“What is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?”

I’m international junior faculty at a university in the United States. I often get comments about my foreign accent, and every time I get them I become so aware of it that I speak worse and even forget grammar (after all these years!). This is one recent episode. This is my first year as a tenure-track faculty, and in my third day in the new department I saw in the hallway two faculty members I hadn’t met before. I approached them, they smiled, I introduced myself, and one of them said “so you are from ….” and smiled widely with a small inclination of his head. It took me some seconds to realize what he was doing  “you are from….. how do you say it? You say it differently, right?”. I realized he wanted me to play circus animal and say the name of my native city in the way it is said in my native language, because here in the US that sounds funny (I learned that). The other faculty member joined the conversation commenting on my accent, too.
This is not the first time I’ve got this, but it is disappointing to see it in my new colleagues. They seem insensitive to how harmful their attitude is, and I don’t know how to communicate this to them (knowing that they were trying to be funny and welcoming makes things more difficult). It made me feel very uncomfortable and, as usual, awfully aware of my accent and of my being a foreigner. Their comment annoyed me and made me feel frustrated and insecure, and did so in a space where I need to feel comfortable and connected to my colleagues in order to do my best in my job. And anyway, what is so funny about someone pronouncing the name of their native city in their native language?

 “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.

“Your accent is so cute”

I’ve been living in the US for several years. I’m not American. I went on the job market this year for the first time, and was worried about my accent in English (I have a very strong accent that like a sticky stereotype, I cannot get rid of) . Things went generally well except for this episode. It happened after my teaching demo in one of my campus visits. When I finished, excited and happy after having students participate and engage in a lively discussion, one faculty member approached me smiling and told me “your accent is so cute”. Although I wasn’t completely surprised, I could hardly hide my disappointment. I managed to freeze the smile I had the second before he opened his mouth, and didn’t say anything in return. I almost said “thank you”, for seeing him approaching me with his smile, I anticipated he was going to say something nice about my teaching skills, and was ready to thank him for that. I know I should have said something, that his observation was completely out of place, that he had just reminded me, after an hour of teaching bliss, that my accent is a handicap, that I have an accent, that I am a foreigner.

the fear of being an outsider

I had an interesting experience during my first teaching job at a university in the United States. Note: I am in an important sense a foreigner in this country, and I speak English with an accent. The first day of classes the classroom was crowded, with at least 15 students sitting on the floor or standing up. I asked the department for a bigger classroom, but it took time to find one, and during two more sessions the situation persisted. In the meantime, I had to figure out what to do with those students in the waiting list (I finally added all of them to the course). During the second class, a student raised her hand and suggested that I should ask students in the waiting list to stand up, for registered students are the ones who have the right to a chair. I responded that it was not my position to ask anyone to stand up. The same student then asked me from her chair “can I ask you a personal question?”. Before I had time to say “we can talk at the end of the class”, she asked her question in front of the class “is this the first time you teach here? Because this never happens here”. I felt so nervous that I think my hands starting shaking. My accent, my language skills, my appearance, my teaching skills, my knowledge, my authority as an instructor, my capacity to organize and run a course,…. Everything felt suddenly threatened, questioned, and I had to defend myself in front of a room with 80 people staring at me. I didn’t know what “here” meant, if she meant “here in this university” or “here in the United States”. I felt so disempowered by her question, so vulnerable and annoyed and confused.

The day after the same student emailed me with an apology, but interesting enough, she added three paragraphs of recommendations of how I should manage the course, extend the deadlines and organize the readings (!!). I cannot be sure that it was my accent and my obvious non-native status what triggered her distrust, it could have also been my apparent youth and friendly manners (features that in some students do not motivate respect and trust). I suspect there was a little bit of both. But anyway, it is interesting how her question triggered a persistent fear in me, the fear of being an outsider in that university, of not belonging there (here) with all those (these) Americans.

“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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