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historicallinguist

what to do: discrimination based on national origin

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So, now I am starting my new term in a graduate program in University X. But I recently received a letter saying that I got to take ESL tests as a duty for the TA job (the term has not yet started). I am singled out because they said they found me having experiences living in multiple countries. But actually I knew that they singled me out because of my name that suggests that I am of a certain national origin. I told them I am a native speaker of English and another language (let's name it language X). The chair then sent me to the director of the ESL program, and the chair said the director would decide. When I was meeting with the ESL director, as soon as I sat down and just started chatting with her, she then said I had some accent of language X, and therefore  she insisted that I take the test. But the thing is she fully understood what I was saying without any problem. Then, I raised this point to her. Then, she said, oh, maybe you can do well in one-on-one situation but you can not do presentation in front of a group of students.(Are you kidding me?) The tricky part of this test is that there is no grading rubric whatsoever. And unless you get a perfect score (I do not think many of our fellow native speakers of English can get that perfect score, and that really depends on the mood of the graders), you got to pay extra fees and take their ESL classes. I checked their enrollment now, and there are so few people enrolled that the classes are going to be cancelled. I know this is why this person is pressing me to take the test and the she will have a good reason to make me pay and take the ESL class which is a waste of time. 

The university rule says nothing about requiring to take this test based on accent. So, in this situation, what should I do? Should I reach out to Labor Union, Ombudsman, departmental chair, or dean of the college, or a combination of these people?  I feel that I am discriminated based on national origin. 

Edited by historicallinguist

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I'm a minority myself, who also happens to have a slight accent, so I hope you don't take too much of an issue with my response that follows. Even though you're feeling discriminated (it's a horrible feeling, I totally get it), I believe you're making a bold claim that your university is singling you out for an ESL class because of your name which suggests a "certain national origin", and unless you have something substantive to actually prove that allegation, I don't believe you'll be successful in this endeavor; I believe they have enough grounds to suspect that you need ESL classes based on your residency in "multiple countries." For now, I would strongly advise against escalating this any further with anyone but the ESL director.

With that being said, I'm confused as to why you're required to take the ESL test if its just your accent that they're taking issue with. Unless the ESL test is that of an oral variety, I fail to see its relevancy to your case -- and I believe you should stress this very point with the ESL director! 

Edited by Volition

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Given that every international person I know had to take this kind of test, I think you will have a hard time claiming discrimination. Usually if you can demonstrate that you previously studied in an English-speaking university or grew up in an English speaking country, you get exempt, but I don't think anyone has to promise you that, especially if they worry about an accent for someone who has to teach. In any event, all we are talking about right now is one exam, and the rest is a conspiracy theory that lives in your head. Can you find out what standard other international students in your program were held to? Again, discrimination would imply that everyone else was exempt and you were targeted somehow. At the moment that is not what you described. And if it's true, you should probably take a long moment to ask yourself if you want to spend 5 years in a program that you are already so unhappy with that you will go to the higher administration to complain about it before you've even started. 

I think that coming out with all guns blazing just for having to take the exam is what they call in some other languages shooting a mosquito with a cannon ball. It would make more sense to take the exam and see what happens. If they require that you take the course then you might ask to see the test and how it was scored and take if from there. The first person to talk to is probably the person who scored the exam and/or the head of the ESL unit. Or if you can show that others in similar situations were treated differently at this stage, you could potentially bring it up with someone. As for who to talk to, never go outside your department before you try to work things out internally. And never go over your advisor's head if there is any way you can try to talk to them first. If you do eventually need to go outside your department, I fail to see what your labor union has to do with it. The dean of the college is probably also not relevant, probably there is a dean of students who might be more helpful, or the ombusperson might help.

I do want to stress that the way you are behaving now is a good way to alienate a lot of people and create bad will toward yourself. Given your experiences in the past, you may want to try to avoid that this time, especially before you've even started. You really need to learn to pick your battles, if you are going to survive this PhD. Surviving the PhD involves, among other things, having an advisor who has a good opinion of you and will go to bat for you, plus others who will write positive LORs, serve on your committee, etc. You don't want your five years there to end with a big struggle to get feedback from anyone and finish (because people will be afraid to talk to you in case you randomly (to them) lash out), and then not be able to get a job. I hope you don't think I am exaggerating, but I guarantee you that a student who sends complaints about bias to deans and unions before even talking to the department and before even beginning the program is someone who will very quickly have a reputation as a troublemaker that it is better to steer clear of. 

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21 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

Given that every international person I know had to take this kind of test, I think you will have a hard time claiming discrimination. Usually if you can demonstrate that you previously studied in an English-speaking university or grew up in an English speaking country, you get exempt, but I don't think anyone has to promise you that, especially if they worry about an accent for someone who has to teach. In any event, all we are talking about right now is one exam, and the rest is a conspiracy theory that lives in your head. Can you find out what standard other international students in your program were held to? Again, discrimination would imply that everyone else was exempt and you were targeted somehow. At the moment that is not what you described. And if it's true, you should probably take a long moment to ask yourself if you want to spend 5 years in a program that you are already so unhappy with that you will go to the higher administration to complain about it before you've even started. 

I think that coming out with all guns blazing just for having to take the exam is what they call in some other languages shooting a mosquito with a cannon ball. It would make more sense to take the exam and see what happens. If they require that you take the course then you might ask to see the test and how it was scored and take if from there. The first person to talk to is probably the person who scored the exam and/or the head of the ESL unit. Or if you can show that others in similar situations were treated differently at this stage, you could potentially bring it up with someone. As for who to talk to, never go outside your department before you try to work things out internally. And never go over your advisor's head if there is any way you can try to talk to them first. If you do eventually need to go outside your department, I fail to see what your labor union has to do with it. The dean of the college is probably also not relevant, probably there is a dean of students who might be more helpful, or the ombusperson might help.

I do want to stress that the way you are behaving now is a good way to alienate a lot of people and create bad will toward yourself. Given your experiences in the past, you may want to try to avoid that this time, especially before you've even started. You really need to learn to pick your battles, if you are going to survive this PhD. Surviving the PhD involves, among other things, having an advisor who has a good opinion of you and will go to bat for you, plus others who will write positive LORs, serve on your committee, etc. You don't want your five years there to end with a big struggle to get feedback from anyone and finish (because people will be afraid to talk to you in case you randomly (to them) lash out), and then not be able to get a job. I hope you don't think I am exaggerating, but I guarantee you that a student who sends complaints about bias to deans and unions before even talking to the department and before even beginning the program is someone who will very quickly have a reputation as a troublemaker that it is better to steer clear of. 

Hi. Fuzzy. Thank you so much for your advices. Actually I should clarify several background information. First of all, I am not even an international student. I am actually a domestic American student (with minority name and ethnicity). I feel discriminated because I am the only one domestic student (as far as I know) of the incoming class with a name that is associated with a certain ethnic group, and I am the only domestic student singled out for this test. So, basically, every other domestic student is exempted, and I am the only one targeted. 

Second, I am actually going to spend only one year in this program (this is an MA program), because my deferment request for the Ph.D. acceptance from another university (the one I mentioned to you in PM before) was successful. 

Oh, you reminded me of not going outside the department. This is so important!! I was about to go to higher administration (as I did in the past, but not sure which one) when I was writing the original post. It sounds like that I should first go to the chair of the department and talk with her about this issue.

You are right that I do want to avoid alienating people as I did in the past. That is why I thought twice and came here to ask advices about what to do before I go to some higher administration. I do want to avoid alienating any of the advisors (including the chair who will be one of my advisors). So, I actually focused the issue on the ESL director and her behavior (The whole thing seems to be orchestrated by the ESL folk, because of low enrollment in many of the ESL classes (less than 3 enrolled, I checked online. So, if they cannot get at least 5 students, these classes are going to be cancelled.)). This person, of course, will by no means  serve as my advisor, because she does not even have a Ph.D. I also asked some graduate students who studied here more than 1 year. They told me that picking out minority students to fill out the seats of ESL classes and solve the problem of low enrollment happened before (Of courses, some of these folks are in a bit different situation, because they are international students).

Fuzzy, you may also wonder why I am opposing this single test so much. The test in itself has little importance, to be honest, and, if it is just a test, I could just take it and easily pass it. What I am really concerned is what is after the test. So, basically, if one takes the test and if one does not have a perfect score (which is unlikely in any event, because of the perceived conflict of interests), based on the information on their website, one will be required to take at least 1 ESL class per semester, by paying an extra fee, and such class will be shown on the transcript. The transcript thing is something that really disturbs me and could potentially do me a permanent damage in my academic record.

 

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1 hour ago, fuzzylogician said:

Usually if you can demonstrate that you previously studied in an English-speaking university or grew up in an English speaking country

I both studied in an English-speaking High school and two colleges, and also grew up in an English speaking country. But again, I get targeted.

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1 hour ago, Volition said:

With that being said, I'm confused as to why you're required to take the ESL test if its just your accent that they're taking issue with. Unless the ESL test is that of an oral variety, I fail to see its relevancy to your case -- and I believe you should stress this very point with the ESL director! 

The thing is that accent is probably the only thing the ESL folk could take issue with. I am a domestic student, grew up in the U.S., and studied in the U.S. and U.K. What else could she possibly take issue with besides accent? 

I am not quite sure what you mean by ESL test of oral variety. Could you please explain it?

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All I can say is this: whoever is actually correct here (and in fact, I think it's probably you), the way you are conducting yourself right now will not win you any favors. Your writing comes across as angry and emotional. You are making an unsubstantiated claim of discrimination without any documentation to back it up, and you are planning to take it to the highest levels assuming already that everyone is out to get you. For a one-year program, starting off with the reputation that this will undoubtedly win you is not a choice that I would make. If you do this at your previous MA and at your new one, eventually you will burn enough bridges or create enough of a reputation for yourself that you will later regret it. 

It is really always better to assume an honest error or simple incompetence, because those two are so much more prevalent than actual malevolence. Do you really not see the difference between saying "I think that there might have been a mistake, I am in fact a domestic student and a native speaker, and I believe that I should therefore be exempt from this exam" and taking this line to whoever is in charge to fix the problem, compared to "I have been targeted because of my name, you/your employees are biased against me/are out to get me/are only trying to fill seats in the class at my expense"? Any sane person will take the latter as an attack and defend against it, and will have no interest in helping you. The former is much easier for everyone to work with. This is the case even if you in fact  know that the latter is true. Again, choose your battles. And learn to fight them better.  

27 minutes ago, historicallinguist said:

The transcript thing is something that really disturbs me and could potentially do me a permanent damage in my academic record.

Hyperbole, much? If anyone actually notices, at most they might ask about it and you say "oh yeah, funny story, because I did a Masters outside the US I was listed in the system as international, even though I'm actually domestic and a native speaker. The system was so bad, there was no way to fix it. They actually made me take this ESL course! can you believe it?" and then you both laugh and agree that bureaucracy can be bad. And I doubt anyone would ever ask; and beyond the point of PhD applications, hardly anyone will even ask for a transcript. 

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Thank you so much Fuzzy. I now kind of know what to do next. Believe it or not, the transcript thing is the main motivation that propelled me to fight this battle (spending 6 hours today reading civil laws and university regulations). But now that I know how to deal with the transcript thing, there is no point to win the battle at the high cost of getting a bad reputation (and potentially losing the LORs in the future). Believe it or not, earlier today, I was getting so nervous that I even consulted with the J.D.s in the College of Law in this university for 20 minutes and informally (and confidentially) asked them what to do. I can now forget the lawsuit thing. 

Actually, I tried the line of argument that assumed honest error. But somehow I got filibustered. This is why I was switching to the latter line of argument that assumes malevolence (but fortunately, I haven't sent out the long draft (it is more than 2000 words) that elaborates how such malevolence is manifested. But again, I am going to switch back the the former argument that assumes honest error. And if I lose the case within the department, I will just let it go and not pursue it further and take the test (because the transcript concern is gone)!!!!

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34 minutes ago, historicallinguist said:

The thing is that accent is probably the only thing the ESL folk could take issue with. I am a domestic student, grew up in the U.S., and studied in the U.S. and U.K. What else could she possibly take issue with besides accent? 

I am not quite sure what you mean by ESL test of oral variety. Could you please explain it?

 

I was just curious to know how your ESL test will be conducted. Traditionally, unless I'm mistaken, ESL exams always tend to be written, so I'm wondering how a written test would assess your accent, which leads me to suspect that its not your accent that they're taking issue with. In any event, I think you have some valid concerns on being selected for the ESL course, so tell her what you told me in the quote box above, politely affirming to her that you have been exposed to a lot of English for the predominant majority of your studies, if not life. But if you find that she won't budge, then the best you can do is to take the test and take it from there (as the other poster has noted). But to be sure, escalating this benign issue with anyone but the ESL Director will not bode well for you; the negative outcomes severely outweighs the positive ones!

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5 minutes ago, Volition said:

 

I was just curious to know how your ESL test will be conducted. Traditionally, unless I'm mistaken, ESL exams always tend to be written, so I'm wondering how a written test would assess your accent, which leads me to suspect that its not your accent that they're taking issue with. In any event, I think you have some valid concerns on being selected for the ESL course, so tell her what you told me in the quote box above, politely affirming to her that you have been exposed to a lot of English for the predominant majority of your studies, if not life. But if you find that she won't budge, then the best you can do is to take the test and take it from there (as the other poster has noted). But to be sure, escalating this benign issue with anyone but the ESL Director will not bode well for you; the negative outcomes severely outweighs the positive ones!

Actually, I had told her what I have told you in the box, but she said that is not enough to be exempted once being singled out. The test is not written. It is an oral exam where I will talk to a recording machine (reading words etc) . That said, the grading of the courses following the test seems to be based on both oral and written assignments. Again, it is quite unclear how they are going to grade for these following courses based on the information on the website. To be honest, she is unlikely to budge. The only other person who seems to be likely to get me out of this may be the chair of the department. In any event, you are right, and the negative effects outweight the positive effects. So, given that Fuzzy offered an amazing solution for the transcript thing, there is no point for me to fight the case at all cost. So, I will probably just take the test, and the course, if they wish me to do so. 

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I actually do think this behavior (as described) is somewhat discriminatory (not intending any legal claims) and if this happened in the department where I am DGS I would put a stop to it.  However, I can't guarantee that academic authority figures would be this reasonable in general.  Basically as I see it your (again, self-described) language abilities are being policed on the basis of your ethnicity, independent of facts that should establish you as a native speaker beyond doubt. I think you are right to be upset by it.

However, I agree with fuzzylogician that you sound very upset in your writing, and I would try to eliminate all trace of emotion in your communication with authority figures; this may well be impacting your speaking/writing ability independent of native language.  _If_ your chair is somewhat sympathetic and you haven't already done this, you should convey in a neutral calm fashion that you believe this is happening on the basis of your ethnicity and nothing else.  The wording in an email might be something like as follows, which I've attempted to make unemotional but still strongly worded: "I'm perplexed at the situation and don't know what to do.  I grew up in the US, went to a US high school, and a US university, and am a native speaker of English.  As a linguist in training, I think I have some confidence in what this entails.  The only reason I can see that I would be singled out as an alleged L2 speaker is my ethnicity."  If you use the term ESL instead, I would expand it rather than use the acronym out so that the phrase "second language" is visible.  I don't know that this is a battle you will win, unfortunately, because the chair may have to play unpleasant politics if they are inclined to do something, and may not perceive it as worth it for an MA student they don't know (harsh, but possible).  If you have a DGS in your department, you could try them first, this would be more following the academic "chain of command".

You should also be aware going forward that there are studies showing that students in classroom settings with Asian teachers (and probably other visible non-white ethnicities, but I've only seen studies with Asian teachers) show strong unconscious biases in their evaluation of accents regardless of the objective presence of these accents.  So I'm guessing you are Asian (or hispanic for an outside chance) because this sort of racism is not unknown.

Edited by advil

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Oh, and if you are in a union, definitely get in touch -- even if they can't help directly, they may have other incidents that they know of, and will probably have the resources to know the structure of things at your university, who to talk to, etc.

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Here is an alternative explanation that doesn't have anything to do with discrimination: you came in with a foreign degree, so you are flagged in the system as needing the exam. The system just doesn't know how to handle domestic students who go abroad. I've also seen British and Canadian friends forced to take a similar exam. The person at the ESL office may be unreasonable or just lazy and unable to deal with anything that requires original thought. Again, making unsubstantiated allegations is usually not a good first step. If you want to be taken seriously and you actually want something done about it, you need to show that you were being reasonable and friendly and tried every way to resolve the problem before escalating. So if you send that strongly worded email, I would leave out the "the only reason I can see for this" part and just strongly say "I am a native speaker, there has been a mistake" and see how the other person responds. If they insist then you could demand an explanation for why your native speaker status doesn't exempt you like it does the rest of your cohort. Again, asking, not assuming. If there is no acceptable explanation, at that point you *might* bring up the ethnicity issue, assuming that the "foreign degree --> foreign student" theory has already been tested. Before doing that, if at all possible, it would help to find out if similar issues have been raised with the ESL office in the past. All of this should be done very calmly and unemotionally, or you will not get the kind of response you want. 

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