Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Micro-aggression 101: Your English Sucks

I teach a late night class. I usually take the 9:30 pm bus after that, but that night, I was exhausted. I had multiple deadlines that week, it was pretty icy outside and I did not want to risk a fall in the darkness. I save my Uber rides for very special occasions when I have absolutely no energy to take the bus. That day, I hired one.

My workplace to home is a mere 7-8 minute, $7 Uber ride. Naturally, there was not much time for conversation. The gentleman asked me what I do and I said that I am a faculty.

"What do you teach?" he asked me.

"Statistics," I said.

"How do your students understand you in class?" he looked quizzically.

It took a while for what was happening to sink in. It was so surreal that although it was happening, I could not believe that it was happening. I speak English in my own accent which is not quite an American accent. None of my colleagues or students has complained so far. I have given job talks, I have taught 3-hour long classes, I present at conferences every year in front of large crowds. Yet it took a chance encounter with a man I do not know to question my ability to do my job properly. I wondered if he would have asked the same question to a White, Australian man instead of a brown woman. Let me make an educated guess here. He would have found the Australian man's English cute.

I felt repulsed. That seven minute ride suddenly seemed so long. I knew I did not want to fight this battle. I took a deep breath and said, "Look, if we care so much about pure, authentic English, maybe we should all move to England."

He rambled on for the rest of the trip about how it was so funny that India had so many languages. I did not engage anymore.

A guy I do not know and am never likely to meet again questions my entire gamut of effort of years that brought me to this point where I would tell, on being asked, that I am a faculty and I teach a course in statistics. Did you know that 75% of my class consists of immigrant students, those who moved from various countries to get an education in the United States? None of their native language is English. I don't think anyone in my class has ever complained that they do not follow what I say.

These stories of marginalization and micro-aggression are not trivial. Sitting in my ivory tower and socializing mostly with people in university settings for eleven years here, I have been insulated from chance encounters like this. As a result, I always thought that the US is very liberal, tolerant and broad-minded. The reality is, the US I know of is very liberal, tolerant, and broad-minded. This man taught me an important lesson in statistics that day. My reality was heavily biased due to selective sampling, making it impossible to generalize my sample characteristics to a population setting.


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