a tutor and how this informed their thinking around the need for more caution in the kinds of comparisons we use in our teaching…


Becoming a tutor marked a significant step in my PhD journey. This semester, among the uncertainties that the Covid-19 pandemic brought, I had my first foray into tutoring. As an Asian woman, wrapping myself with the privilege of being a ‘native English speaker’ enables me to even out the differences between me and the (white) Other, of whom I assume most of my first year undergraduate students are. I have had the privilege to forget that perhaps, my students were indeed wondering where I learnt my English. Unexpectedly (or perhaps more seasoned tutors would have foreseen this), my difference was most viscerally experienced when I was assessing my student’s essays.

Their essays revealed the deep-seated knowledge shaped by colonial relations of power and interactions, through the ways students commonly positioned themselves as ‘us Westerners’ in opposition to ‘the others’, the ‘rest of them’. This was hardly surprising, considering the genealogy of anthropology and sociology and their roots in colonialism and the Enlightenment movement. For example, one can trace the perception and treatment of Commonwealth citizens in the UK to Malinowski’s writings on ‘native Africans’ (see Robbie Shilliam’s illuminating lecture with Race.Ed).

However, as I bring up this problem to students in their feedback—the problems that underlie the use of certain terms, such as ‘the Occident’ and ‘our western society’ (italics my own), without further reference or substantiation, it quickly became clear to me that this was not a straightforward imposition of colonial forms of knowledge in the classroom (well, nothing is hardly ever straightforward).

Many students, who have been brought up in a world praising diversity and multiculturalism, present their arguments through comparisons between ‘Western culture’ and that of another country ‘outside the West’, as something that is fundamentally different. That difference is presented to students in ways that dehistoricise and decontextualize both former and latter. In multicultural speak, difference is good. Diversity in faces and skin colours signify the progressiveness and modernity of a civilisation. This explains the scramble within institutions to hire token non-white persons to ‘colour’ the office landscape. That difference, necessarily born out of differential power dynamics and particular histories that are necessarily relational to other histories, remains unspoken or unrecognised. Students are not taught early on in their lives to scrutinise the valorisation of said difference and connect the dots between this sterile difference and the exoticisation of ‘the Rest’.

Students also portray the West in an eerily similar fashion, their identities as ‘Westerners’ subsumed into this larger monolith that is just as flat and homogenous as ‘the Rest’. What about the working-class communities who are ‘white’ and ‘western’ but surely not quite fitting within this larger narrative of modernity and affluence? What about religious / sexual / ethnic minorities? They are on the receiving end of the exoticising process – where they are made different in other ways, they are not a culture to be consumed (unlike Thai food or cherry blossom flavoured perfume that transports one to mythical Japan), but to be mocked and vilified in mainstream media.

I sought to provide feedback to my students, to point out the fallacies in this dichotomy between ‘us-West’ and ‘them-Rest’. Yet, I found myself ramming head-on into another ‘whitewashed’ wall. My students pointed out that they got their ideas from lectures and readings and as a PhD student (bottom of the academic ladder), I found it difficult to challenge the lectures, which I saw was the cement that flattened out and concealed any unevenness in the racialised ground.

I relate this to the growing calls for decolonising the academy and the many other ‘isms’ one can think of – these calls, I imagine, resonating from a red propaganda speaker, repetitive and absent of substance. To my mind, decolonisation is not an abstract process that translates into reality, a mere replacement of ‘whiteness’, a culling of white authors from our reading lists (though undeniably more could be done in this respect). It is an active contestation of the natural referent that is ‘white bourgeois masculine West’ as the invisible ground upon which we lay our wares. This means, perhaps more caution in the kinds of comparisons we use in our teachings, where instead of pitting ‘the West’ against these ‘fascinating’ other-cultures, we turn our lens to within the region. We compare the UK with Germany for example, or the Scots with the English. Or we could highlight the interconnectedness between Singapore and Britain, we trace the histories that connects seemingly disparate regions as a way to illustrate relationality rather than to contrast.


Pixelated image of students discussingAerin Lai

Aerin Lai is a PhD student at the department of Sociology, whose research looks at masculinities in Singapore, through a postcolonial intersectional lens. They are a massive lover of dogs.

You can find them on twitter @dyspen and their ramblings on dontmodernise.wordpress.com

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