invisible behind stereotypes

I have plenty of anecdotes to share concerning stereotypes related to my homeland and the way in which they were tactlessly brought up by colleagues in informal and formal contexts alike: a colleague imitating my accent in the attempt to be funny; a director telling me “be sure not to do that [some procedure] the way people usually do in your country”; improvised “trials” in which I was supposed to explain the behaviour of this or that politician; a senior colleague explaining to me and two more locals how corrupt academia is in my homeland;  and even the patronizing tone in which I was often told, with a smile, how nice a place my homeland is for a holiday, after all.

My homeland DOES have many shortcomings (for instance it did not give me a job!) and I am a very self-ironic person but, especially from colleagues who are supposed to be “intellectuals,” one would expect to be just treated as a peer and not as the representative of some (more or less stereotypical) national traits.

“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.

“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.”