BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Discovering My Voice as a BIPOC Leader Within the International Community

By Juan Jacobs Sheblak
Discovering My Voice as a BIPOC Leader Within the International Community

As a person of color who grew up in South Africa during apartheid, I understand how discrimination and racism can be hurtful. I come from a lower, middle-class background and acknowledge that there are many who have experienced much worse than me. I recall how a backhanded compliment affected me deeply, although it took me some time to understand why. The comment was rooted in the truth that, according to Western, white standards, I am perceived as "good" or "better." I tend to dress like a middle-class professional and speak in a way that demonstrates my assimilation into white, mainstream society. For example, I use phrases like "manner of speech." However, this assimilation does not shield me from experiencing discrimination and racism.

As with many others, I have come to understand that no amount of assimilation can shield me from racism. Despite my efforts to fit in, there has always been something about me - perhaps my "attitude" - that marks me as inferior and subjects me to ridicule, humiliation, or ostracism. From a young age, I have had a distinct impression that white South Africa did not accept or value me.

During my youth and young adulthood, I was deeply immersed in civil resistance, disobedience, and activism as part of the anti-apartheid movement. I held a strong belief in the importance of bringing about change and addressing social injustices in our country. This journey was rife with challenges and risks, but I remained steadfast in my conviction that change would happen within my lifetime. Despite having a free election and abolishing apartheid in our policies and legislation, the daunting task of changing hearts has only just begun and continues to persist to this day.

As I matured, I became increasingly aware of the pervasive nature of racism and homophobia in everyday life. I grew accustomed to anticipating discrimination in the wider world and developed a constant, vigilant determination to protect myself from it. My focus was on obtaining a good education, securing job opportunities, and, most importantly, navigating institutionalized racism. Whenever I passed a police car, my family would drill me on what to do if an officer stopped me. We would reluctantly recite what we were told, "Maintain eye contact, stand up straight, speak only when spoken to, and avoid sudden movements."

One particular instance that remains etched in my memory is when a white South African told me that it was time to move on from apartheid. This statement served as a stark reminder that apartheid was a system of deprivation, denial, and death. It was an oppressive system that stripped Black people of everything that resembled life. Sadly, echoes of this sentiment still persist today, with some claiming that racism does not exist in international school communities or that we should move on from the oppression perpetuated by white supremacist institutions.

For me, this struggle is reflected in the fight for a seat at the table and the importance of having an equal voice once we are there. It is evident in our responsibility to our mothers and fathers, who were denied equal opportunities to build successful careers due to institutionalized racism. The sense of inferiority that we feel is a constant reminder of the uphill battle we face in the fight for true equality.

Moving forward to my experience of joining the international school community, I came to realize that I had developed a survival strategy to make myself as non-threatening as possible. I became so adept at avoiding offending white people that I stopped feeling outraged by them, even when they were directly insulting me. I learned how to enter a school, make eye contact with someone who worked there or a parent, smile, and say hello, as if to convey the message, "Don't worry, I'm not trying to offend you."

However, this survival strategy came at a cost. It required me to suppress my true feelings and emotions, which left me feeling drained and exhausted. I continued to navigate international communities that often viewed local communities as inferior, perpetuating the cycle of discrimination and racism. It was only when I found a community where my voice was heard and valued that I felt empowered to speak my truth and share my experiences.

The "color-blind" narrative is a pervasive belief that race should not be a factor, which leads to policies designed to address racial inequalities, people who consider race important, and any racial group's desire to maintain a unique racial identity being labeled as "racist" or "playing the race card." Even when the topic of race is broached, we often try to evade the pain, hurt, and trauma that come with it. However, we cannot afford to simply move on from years of oppression; we do not have the luxury of forgetting.

There are numerous websites and sources that showcase the pain experienced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) individuals. With our trauma being put on display for the world to witness in an attempt at growth, how can we possibly move beyond racism and oppression when it continues to haunt us in so many vivid ways? My country's experience has taught me not to hold onto the trauma of the past, but that does not mean I should forget it.

One process that stands out to me as a means of healing a country is the “Truth and Reconciliation” process. This involves hearing the grievances of the past, holding people accountable, and working towards a future where healing is the primary focus. It is only by acknowledging our past and working towards a better future that we can hope to move beyond the pain and trauma of racism and oppression.

Undeniably, I feel apprehensive about transforming silence into language and action because it requires self-revelation, which always seems to carry uncertainty and isolation. This journey is often impeded by barriers of contempt, censure, judgment, or challenge. However, telling our stories provides visibility, exposing us to the harsh light of scrutiny, perhaps judgment, and pain. Nevertheless, we must remember that we have lived through these experiences. To begin the healing process, we must share our truths and recount the experiences of hurt.

Finding one's community in the international school can be daunting, but I have managed to find mine. I have found a place where my voice is heard and valued, where my experiences and insights are honored. It is a place that inspires me to continue doing the important work, no matter how challenging it may be. By sharing our stories and creating inclusive communities, we can work towards a future where everyone's voice is heard and valued.


Juan Jacobs Sheblak is the Deputy Secondary Principal at UNIS Hanoi.

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


11/04/2023 - Stacey
Thank you for sharing your insight. Unfortunately your path is a path that most people of color have experienced and continue to experience in the international school community. Whether it be as a student, parent , teacher or staff member what you described is true for all of us. Although some international learning communities and leaders of these institutions truly want to have an open dialog about racial equity and inclusive diversity practices, many international educational institutions continue to interact with and treat their colleagues from diverse backgrounds and racial groups with a backwards thinking colonial style requiring BIPOC to jump through bureaucratic hoops that their white peers have never seen nor experienced. Thank you for sharing this on an international educational platform that will hopefully be read and provide thought for members of the internal school communities.
10/26/2023 - Flora McCoy-Greene
Juan, this is a powerful article and I hope many people in the international school arena read it and learn from it. As a former international educator who is a person of color, I had to address instances of racism by directed toward students at two schools. At each school administrators and teachers wanted to ignore the situations, however I shared my story which paved the way for intervening on behalf of the victimized students.