“We’re so surprised! You are also competent in this field!”

Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of  how the phenomena of implicit bias/stereotype threat affect me more professionally because of my nationality (I’m not from an English speaking country) than any other identity. I never felt discriminated against in my own country when I was a graduate student there, nor  did I feel insecure or threatened in any way for the years I was back as a post-doc. But I’ve had very awkward experiences mostly with North-American academics.
– I was once at a workshop in my home country where most speakers were invited North-American academics, mostly from a prestigious American university. There were also academics from other universities, but their names were indicated by the main Professor of the prestigious university attending the workshop. All their expenses were paid by the local organizers. This was a common practice up to the recent austerity policies adopted in most of Europe. There was a French Canadian speaker giving a talk. I corrected the speaker’s English once, when the person made a very blatant mistake. The speaker said: “I can’t believe I’m being corrected by a …[my nationality was mentioned]”.
– on that same occasion, another very lively speaker tried to show his gratitude for the invitation, but ended up saying: “We just thought we were going to come here (such a nice place in the world to visit), see each other and give our talks, but we’re so surprised! You are also competent in this field!” Speaker did not realize awkwardness.     Continue reading

Being a foreigner in your own country

I am half Turkish-Dutch and born and raised in the Netherlands, so I never really had problems with the Dutch language nor its culture. Once I worked as a Junior-lecturer at an University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Once I arrived in the department, I did my work just like anyone else. I was being paid part-time, but I was basically working full-time. So one day I wanted to address it to my boss. However, she felt so annoyed that she said: ” I don’t know how they do it in the Turkish culture, but in Holland we do it like this”.  I felt very humiliated. One day we had a party at her house, and she kept referring me to everyone as [Name] from Turkey. Everyone started speaking in English to me, and I had to explain everyone that I was Dutch actually. I asked her to stop introducing me as [Name] from Turkey. She didn’t listen and even continued doing it. Then, one day, I was scheduled to leave to Vietnam with some Master students and my boss asked me to come to her office. When I was in her office, she asked me for a personal request. She said that her daughter had a clothing store on the internet, and whether or not I wanted to buy some fabrics for her daughter in Vietnam, since “all Turks know about fabrics so well”. Just because Turkish people are successful in the garment industry, doesn’t mean that….. I guess you catch my drift. Once I got another offer from another university, you can imagine, how happy I must have felt….. Being a foreigner in your own country.

“I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom”

I am from the UK and work in the US. Recently I was setting up display equipment before a class started. Two students were chatting quietly about how hard it is to understand the accent of a foreign professor they have for a class. One started imitating various examples of this professor’s pronunciation of certain terms and complaining about how confusing it was to have them pronounced differently. I couldn’t decide whether they were referring to me, or to someone else on our faculty who is also from outside the US originally. When the imitation started, I couldn’t help looking up, and they could see I’d heard. While I was debating whether or not it was worth saying anything or simply ignoring it, the student who had been doing the imitating said (loudly, and obviously for my benefit), “Oh, but I like having a foreign professor, it’s very interesting.” The point is: even if it wasn’t me he was complaining about, when I heard this, I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom. I had to stand and think about whether or not I should say something and risk alienating those students or stay quiet and fail to defend the professionalism of myself and my colleagues (which should be clear anyway, regardless of accents). Then I had to teach the class, and support those students’ learning, without letting my anxiety and discomfort show. People talk about the burden of discrimination: what that means at least in part in the case of foreign academics is that simply turning up to teach is more exhausting and stressful than it is for non-foreigners.

“your accent would be an issue on the job market”

I would like to share a story which is not my own. However, it has had a profound effect on my life and has taken on new meaning now that I find myself in academia. My father is Italian and received a Masters (in Literature) and a Phd in Philosophy in Italy. He had recently begun his academic career in Italy but made the daring decision to move to California to be with my mother (a Californian), to continue his academic career, and to pursue his aspirations to be a writer. Upon arriving and being accepted into a prestigious Californian University he was informed that his Italian degrees would not be recognized and so completed (at an accelerated place) a second PhD. Given his level of experience he was offered the opportunity to design and instruct new courses for the department. However, soon after building up what became a popular undergraduate course, he was told that because of his accent it would be preferable that the course be turned over to a local (American) graduate student (who was far less qualified). Despite strong student evaluations, and a very strong command of the English language, constant pejorative references to his accent remained a constant justification for limiting his opportunities (a phenomena that persisted beyond the walls of the academic institution). Advised by “mentors” that his accent would be an issue on the job market, finding only language courses open to him (limiting income and employment options), and with a newborn baby on the way, the thought of relocating to different parts of a country he was just beginning to navigate was overwhelming. He eventually felt compelled to accept a (stable) employment offer outside of academia. While this career has enabled him to provide for and support a family, it has not been fulfilling. He is an inspiring and natural educator, and I have been so fortunate to benefit from this. But I have come to recognize that his departure from academia remains an ever-present hardship for him.

equal opportunities?

I want to share a story that, although it didn’t affect me directly, is a sadly familiar story to me. I am in charge of a research group at a university in the United Kingdom. Two students from my lab got accepted to a very prestigious and selective conference in our field held in the United States. One of the students was Indian, the other one didn’t need a visa to enter the US. The Indian student applied for the visa plenty of time in advance, anticipating possible delay. Several months passed and they didn’t call her for the visa interview, and it became clear she won´t be able to make it to the conference. She notified the conference organizers, who then contacted me asking if I could attend the conference and present her findings on her behalf. Her work was worth going there and presenting it. However, I am originally from Asia, and I also need a visa to travel anywhere, and was not possible, given all the paperwork and application procedure, to get one on such a short notice. My British student attended the conference, presented her work and had the chance to connect with other colleagues. Having this conference presentation on her CV is a big boost for her career. The Indian student, who actually had more impressive research to present, did not get that chance. In no sense these two students have equal opportunities.

being outed as a foreigner

I am a philosopher working in the United States. It often happens that I am at an academic event and, in the middle of a conversation about philosophy, someone asks me, intrigued I guess by my strong accent, “where are you from?”, as if it was somehow relevant in that context. I feel uncomfortable when this happens, even though I know that my interlocutor is just trying to be nice. I never know how to answer. When I reveal my country of origin, the conversation usually shifts to reports about vacations trips or remote relatives who are somehow remotely related to my country of origin. Or even worse: I am forced to talk about my country, as if I am an authority in its culinary customs or have any wisdom about the political scene in there. When I am discussing philosophy I don’t want to be reminded of my country of origin. It is not that I feel ashamed of my origin; it is rather that I prefer to choose when I want to talk about that country and about the fact that I am a foreigner. In academic events, I would rather be a philosopher, not a foreigner.

“Thanks for the enquiry, but (…) we’re not looking at overseas [applications]”

I did my first degree in continental Europe, and my PhD in the UK. When I was applying to PhD programmes in the UK I had a bafflingly candid response to an inquiry about a funded PhD position: Thanks for the enquiry, but we have been overwhelmed by UK applications, so we’re not looking at overseas ones. (Not the exact wording as this was many years ago, but that’s exactly what they said).

Many years later I went on to get a permanent academic job in the UK.

nationality-based prejudice?

I hold a research position at a university in the UK. I am Russian, and did my PhD in Finland in English. I spent 8 years at Harvard Medical School as a postdoc, publishing and communicating with colleagues in English. I was then offered a job at an institution in the UK, and I applied for a UK visa. Surprisingly, it got denied, because the consulate “did not have sufficient evidence of my command of English”. My visa application clearly showed that I had been working in the US for 8 years, and that my thesis was written in English, and that I have been publishing my work in English. But that wasn’t good enough. I was required to do a TOEFL exam to prove I had a basic command of English (funny enough, I didn’t even need to get a high score; I needed to get a certificate demonstrating that I am able to introduce myself and get by at a grocery store).

Ironically, my husband, a citizen of Denmark and also a non-native English speaker, was not asked to prove his command of English in any way. The university that hired me created a position for him, upon my request (we work in the same field), and he was able to move right away while I stayed behind. We had already moved out of our house in the US and arranged everything at the new university in the UK. My Danish husband flew to the UK, and I was stuck in the US, practicing TOEFL tests, with no income or health insurance (I had already quit my job there so my fancy medical coverage ended), paying outrageous medical bills, including a required ultrasound test (I was pregnant), waiting first for the next available TOEFL date, and then for another month to receive the score (two months total). I wondered what made me less trustworthy than my husband, whether my gender or my Russian, non-European origin.

“As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”

Austrian German is different from german German. It sounds differently, and some words are not the same. I was brought up in Austria, but never developed a strong dialect. I fact, I often heard that my language was very ‘German’. Last year, I was a guest researcher at a German university and, amongst other things, attended a seminar. The seminar was focussed on language and the instructor kept referring to me as an example for a different way to talk. “As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”, he repeatedly said, and the whole class laughed. I laughed as well, but always felt bad afterwards. I felt that I had to make up for a loss of respect, so I started to frequently challenge the professor theoretically in front of his class. Also in other departmental contexts, my language was an important topic. I often heard that my Austrian German sounds sweet and charming. It always felt like I was treated like a little girl. I was invited for evening go-outs with other guest researchers. I felt that the reason was that  Austrians are said to know how to make up for a ‘charming atmosphere’ – as opposed to many German scholars. Why is it more important how I speak than what I say? And how is all that connected to my gender? I often felt that the reference to my language covered hidden gender issues. It seemed to be more ok to refer to my charming accent as an Austrian scholar than to my charming character as a Woman.

it’s a shame you don’t do Chinese philosophy

I am an Asian-American philosopher born in Asia but received my secondary and onward education in the States.
When I was a graduate student, I was offered a TA-position for a broad first-year world civilization course. I was a bit surprised by the offer since more senior and more qualified candidates were passed over. I asked the instructors why I was chosen and they said, “Your background, you know.” [some hand-waving in my general direction] “You mean growing up in a small East Coast town in the States?”
I have also been told repeatedly when I went on the market that it was a shame that I didn’t do Chinese philosophy.

a “helpful” reminder of how bad it is to be a non-native speaker of English

I’m a non-native English speaker working on my PhD at a UK institution. A couple of months ago I was presenting a paper at a conference in the UK. As I was waiting for my turn to present, and trying to forget that I was really nervous, I asked one of my colleagues (a fellow PhD student in my institution) about the previous session. He responded that he had not enjoyed the papers not only because they were not very good, but also because they were both presented by non-native English speakers.

“Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

I am English, with an unexceptional English accent, and a PhD from a UK university. I teach in the US. Students here are mostly very decent about accent/cultural differences, and I have been lucky enough to find many supportive and welcoming colleagues. But there is some entrenched xenophobia still out there, and when it appears, it is nasty. Here are some examples:

–A provost at a liberal arts college on-campus interview: “What do you know about the liberal arts? You don’t even have them in your country.”

–A student, on hearing about us potentially hiring a faculty member from a non-US country: “Great, yet another accent I have to get used to.”

–Another student: “You don’t speak English. Well okay, I suppose you do, but not proper English.”

–A colleague: “You know, sometimes I just don’t hear you. It’s your accent.”

–Another colleague, in a meeting, in front of other faculty: “Over the summer, I was reflecting on the difficulties I’ve had in working with you on this project. I decided the problems come down to you being from a different country.”

–During hiring negotiations: “Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

ignoring “small” universities

I am an academic in the humanities. On two occasions, and during 4 years, I have had double affiliation. In both cases, the main institution (the one financially supporting me) was in Spain, and the secondary institution a big name in North America (one in the US, the other in Canada). It happened to me many times in conferences, meetings and workshops that, even though I always put the Spanish institution name before the North American institution, I would receive a name tag only with the Northamerican institution’s name on it. It also happened that when people introduced me to other people during those events, they would only mention the North American affiliation. I understand that recognition heuristics played a big role here: everyone knows those two big universities in North America, and not many know the ones in Spain. And that’s why I wouldn’t complain when that happened. However, now I regret my silence. I think it is worth the effort to vindicate those “small” names, so we all start learning the names of more institutions in different countries – otherwise, how are they ever going to become recognizable for all the great work that people are doing there?