“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.

“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

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.”

credibility undermined at a consulate

I am an academic working in the biological sciences. I also happen to be a woman, from Russia. This story is about something that happened to me when I applied for a US visa to go to Boston for a job interview. I did my PhD at a European university. When I applied for a job at a prominent university in the US, I was invited for an on-campus interview. I then went to the US consulate to apply for a visa to enter the US. Usually visa applications involve an interview with an officer who decides whether or not you are trustworthy and deserve a visa. I already had a fair experience with what it is like to be a Russian applying for a visa to go anywhere, so I was ready for an uncomfortable experience, but I was still unpleasantly impressed by what happened at the US consulate. The visa officers started asking me questions about my personal relationship with the department chair of the US university; “is he married?” “what kind of relationship do you two have?” My guess is that, as a blond Russian woman, I was a tempting target for applying the unfortunately common “Russian bride by mail” schema. That was not it: they kept going in their undermining my credibility and asked me to give them the talk I was supposedly giving at this university in the US. They scheduled an appointment for me to come on a different day to give a talk to consulate workers (I guess the day in which they strongly felt they would like to hear about ribosomes). And there I went, with my ppt slides and my job talk, proving I was what they thought I was not, or rather, proving I was not what they assumed I was. I still wonder how much they learned about ribosomes from my talk.