Immigrant professors say they need to "act white" in Canadian academia - New Canadian Media
Helen Gateri, a professor at MacEwan University’s school of social work
Hellen Gateri, a professor at MacEwan University’s school of social work, speaks at the 24th Metropolis Canada Conference in Vancouver. (Aaron Hemens/New Canadian Media)

Immigrant professors say they need to “act white” in Canadian academia

Hellen Gateri and Rita Dhungel said that immigrant professors constantly find they need to prove themselves to colleagues and students.

Racialized faculty members not only carry the emotional labour in an academic institution, but they also find themselves constantly needing to “transform themselves” in order to be accepted by their colleagues and students, according to a Black professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

Speaking at the recent 24th Metropolis Canada Conference in Vancouver, Hellen Gateri, an associate professor at the university’s school of social work, was one of three immigrants working in academia who shared stories about the racism and discrimination faced while working at a Canadian university.

“Sometimes when we are in meetings with our colleagues, we are ignored,” Gateri said. “Our voices, the issues we bring forward, nobody takes them seriously.”

In addition, she receives “demeaning” comments, being asked to repeat herself or told that she’s not pronouncing a word correctly from both colleagues and students.

“[They] constantly remind us you’re not Canadian because you don’t speak English very well,” she said. “It’s almost like we’re expected to transform ourselves, to look more white in order to be accepted.”

Gateri’s experiences are not isolated. According to the Equity Myth, a 2017 data-based study that highlights racialized and Indigenous faculty members’ experiences in Canadian universities, racialized scholars are overworked, their work less-valued and they are underpaid compared to their white colleagues.

Proving you belong

Gateri recalled numerous instances where, prior to the start of a class, students would walk in, ask her if she’s teaching the class and then immediately stare at each other when she would tell them yes.

She highlighted that racialized and immigrant faculty members are viewed by their colleagues and students as threatening because they don’t make up the status quo.

“For me, being Black, when I complain or when I raise an issue, there’s always those that say because she’s Black, she’s hostile, she’s aggressive, she’s confrontational,” said Gateri.

“When we enter the academia, we have to prove that is where we belong.”

Teaching evaluations are one of the criteria used to evaluate performance, but Gateri says they carry subtle forms of microaggression and discrimination from students.

Rita Dhungel, who’s also an assistant professor in social work at MacEwan University, echoed this experience. Rather than evaluating her performance as an educator, Dhungel noted that it’s common for students to comment on her accent instead and how they have a hard time understanding her at times.

“I’m totally fine if they talk about my knowledge, about the contents,” she said. “But when they talk about accents or when I don’t know the location in Edmonton – c’mon. We’re new to communities.”

Dhungel says she has to put a lot of work into proving she belongs as an immigrant in academia.

Denial of racism

Dhungel experiences microaggressive behaviours every single day—intentional or not—where her abilities and experiences are dismissed because of her accent.

One of the biggest challenges that she said she faces as an immigrant working in Canadian academia is the high expectations from students. She added that students tend to focus more on the local context of education, and often don’t seem interested in the international knowledge and experiences she offers as an immigrant.

Research conducted with 89 racialized faculty at ten Canadian universities as part of the larger study of racialization at the university in 2012 highlighted the emphasis of most Canadian universities on a Eurocentric curriculum. The study found that denial of racism is common, especially by “those who are influenced by a liberal ideology that unless there is the intention to be racist, it does not exist.”

Indeed, when Dhungel brings any forms of racism or discrimination she’s experienced in the classroom to the attention of her supervisor, she said that she’s asked, “Are you sure they meant that?”

“If you don’t want to validate my experience, don’t dismiss my feelings or experience. This is my experience, that means my experience,” she said. “When people underestimate my knowledge and abilities, it just makes me feel like, ‘Where do I fit then?’”

Inequity in opportunities

The Equity Myth found that racialized and Indigenous scholars are hired less often, and are unlikely to be considered for promotions and tenure.

For Gateri, the comments in student evaluations add to this sense of pressure to do better and “act white” to be able to advance professionally.

She says training and promotion opportunities are not determined fairly and it is more difficult for racialized faculty to access professional networks, compared with white colleagues.

“We can network among ourselves and by meeting other people who are willing to support us, but sometimes, it’s very hard, even to network with our own colleagues who don’t like us and don’t want us to be in positions where we’re teaching,” she said.

Despite it all, Gateri perseveres. “I still believe there are people who see what other racialized people will go through, and they’re there to support us,” she said. “That’s where I stay positive and continue doing this work that I do everyday.”

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Aaron Hemens is a freelance photographer and journalist currently based in Kelowna, B.C. Originally from Ottawa, Ont., he graduated from Carleton University’s journalism program in 2018. His career as a journalist has taken him as far north as Inuvik, N.W.T., and to rural farming towns such as Creston, B.C. His professional interests include community news, arts and culture, race and diversity, and solutions-based storytelling.

1 Comment

  1. So, if a student cannot understand, and therefore learn from a teacher because of their accent, it is the student’s fault for being racist, and not the teacher’s fault for not being able to communicate clearly to their students? These kids pay big money to learn at these universities and they can’t get a proper education if they cannot understand their teachers. Maybe this is the faculty’s fault for hiring based on diversity quotas instead of on who can provide the best educative experience to the students. As for being corrected on incorrect pronunciation, teachers would be doing the students a disservice by teaching them the incorrect terminology and pronunciation. It might be a good idea to send teachers to additional English language classes so that they can educate and communicate more effectively to their students.

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