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Racism in International Schools: Let’s Start Educating Parents

By Heidi Dyck Hilty
Racism in International Schools: Let’s Start Educating Parents

Include parents in diversity and inclusion education. Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash.

Racism in international schools sounds like a misquote. There can’t be racism in international schools; it goes against everything we’re supposed to believe in, against everything we say we promote.

Hiring policies include non-discrimination paragraphs stating that hiring is done without bias towards race, color, country of origin, and the list continues. In various mission statements of international schools, we use language such as:

· embracing and celebrating diversity 
· global citizenship 
· adaptable and empathetic 
· international 
· inclusive 
· respecting differences 

These are indeed noble and essential traits to teach our children. So how are students expected to learn this if our faculty and staff have a clear pecking order? 

Of course, this is not always the case, and there are schools doing an excellent and intentional job of diversity and inclusion. At the age of eight I moved to an international school in Botswana and in typical international school fashion, there was a revolving door of teachers. Throughout my primary and secondary years, I had a Motswana for Chemistry, a South African for English, an Indian for Biology, a Dutch for French class, an Irish for Math, a British for Physical Education, and American for History. I consider myself fortunate! 

But more typical is this scenario: the host country nationals serve as the support staff, teaching assistants, custodians, and on occasion the national language teacher or PE teacher. And the main faculty—the “core” teachers—are predominantly white teachers from England and North America (USA and Canada), with a token Australian or New Zealander on a good day.

As many journals have already noted, our hiring practices need a massive overhaul. But I also believe that our education system must change in order to give students, indeed all of us, the attributes we claim as our mission, vision, and core values. And this starts with educating all of our stakeholders, including—and especially—the parents. 

In my own experience, I have seen parents walk their children out of a classroom on the first day of school when they saw that the teacher was Filipina. Another family corralled other parents to complain to the superintendent because the classroom teacher was of Vietnamese origin. What they didn’t take the time to find out was that she was actually second-generation Canadian, complete with a Canadian accent.

I had a parent tell me that two people of different nationalities couldn’t be true friends. There were parents who didn’t want an Indian to teach the English class, despite the teacher having been educated in the United States. I have heard administrators tell their staff to change their names if their names were too “ethnic,” and to learn how to speak without an accent. This is unacceptable and indeed, shameful.

Claiming that our students need to learn correct English is the reason for hiring British and North American faculty doesn’t even begin to touch our mission and vision statements. Exactly how can we teach students to celebrate diversity when there is no one who is “diverse” around them? How do they learn global citizenship and what it means to be adaptable when they can only understand one English accent? Isn’t part of being adaptable the ability to understand different accents, and to understand seamlessly that “tap,” “faucet,” and “spigot,” mean essentially the same thing? When did the move happen from saying that someone has such a “cute accent,” to “but I don’t want my child to hear it”?

Teacher orientations and professional development usually include some seminars on cultural awareness and diversity (such as BaFa’ BaFa’), however, these are rarely included in parent workshops, which tend to focus on academic programming, how to support the English language learners, and upcoming field trips.

Workshops that educate parents on the need for and the positive impact of diversity are sorely lacking. Education and information on these aspects of our international schools should be part and parcel of parent participation. This is not a one-time workshop. It is not a box to be ticked. It goes so much further than parent participation in International Day with flags and food and national dress. Continuing education for parents is vital and must continue every year. I believe parent attendance should be mandatory in at least one diversity workshop in order for their student to join the school. Additionally, parents need to see this diversity in evidence. 

We rely on parents to chaperone field trips, read to students, and run fundraisers. They support our academic programs, run co-curricular activities and head up parent/teacher organizations. 

The definition of an international school is not limited to simply having an international staff. We cannot exclude parents from the most basic, obvious, and natural facet of being an international school, which is that of a multinational, multiracial staff. 
If we practice what we preach, celebrating diversity, respecting differences, and becoming adaptable and compassionate global citizens must include educating parents on what it means to be a part of an international school. Parents must be informed that hiring practices match the mission and the hiring policy of non-discrimination. They must accept and support the changes in schools that actively hire diverse faculty and staff, no matter the accent or colour. I believe it is our responsibility and privilege to educate and involve parents so that we ALL can “be the change we want to see in the world.”

Heidi is co-founder of Rendezvous Education Partners and has worked as a teacher and administrator in international schools for 16 years.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


11/04/2023 - John
Yes, yes, yes, because international schools are not really "international" and "global" as they claim. They tend to focus on Eurocentrism and white centrism. Essentially, white supremacy becomes entrenched in the students' lives from a young age until the end of high school. There is a lack of anti-racism, discussions on white privilege, and non-Eurocentric history classes. In some countries, they allocate as little as 10-20% to local content simply because they don't teach in English, and the teaching staff is predominantly white
02/26/2022 - Evelyn
In the Asian country where I’m at, even when a local is hired as a teacher at an international school, he/she will receive lower pay and different benefits from the foreigner teachers. I, who is of Asian nationality, speaks fluent English and graduated from an Ivy League, had considered being an international school teacher. However, upon learning about the racial discrimination because of my nationality and the color of my skin, I decided to not pursue this career as I did not want to be in such system. The international school system is indeed hypocritical.
01/30/2022 - International School Parent
I have two children who have been in a International School for the past 3 years. We have been racially profiled. My son is the only African American and he feels constant pressure to “fit in”. The teachers and parents are not comfortable with diversity. And my son can feel the tension some days especially in history when the lesson is about slavery. But they do not celebrate are do anything for Black History Month which is baffling to me at a international school. I recently met with the principal for the 3rd time about comments being made to my children. I’m trying to find ways to help educate them and this article was PHENOMENAL! Articulated perfectly.
06/19/2021 - Abdul
I'm a British school teacher of a mixed race background. I was born and raised in England. I experienced racism on multiple occasions whilst teaching abroad. I once arrived at an international school and on my first day I discovered that they had changed my name to James as that sounded more British. My white colleagues were often treated superior simply based on their skin colour. At no point, did the white management team step in and try to change these practices. They were okay with the status quo because it served them well. Unfortunately, racism is very common when teaching abroad. I've worked in a few countries and spoken with countless non white teachers. I wish my white colleagues who are often exclusively in positions of power and influence to deeply reflect and do the right thing.
07/24/2020 - Essy Favour
This is well said.
It is worth worth sharing with open-minded colleagues.
Indeed how can we teach our students about cultural diversity if we don't practise it? How best can they embrace CD If they don't see it in their school??

Let us, indeed, involve parents in this very important matter.
07/20/2020 - Elizabeth
Unfortunately some stakeholders are unwilling to change the staus quo because it benefits them. Thanks for sharing these heartfelt words which cut down to the nitty gritty of what needs to happen.
07/19/2020 - Francis
Spot on. Let us get the parents well informed on these aspects. If a school does a good job educating the parents and stands their ground, parents will see the point.
07/17/2020 - Sheila Lewis
I could imagine you speak those words.How sad but true each word penned down!
Truly your global experience speaks ur mind out their this article.

I'm going to share it with my friends.



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