“arrogance is what I need if I am to ever going to make it in this profession”


I did my BA in philosophy in the third world country where I grew up. I am a woman of color doing a PhD in philosophy. Leaving home to pursue my dream of studying philosophy in Western universities was the scariest thing I have done, especially because I do not have financial assistance from my family.

Whenever I am at philosophy conferences, implicit bias makes it difficult for me to participate in the discussion. I often have to wave my hand aggressively just to ensure that the chair notices my hand. I know this behavior makes me look aggressive and impertinent, but between a choice of accepting that I will not be heard because of how I look or looking like a pompous ass, I figure that pompous ass is probably the lesser evil.

I always try to make it a point to let the chair know — as politely as I can in private — if s/he had overlooked my hand. Of course, no one likes being made aware of their biases, so I find myself making enemies whenever I become a victim of implicit bias.

The amount of arrogance that I have to cultivate just to get to ask a question is disheartening. And yet arrogance is what I need if I am to ever going to make it in this profession because I need to constantly tell myself — against contradictory external evidence — that I belong here as much as everyone else, that I deserve to be heard just as much as anyone else, that my command of the English language is just as good as others in this auditorium.

privileges of passing

I am a German, got my Ph.D. in the US and I currently work in Sweden. I was fortunate to almost completely lose my German accent during my time in the US, so that to most non-native (and many native) speakers of English, I sound American now. This more or less accidental “language setting” has a number of undeserved benefits in academic contexts. Because of the lack of an accent, I’m likely to be perceived as more confident and more competent. I actually feel more competent when I can speak English (rather than Swedish, and even rather than German). Listeners will find it easier to follow my train of thought. I might seem more approachable in post-talk situations, because speaking American English (rather than Swedish, and rather than German) will make my demeanor more jovial.

I am lucky to not have to worry (much) about students or conference participants finding themselves unable to focus on the content of what I’m saying because of how I sound to them. I am lucky to have that piece of professional authority simply handed to me. (And on a lighter note, I get to amuse myself with confusing people when they can’t quite figure out why I sound the way I sound, work in Sweden, and complain about German politics.)

I am grateful, on the other hand, for the challenge of conversing and teaching in Swedish, because it makes me (sometimes painfully) aware of the limitations of my own language skills, and it hopefully provides a corrective to judging my peers merely by what sort of accent their English happens to have.

“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

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.

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.

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?