Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The authenticity trap

Whenever I go to Japanese restaurants outside Japan, I'm always a bit annoyed to find they're entirely staffed by Chinese people. After spending years in Japan, I'd quite like authentic sushi lovingly crafted by authentic Japanese hands. Anything else is cultural appropriation, right?(I kid, but only a bit.)


Authenticity in an age of mass production is a valuable commodity. It also forms part of the communicative ideal of language teaching. We all like authenticity, but isn't it just discrimination to want Mexicans staffing my Mexican restaurant? Can't the Taiwanese or Japanese produce Whiskey just as well as Scots and Irish?




I'm sure a Mexican woman could make sushi just as well as any Japanese man. There's no logical reason this couldn't be the case. But there is something undeniably attractive about the idea that you're getting the 'real deal' -as fictional as that authenticity might turn out to be. 

This is one of the reasons I'm a little wary of shouting ‘racist’ at someone who expresses a preference for native speaker teachers. I can't help but wonder about my Chinese students. Arriving in Leicester, the first UK city to have a white minority, after being brought up on images of a fictional white Britain often leads to ignorant questions like 'where are all the British people?' For these students having possibly their first foreign experience, 'white' possibly equates to 'authentic'. 

This notion is backed up by research. Kiczkowiak points out, that often 'non-white native speaker teachers are rated less favourably on their pronunciation and teaching skills' than white NS teachers. What isn't always mentioned as much, is the flip side of this. I've noticed that white NNS may be given a pass by students.Their whiteness seemingly being enough to be deemed ‘authentic’.

'Native looking'
Kind hearted and loving



The notion that 'white' means 'authentic' is as silly as thinking someone Japanese will somehow be better at making sushi or Chinese people will be Kung Fu experts. Yet, the authenticity illusion is seductive. Even Kiczkowiak, known for his admirable work on NNS discrimination doesn't challenge it when it is presented in the right way. In a podcast episode his co-host and he, discussed the merits of retaining one’s accent when speaking a foreign language:
R: if I pick up the phone and someone's trying to sell me wine and they have a French accent immediately they're going to be much more credible, I'm going to believe that they know their wine, the wine that they're selling me is of a good quality because of our association between good wine and France...if you have a student in your class is going to be doing a job like that you're actually having a negative effect on their sales figures...and if you're a professor of ancient Rome and do you have an Italian accent that's going to be a really positive thing people are going to saying oh this person is from Rome...it's more believable that they know about this particular subject. (source
As I noted earlier, I think these associations are real, and part of the shortcuts brains employ to save energy. Want to know about wine? Ask a French person! Want to get great Sushi? Find someone from Japan. Want to Learn English? -fill in the mental shortcut students have for English speakers. That these stereotypes exist is undeniable. But as with all kinds of mental biases, we get smarter when we learn to recognise and discard them.