“Where are you from?”

I am a European Philosophy graduate student at a US institution. I was teaching an undergraduate class where we were discussing a case study about the education system of a Nordic country. After I answered a couple of questions of clarification regarding said country (economy, demographics, etc…) one female student raised her arm and asked “Where are you from?”. The students suddenly became more attentive; they seemed more interested in this question than in the philosophical material.

I have been asked the same question before by undergraduate students and I have answered. That happened in informal settings, outside class time and mostly during one-on-one interaction. This time I was being asked in front of my entire class and there was no accompanying qualification (“if you don’t mind me asking”). Just a lot of staring. I replied “not from this country, if that’s what you’re asking” but I continued to receive intense stares by virtually everyone in the room. I ended up saying the name of my country of origin and calling an intermission right away. I found both the casual way in which the student thought she was entitled to know more about me and the timing of the question really undermining of my authority as a teacher.

“nobody speaks English in Spain”

I am originally from Spain, and I speak English with an accent. During my PhD in philosophy, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant at a Canadian university. I was very excited about that. As I was going to the first class, I kept remembering a recent episode with someone I met at my arrival to Canada. This person told me how disappointed she was during her trip to Spain when she realized that nobody there spoke English, so she had a hard time getting around. At the time of the event I didn’t take it seriously (who would take that silly comment seriously? Who would let that silly person, surprised to discover that people in Spain speak Spanish instead of English, stay in their minds for more than the few seconds the episode lasted?). But on my way to the classroom, her “nobody speaks English in Spain” kept resonating and I started panicking, anticipating that students wouldn’t be able to understand my accented English. Maybe the notion of stereotype threat could help describe what happened to me. It is perhaps an old trauma of many spaniards of my generation that we don’t speak English, or we do so with strong accent; that day I felt my confidence, and my English proficiency, were dropping with each step I took towards the classroom.

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