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Journal of Multilingual and

Multicultural Development
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Doing culture, doing race: everyday

discourses of culture and cultural
difference in the English as a second
language classroom

Ena Lee

Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University

Drive, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6 Canada
Published online: 14 Mar 2014.

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To cite this article: Ena Lee (2015) Doing culture, doing race: everyday discourses of culture and
cultural difference in the English as a second language classroom, Journal of Multilingual and
Multicultural Development, 36:1, 80-93, DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2014.892503
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Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 2015

Vol. 36, No. 1, 8093,

Doing culture, doing race: everyday discourses of culture and

cultural difference in the English as a second language classroom

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Ena Lee*
Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S6

While current conceptualisations of the inextricable connection between language and

culture in English language education are largely informed by complex sociocultural
theories that view culture as constructed in and through social practices among people,
classroom practices continue to be influenced by mainstream discourses of culture that
simplistically construct essentialised cultural/racialised identities. This article will present data excerpts from a case study of a Canadian university -based English as a
second language (ESL) programme that specifically emphasised in its pedagogical and
curricular design the significance of learning language through culture and a process
of cultural analysis. In various classrooms observed, however, the programmes
dialogic approach to culture most often manifested as cross/intercultural comparisons
of cultural difference. The potential danger of this pedagogical approach to culture in
the ESL classroom, however, arises with a contextualisation of the English language
in broader identity politics namely, the equating of the English language with
Whiteness where discourses of culture can become a proxy for race. Seemingly
innocuous everyday common-sense discussions of culture in second language
education may thus construct identities in problematic ways. It is therefore imperative
for us to critically reflect on how our pedagogies may be doing race through doing
culture in the ESL classroom.
Keywords: ESL; culture; cultural difference; race; racialisation; identity

We do race, all of us, every day.
The challenge we face now is to learn how to stop doing race. (Moya and Markus 2010, 92)

Interest in and inquiry into the topic of race and racialisation in applied linguistics have
increased since the publication of the 2006 special topics issue of TESOL Quarterly on
Race and TESOL (edited by Ryuko Kubota and Angel Lin), as well as edited books
focusing on race and language education by Curtis and Romney (2006) and Kubota and
Lin (2009). In all of these collected works, race is viewed as a social, rather than a
biological, construction of essences. Race is theorised as a process of meaning making
and identity making that is situated in and manifests through discursive practices. Moya
and Markus (2010) argue that race do[es] important personal and societal work (21).
It is a complex system of ideas and practices regarding how some visible characteristics
of human bodies such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture relate to peoples
2014 Taylor & Francis

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Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development


character, intellectual capacity, and patterns of behavior (22). The concept of racism thus
describes discrimination rooted in the perceived meaning(s) of particular visible
characteristics of human bodies.
It is safe to assume (one hopes) that in the year 2013, few would argue against a call
to end racism. But in actual practice, race, as a set of ideas and practices, is done every
day and can manifest subtly in speech acts of the everyday commonsense; yet, this
everyday talk is oftentimes not associated with or similarly named as racism though
they are rooted in the same discursive process of constructions of identity based on
phenomenology. For example, while research on the native/non-native speaker proliferates in applied linguistics, the research of Amin (1997, 1999) and Shuck (2006) has been
among the very few to disrupt the common-sense linguistic categorisation of the term to
query it, instead, as primarily a racial categorisation. Other supposedly linguistic
phenomena such as Standard English/Standard American (Bonfiglio 2002) and accentedness (Lippi-Green 1997) have been similarly resituated in a discussion of race and
racialisation rather than merely linguistic theory. Race-based theorisations along these
lines, however, do not predominate in our field, and as such the (un)raveling [of] racism
in a nice field like TESOL (Kubota 2002) continues to remain far less common.
Critical questioning of the equating of English with Whiteness can seem particularly
threatening to those deeply invested (and with good intentions) in a field deep-rooted in
historical legacies of the colonial project, but we must be wary of leading ourselves to
believe in the possibility (and the desirability) of divorcing (and/or at least distancing)
ourselves and our practices from this history under the guise of an entering into the post-era
of colonialism. Similarly, liberal discourses of multiculturalism, equality and tolerance such
as those prevalent in the Canadian context of multicultural diversity lull us into complacency
that we have moved away from these dark pasts, but have we genuinely moved to more
critically aware spaces, or have we merely languaged our way out of the shadows of the past
while remaining subject to its discourses and common-sense notions?
In this article, I present data excerpts from case study research of an English as a
second language (ESL) programme located within a post-secondary institution in
multicultural Canada. The programme emphasised the interconnections between the
complex learning of the English language through more deep understandings of a
languages culture (Canadian,1 in this case). This belief about language teaching and
learning manifested in the programmes pedagogical (and philosophical) approach to
English language instruction that emphasised a process-driven critical dialogical approach
to learning language and culture informed specifically by literature from critical theory
and cultural studies (e.g. Freire 1973; Kramsch 1993; Rosaldo 1993, among others)2.
Cultural understanding along these lines was conceptualised as an analytical skill rather
than as discrete cultural facts to be learned. The everyday discourses of culture and
cultural difference as they manifested on the ground of this ESL programme whether it
would be in the classrooms, in the hallways or in the meeting rooms however, entailed a
racialised production of English language student (and teacher) bodies. Discourses of
culture within the programme, at times, thus served as a proxy for the notion of race.
Previous publications (Lee 2008, 2011) based on this case study analysed how Asian
students and an Asian instructor experienced racial discrimination in their everyday
interactions with students, teachers and coworkers at Pacific Universitys ESL
programme.3 In these previous analyses, research participants recounted experiencing
overt racism at the programme specifically attributed to the process of being racialised as
the cultural (and, I argue, racial) Other. In the present article, however, I am interested in


E. Lee

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focusing more closely on how the more seemingly innocuous but, arguably more pernicious due to its subversiveness, everyday common-sense discourses of culture and
cultural difference served to racialise without race (cf. Bonilla-Silva 2010). I hold the
belief that the overt racial discrimination observed in other data excerpts from this case
study was able to manifest in liberal multicultural Canadian ESL classrooms precisely
because of the common-sense racialisations that occurred at the programme on a daily
basis. It is thus in the more complex understandings of how everyday common-sense
discourses of culture, cultural difference and cultural identities are talked into being that
we can see the connections of how doing culture can, in the racialised context of ESL
education, serve to do race.
Doing culture, doing race?
Contemporary antiracist theory highlights how the naming of race is no longer necessary
when talking about race; rather, we do race through our everyday speech and
behaviours a racism without racists, as Bonilla-Silva (2010) compellingly argues.
Markus and Moya (2010) introduce the concept of doing race as follows:
Race is not something that people or groups have or are, but rather a set of actions that
people do. More specifically, race is a dynamic system of historically derived and
institutionalized ideas and practices. Certainly, the process involved in doing race takes
different forms in various times and places. But doing race always involves creating groups
based on perceived physical and behavioral characteristics, associating differential power and
privilege with these characteristics, and then justifying the resulting inequalities. (x, emphasis
in original)

In connection with the doing of race, however, antiracist theorists further posit the
evolution of the notion of culture as a proxy for race (Ladson-Billings 2006; Reiter and
Davis 2011), where race is a metonym for culture; and it does so only at the price of
biologising what is culture or ideology (Appiah, as cited in Gonzlez 2004, 19). By
revealing how the everyday terminology of culture and cultural difference enables an
avoidance of the clearly more controversial terminology of race, these theorists and others
argue that the work of race is able to continue to pervade invisibly in our everyday
classroom discourses.
Kubota and Lin (2009), by the same token, have cautioned that analyses of cultural
difference in the context of second language education can be used to differentiate,
exclude, or privilege certain groups of people. Therefore, issues of culture can be
investigated with the understanding that they are often implicitly and yet profoundly
connected to the idea of race (5, emphasis in original; cf. Ellwood 2009). As such,
I argue that it is in the pervasiveness of the unquestioned everyday talk of culture that
race continues to be produced in ESL classrooms in multicultural Canada. In this vein,
I apply Markus and Moyas (2010) theory of doing race as a relevant heuristic in an
analysis of how we may similarly do culture or cultural difference in the field of TESOL
and how, in an ESL classroom, the doing of culture can inadvertently become a doing
of race.
But in order to more clearly see how discursive processes of doing culture may be
doing race within the specific context of English language education, it is necessary to
review how conceptualisations of culture in applied linguistics have shifted over time and
how these theoretical shifts have (or have not) impacted language classroom practices on
the ground.

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Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development


Culture in language education

Language education has long been interested in investigating the inextricable link
between language and culture and the pedagogical applications of notions of culture in
second language teaching and learning. Although scholars in applied linguistics and other
related fields have long rejected modernist static, monolithic views of culture in favour of
more postmodern views that highlight multiplicity, fluidity and hybridity (e.g. Ilieva
2000, 2001; Kramsch 1993, 1998; Kubota 1999, 2003), such views are not entirely
reflected in actual language-teaching contexts. This is partly due to a practical concern of
instructional strategies for understanding culture of the self and other in language
classrooms. Michael Byram (2008), for instance, argues:
national identities are perceived as linked to if not created by national language and traditions
of teaching have made this assumption. Teachers thus feel most comfortable with the notion
of national cultureeven if they have to be wary of national stereotypesand as long as it is
treated as a starting point that is later problematised, knowledge about a national culture is an
appropriate means to an end. All pedagogy needs simplification, followed by refinement and
complexity. (248, Note 22)

In the late 1990s, Byram introduced intercultural communicative competence (ICC) a

theorisation of culture as it applies to foreign language education. ICCs theorisation of
culture and understanding cultural incompatibilities implicates constructions of culture
in coherent and knowable nation-state identities. The focus on identifiable practices,
perspectives and products of national cultures(s) is envisioned as a means to understand
and empathise with the values of others that are incompatible with ones own (Byram
2008, 69). However, Angouri (2010) warns that a nation-state driven conceptualisation
of culture and cultural identity cannot avoid reducing culture to a set of standardised
commonalities which fails to capture the dynamics of the discursive construction of
national identities (209; see also Dhamoon 2009; Kubota 1999, 2004; Sharma 2008).
Conceptualisations of culture that collapse cultural and racial identity with nation-state
identity reinforce how culture is always associated with borders (Blommaert and
Verschueren 1998, 94, emphasis in original; cf. Holliday 2009, 2010). Thus, we see how
ICCs exploration of fixed nation-state cultures of the self/other through doing culture can
be used to discursively produce, rather than explore and analyse, these cultural borders
and [in]compatibilities.
Furthermore, a pedagogical shift from examinations of national identities to
explorations of cultural complexities may be challenging if there is a significant lack
of understanding or consensus of what culture actually means, how to teach
educators about it, and the ways in which such concepts should be addressed in the
classroom (Reiter and Davis 2011, 41). More importantly, however, there is fundamental
danger for any aspect of education to place primary emphasis on what teachers feel most
comfortable with. In the context of learning about constructions of difference,
Kumashiro (2004, 84) questions how the comfortableness and desire to learn about
differences stem from its allowance for us to continue to focus our gaze on them and
not really change how we think about us. Further, Motha (2006) more generally raises
concerns about the function of discourses of comfort and safety in education, particularly
in relation to addressing issues of racism and oppression, as the consequences of this
teacher comfort may, for example, be the continued doing of race through the more
comfortable means of doing culture in the ESL classroom.

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E. Lee

Despite the critiques articulated above, nation-based understanding of culture is

prevalent in the language classroom (e.g. Menard-Warwick 2008, 2009). As Wilcox
(2007) observes, even in light of recent research pointing to the heterogeneous
and fragmented nature of culture and its relationship to language learning, commonsensical mainstream conceptions continue to inform how teachers and students
negotiate the heteroglossic landscape of the language classroom (280). Hence, while
the significance of culture as well as the will and intention to recognise and respect
the cultures of ESL students may be a pedagogical and philosophical given, what is
less common sense, I would argue, is awareness that the ESL classroom is a site in
which nation-based cultures and racialisation are constructed through doing culture
and doing race. In an ESL programme in multicultural Canada, where a commonsense notion of Canadian culture is inherently connected with Whiteness (Bannerji
2000; Fleming 2003, 2010; Ng 1993), doing culture in the classroom is likely to
become synonymous to drawing a racial line between Whiteness (Canadianness) and
otherness (non-Canadianness).

A dialogic approach to language and culture in a Canadian ESL programme

Research setting
This case study was conducted over the course of one year (four academic semesters of
12 weeks each, spanning from March 2003 to March 2004) at Pacific Universitys ESL
programme, located within the Continuing Studies department of a major Canadian
university. Research participants included three administrative staff, 14 instructors and
87 students. Student participants came from a number of different countries, but reflective
of the overall student population in the programme, the vast majority of the students
participating in my study (over 50%) originated from mainland China. In contrast, all of
the administrative staff and all but three instructors (specifically, one Chinese male, one
Chinese female and one Japanese female) were white.
The programme distinguished itself from other English language programmes by its
openly stated dissatisfaction with traditional ESL pedagogies. Its pedagogy was based
on the belief that knowledge of linguistic structures does not provide language learners
with the skills needed to communicate effectively. The programmes pedagogical
approach recognised that meaning exists not only in a languages words and grammar,
but also in its social and cultural contexts. With this in mind, the belief was that broader
cultural understandings behind language would provide students with the additional
tools needed for communication. The programmes central focus lay in its processdriven critical dialogic approach to a messier analysis of culture along the lines of
Silbersteins (2003) concept of contradiction (328). The research questions thus
looked into how a critical dialogic approach to culture was conceptualised and
negotiated within the programme. I was further interested in investigating the pedagogical possibilities as well as limitations of this conceptualisation of culture in the
ESL classroom.
To initially contextualise the research questions, I analysed programme documents
including marketing materials as well as curricular documents that were the basis for
professional development within the programme.4 One of the latter documents included
an instructor manual, wherein the programmes pedagogical approach was articulated
more in depth:

Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development


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The instructor provides the material/problem and challenges students to find/solve the
problems of meaning or interpretation through dialogue.
Meaning in the target language arises when the students cultural/personal values &
assumptions are acknowledged and appropriately challenged in direct relation to those of
the target culture.
In a dialogic approach, instructors must be open to exploring and challenging their own
values & assumptions. If instructors are not open to doing this, there is the tendency to
infantilize students. In addition, the racism; heterosexism; ablism and classim [sic] we all
filter through goes unexplored and worse yet, is transmitted to students. (instructors manual
04-1, 8)

The above articulation of the programmes target language (i.e. English) and related
target culture (i.e. Canadian culture), however, already indexes nation-state borders and
the cultural incompatibilities that Byram (2008) theorises. Counter to the theoretical
frameworks upon which the programme was supposed to be based (i.e. critical dialogic
inquiry), programme documentation seemed unable to escape the common-sense
discourses of culture it hoped to separate itself from.
Excerpts from classroom observations at Pacific Universitys ESL programme
between three white Canadian instructors and their ESL students (the vast majority of
them, visible minorities) illustrate how culture and cultural identity were thus talked into
being through everyday discourses of cultural difference. Querying the common-sense
discourses of culture as they manifested within the programme simultaneously sheds light
on how culture is done on a daily basis, how natural doing culture can be and how doing
culture can essentialise cultural identities and cultural difference around notions of self
and/versus other in ways that can be analysed simultaneously as doing race.
Problematising everyday discourses of culture and cultural difference
Although the programme espoused a dialogic approach to the analysis of language and
culture, classroom practices often took the form of essentialising processes of cultural
comparison. At the forefront of this comparative inquiry was the identification of cultural
difference between the students cultural groups and, most often, between the cultures
of the students and that of the target language culture (i.e. Canadian culture). Discourses
of Kaplans (1966) much critiqued contrastive rhetoric were used to describe how
students written compositions reflected the Asian way of writing, and discourses of the
cultural expert/ambassador were prominent in processes of cultural inquiry during
classroom discussions (e.g. How does this compare to your country?; Do guys think
like that in your country?; What about in China?; What about in Canada?). The
everyday discourses of cultural inquiry in many of the classrooms I observed were
pervaded by crosscultural reifications of nation-state identities. Of particular importance
to note, however, was that this reification of cultural (and racial) identities was not always
initiated by classroom instructors; rather, even during classroom activities when students
were responsible for facilitating the dialogic inquiry process, reproduction of crosscultural
essentialisations continued to predominate.
Julie, an instructor in the programme, often relied on crosscultural inquiry in the
development of cultural awareness and understanding in her classrooms. Throughout my
observations, however, underlying this line of inquiry was an assumption of difference
that there was an expectation of cultural otherness that would arise through this process of
dialogic cultural inquiry. For example, for her TV News class, pairs of students were
assigned to facilitate class discussions on a Canadian news story of their choosing.

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E. Lee

During one particular classroom observation (12 August 2003), a pair of students chose
to lead a discussion on a TV news clip addressing the Mad Cow scare that had recently
arisen.5 The news clip discussed the impact of Mad Cow on the pricing (both wholesale
and retail costs) of beef and the impact of the scare on international exportations. Along
the lines of the everyday discourses of culture I observed in Julies classroom throughout
the study, one of the student presenters, Rei, a student from Japan, posed the question to
the class, If Canadian government announce the safety of Canadian beef and offer us low
prices, do you think your country should import the Canadian beef?
The languaging of Reis question collapses individual student perspectives as a
representation of homogeneous nation-state sensibilities (i.e. do you think your
country). But as Holliday, Hyde, and Kullman (2004) argue, we need to cease the
process of essentialisation and take what people say about their own culture as a personal
observation which should not be generalised to other people who come from the same
background (48; see also Holliday 2010). Reis perpetuation of a discourse of the
cultural representative became further evident in this classroom interaction when she
noted a lack of response from Tamara, the only other Japanese student (aside from Rei) in
the class of 16 students. Reis observation prompts her to specifically ask, What about
Japan?, a question immediately taken up by Julie, who responds by visibly shifting her
body and gaze towards Tamara to pointedly ask, The representative from Japan? (to
which Tamara begins to stammer, I dont know. Umm), Because you know Japan is
not importing Canadian beef, right? Crosscultural analyses such as that observed in
Julies class, however, highlight how cultural truths can be produced. As Harklau (1999)
when instructors dichotomize culture, they may implicitly suggest that they view American
[or Canadian] cultural perspectives and students cultural perspectives as mutually exclusive.
Furthermore, because of teachers dominant role in the classroom, that implicit view is not
likely to be challenged. Rather, it is likely to be reproduced in the writing of students, who
come to believe that teachers expect them to emphasize the foreign, the different. (117)

I came to question the relationship between this expectation of producing cultural

foreignness with the one-dimensional analyses of culture observed by another instructor,
Rose, who found students unfailingly reproducing cultural essentialisations in their
written work even at the end of semester.
According to Rose, very, very few students by the end of semester at the programme
got it (slim to none were her exact words); rather, she expressed disappointment in the
programmes ability to engage students in a process of cultural analysis where students
could look at comparisons in culture and make sense of it without reverting to
stereotypes. She lamented:
What are we actually doing in terms of discussing cultural difference and getting somewhere
with these discussions? To me, they [students final assignments] showed a sense of the
failure of the program in dealing with these issues. (Rose, Instructor, Interview 22
March 2004)

Harklaus (1999) observation that students may be socialised into the common-sense
discourses of culture espoused by their instructors, however, can serve to complicate
understandings of the phenomena Rose observes. For another possible reading of
students productions of cultural understanding could be that students have come to learn
how culture and cultural analysis is done at Pacific Universitys ESL programme.

Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development


Specifically, crosscultural analyses bear assumptions of often-diametrically opposed

As Blommaert and Verschueren (1998) expand:

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the way in which others are depicted is never to be dissociated from collective or individual
perspectives, influenced or determined by an habitual frame of reference, power relationships, personal stakes and motivations culture is used to explain or justify images of or
opinions on the other which are generated by factors outside the others culture. (16)

The spaces in which we inhabit as well as those who inhabit these spaces with us thus
fundamentally shape how those being ascribed view (or can possibly view) themselves
within these identity creations (Moya and Markus 2010, 19). However, race is
discursively subsumed under discussions of language and culture within the racially
marked space of a Canadian ESL classroom; thus, when normative assumptions of
cultural difference position non-Canadian student identity vis-a-vis Canadian teacher
identity, students quickly come to understand what racialised identities and cultural
characteristics are possible to do/not do.
The way in which culture is languaged in everyday talk does more than merely
describe our understandings about culture it concomitantly produces culture (Gonzlez
2004, 22) and by extension race. The common-sense constructions of culture in Pacific
University classrooms talk cultural difference into being, further objectifying the other
(Kumashiro 2004, 83), and this repetition of the production of difference reinforces the
normative doing of racialised bodies and scripts within its spaces.
Producing racialised identities through everyday discourses of culture
In another classroom observed, Monique, a critical reading and writing instructor, asked
students to introduce their final essay topic to their classmates in the form of an oral
presentation. By presenting their argumentative strategy for their essay as a work-inprogress, the intention was for each student to receive feedback to help them assess the
overall viability of their topic, clarity of their thesis statement and quality of their
arguments. This process would help students improve upon their final paper and provide
them with an opportunity to practise their peer feedback skills as well as presentation
skills. Judy, a student from Japan, revealed to her peers that the recent loss of her pet prior
to her arrival in Canada led to her interest in the essay topic of pet loss. MuYun, a student
from China, and Jean Phillipe, a white student from France, attempt to engage Judy in
a discussion of the small cultures of pet loss, but Moniques facilitation appears to
conceptualise the culture of pet loss alternatively:


Im going to write about, uh, how do people cope with pet loss. And
my statement, uh, is it could be possible to forget it. But I think its still

So, Judy, you feel like your thesis statement is too general. Does anybody else
have any suggestions about how she could make it more specific, or?

I think, uh, the pet loss for Canadian is there are, like, two kind of people. One is
treat their cat like a, like a person. A human. And maybe it have some ill or too
old, so they dont want their, like, die or, like, hurt or something, and then they
put it in sleep. Some people just like, uh, like a chore, like a body and you keep
it and you help it. But one day, maybe you cant keep it, you just put it to sleep.


E. Lee

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So youre saying that some Canadians have two different attitudes about pets.

You can compare these two or found, uh, which way should we really choose
or, like, treat your pet.
Okay. So maybe we can pick up on what MuYun is suggesting a little bit, and,
and Judy, you might want to talk about the cultural differences.
Oh, but, I, I think there is, um, there is not much cultural differences and that
people are
between Japanese or any other countries.
The feelings are the same
Do you think thats an issue worth exploring? If the feelings are the same, if
people treat their pets the same throughout different cultures, or do you think
thats, thats too self-evident?

Jean Phillipe: I think she, um, I do not agree if she do like you said.
Why not?
Jean Phillipe: Because its not the topic. Its not this topic. Its not about country, just about
the feeling. I think maybe its about
How can you
Jean Phillipe: what, what
Jean Phillipe: kind of relationship or what kind of thing dogs can bring you in your life.
And after, you can have a conclusion about if you loss, its can be
Do you think its the same in every culture?
(Monique, Critical Reading and Writing, 21 August 2003)

When the suggestion is made by Monique (and, initially, MuYun, a student from
mainland China) to turn the lens of analysis on cultural differences regarding pet loss,
Judy appears clearly confused by this essentialisation of her argument. As a result, she
questions (albeit hesitantly) the proposed shift in her focus, unconvinced that this is the
most fruitful direction for her intended argument. The process through which the topic of
pet loss was culturally appropriated (cultural difference, different cultures, same in
every culture) and subsequently retranslated by Monique was counter to the direction of
Judys desired argumentation, which was, in part, to speak of the universality of grief
surrounding pet loss among pet owners regardless of culture. In asking whether it would
be possible for people to forget the loss of their pet, Judy seems to want to imply not only
that the process is an emotionally difficult one, but also that the process applies to anyone
who has ever experienced pet loss (i.e. not just to pet owners in Japan or to those in
Canada, etc.). The proposed shift in discourse from the universality of pet loss to a
nation-state conceptualisation subsequently prompts Jean Phillipe, a student from France,
to openly challenge the need to essentialise feelings of pet loss as geographically bound
(Its not about country). Instead, Judy, MuYun and Jean Phillipe seek to identify the
small cultures of pet loss, rather than a unified account of large national culture
(Holliday 1999, 2009), in their critical cultural analysis association with these small
cultures enabled them to transcend national culture differences (Holliday 2009, 147).
The agency to transcend constructions of difference, however, was made challenging
by Monique within the above excerpt as the repeated common-sense discourse that
behaviours were situated in nation-state identities served to reproduce the discursive
strength of cultural incompatibilities (cf. Byrams ICC) and the impermeability of cultural

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Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development


borders. Students identities were discursively constructed vis-a-vis the (white) Canadian
imaginary, and the strength of discourses of difference made alternate identity positioning
unavailable. Thus, from both of the above classroom excerpts, it could be argued that
inhabitable identities within the programmes everyday discourses of culture and cultural
difference were synonymous with the performativity of Asian otherness.
Central to Butlers (1990, 1993) theory of performativity is the constitution of identity
through the socially constructed doing (rather than an essentialised being) of identities.
Specific to her theorisation, Butler addresses how gender is talked into being over time and
is performed according to the discourses which pre-existed prior to ones performance of
them. Normalisation of this gendered identity gains traction through the repetition of the
performance. Cameron (1995) has argued, however, that aside from gender:
we could substitute any apparently fixed and substantive social identity label what Butler
is saying is that such social identities do not simply exist (they only have the appearance of
substance); rather they are brought into being when social actors repeatedly perform
them. (16)

Doing culture and doing race, therefore, may be analysed through the same performative
lenses as doing gender, and for this reason, Butlers theory of performativity offers
important insights into the production of race through everyday discourses of culture and
cultural difference in the ESL classroom.
Dervin (2010) cautions that if we are to understand culture as socially constructed and
performed within spaces of unequal power, any declaration of cultural truism should be
viewed with caution. In the case of Pacific Universitys ESL programme, for example, it
could be argued that students were socialised into the performance of other through
internalisations of nationalist and inherently racialised conceptualisations of
difference. The notion of socialisation into the discourse of Asian otherness is important
to consider in the light of Butlers (1990) emphasis on the importance of repetition in
construction of identity and performativity. She highlights that gender is the repeated
stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that
congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being (33).
Discursive interactions in ESL classrooms such as those observed in my case study create
the identity of the Asian other, where a student becomes the cultural and racial other
through the repeated stylisation and talking into being of cultural difference or otherness.
As Cameron (1995) explains, the repetition is necessary to sustain the identity, precisely
because it does not exist outside the acts that constitute it (17). Thus, repetition of
discourses of the cultural other (i.e. students cultural/racial identities vis--vis that of
their white, Canadian instructors) through everyday culture talk reinforces the strength
of these identities. And within the context of this multicultural Canadian ESL
programme, generally, because everyday talk about culture was based on the distinctions
between the students cultures and Canadian culture, the subtleness of everyday
culture talk within the programme indexicalised racial otherness every day in ways that
were not always subtle (see, for example, my previous publications based on this case
study that discuss racial tensions between students and teachers at the programme as well
as between White and visible minority teaching staff themselves).
It is in the interest of maintaining relational power and positionalities that possibilities
of performance do not exist unrestrictedly; there are codes which define what is
intelligible, acceptable and normal: individuals transgress those codes at their peril
(Cameron 1995, 16). It is important to also consider, however, that discursive formations

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E. Lee

make it difficult for individuals to think outside of them; hence they are also exercises in
power and control (Kumaravadivelu 1999, 460). Thus, when Pacific University ESL
students continue to reproduce essentialised identity constructions within their writing (as
Rose found) or within everyday classroom discourses (e.g. Reis repetition of discourses
of the cultural expert), this reproduction can be emblematic of how repeated stylisation of
identity of a cultural and racial other may lead ESL students to believe in (and occupy)
the truth of this stylisation, making it difficult for them to imagine other possibilities of
being within the context of English language education. As Ellwoods (2009) case study
research conducted within a college-level ESL programme in Australia similarly found,
both teachers and students reproduced discourses of cultural identity: teachers
recognized students and students recognized themselves through familiar common-sense representations (112).
Doing culture and cultural difference differently in the ESL classroom
In Pacific University ESL classrooms, student and teacher identities were constituted
through the discursive practices of culture as it related to language learning in an ESL
classroom in multicultural Canada. The implicit intersection of the English language with
Whiteness served to conceal the discourses of race and racialisation that populate
discourses of language and culture. Thus, while the programmes pedagogical approach
sought to complicate common-sense discourses of culture through a process of dialogic
inquiry, the power of everyday talk about culture proved difficult to escape.
Markus and Moyas (2010) theorisation of doing race challenges educators to
recognise that:
Race is a widespread system of social interactions involving everyone race doesnt require
racism. Even people without racist thoughts or feelings will participate in the process of
doing race just by being part of a society that is organized according to race. Understanding
race as a system of everyday practices in which we are all implicated allows insight into how
our own actions might inadvertently support practices or institutions that perpetuate racial
inequality. Further, it allows for the realization that individuals and society together construct
and give meaning to human differences. (xi)

Recognising that racialisation is not about individuals nor individual action and that
discourse both describes as well as produces meaning and human (inter)action situates the
analysis of doing culture in the ESL classroom in more complex ways. It assists us in
recognising how the languaging involved in the commonsense discourses of culture in the
racialised context of English language education can become a form of everyday cultural
(and casual) racialisation. Doing culture in teaching ESL is often doing race in a colorblind manner, perpetuating cultural and racial essentialism, incompatibility, and inequalities.
Markus and Moya (2010) are hopeful about systemic change as they recognise that
since difference-construction and meaning-making are human projects, we should be
able to do them differently (xi). Language educators must be acutely aware of the
challenges of talking about culture in a way that does not reinscribe race and understand
that the pedagogical and ideological complexity of this issue cannot be resolved by
language teaching recipes or special vocabulary or ESL phrase books. The examples of
the common-sense discourses of culture discussed here illustrate clearly why language
educators must move beyond the notion of comfort in language praxis. ESL is situated in
discourses of race and racialisation, and doing culture within this context may
inadvertently be a means through which we do race. However, it is not enough to

Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development


simply disrupt discourses that serve to oppress and marginalise; rather, there is a
fundamental need for language educators to critically analyse and question how culture
and cultural difference are constructed and constituted through our everyday race talk
even in multicultural Canada.

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This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
[grant number 752-2004-2133 04].



I place Canadian in parentheses in recognition of the challenges posed by the term

Canadian culture challenges that will be discussed as the article progresses. Additionally,
however, I highlight the term and its usage here in quotations as this resonates with how the
notion of culture was languaged in the everyday discourses of Pacific Universitys ESL
These were some of the theorists cited in the ESL programmes professional development and
curricular documents.
The names of the university, ESL programme and all research participants are pseudonyms.
Other research data collected included questionnaires, staff meeting observations, student
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