Monday, March 22, 2010

devalue non-white experience and expertise about non-white countries

This is an email-turned-guest-post by Nomunfo, who writes of herself, "I am of mixed heritage, my dad is black and mom is white but I consider myself a black African. I was born in Liberia but have lived in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa."

I've been a long time lurker on your blog and I really do enjoy reading the posts and comments. There's something that has been troubling me, and I seem to get a mixed reaction from my friends and worry if I'm overacting.

First a few things about myself. I recently completed my masters program at a prestigious UK university and I am very well traveled. I also speak two languages (French and English). I was born in Africa and lived there for 15 yrs (in several countries too) before moving to the States for high school and college and settling down in Europe. I recently applied for a position at an international institute in Germany that was looking for a research assistant for their Africa Department. I applied but found out a few (2) weeks later I had not received the position.

I browsed the page two weeks later to find out who had been selected over me, and it was a girl who was completing her Ph.D. I searched for work she had done and scholarly publications and found that she had done quite some research on the continent, but had never been there. So I spoke to my friends and asked them if it was fair to pick a Ph.D student who had never been to Africa over a Master's student who had lived in several African countries.

Most of my white friends believed that because she had a Ph.D and had published works that she was more qualified than myself. I told them that this is something White People tend to do, hire a white person who has never spent a day on the continent instead of someone who has lived in that part of the world. My best mate said I was being completely unfair to this girl who I did not know and was bitter about not being selected.

I will admit that I was a bit hurt because I do believe I was adequately qualified for that role. Now I worry that I may have overacted and that I should accept that this girl is way more qualified than I am.

Are my friends right?

The reason I concern myself with such issues is that very often, the continent and its people are painted in unfavorable manners. Having lived there, I understand the politics and the issues people face. I've still got family there. Often time what upsets me is that most of the people (in the World Bank, UN, IMF) implementing policies that affect most countries in Africa have not lived on the continent and do not grasp how these policies affect generations.

Anyway I feel like I am ranting. Hope you can offer some advice.


PS....Feel free to post this on your blog. I would like to get some feedback from your very insightful and intelligent readers.


What do you think, dear readers?

Since Nomunfo asked for my thoughts, here's what I wrote in return -- I kept it brief, because I'm sure readers here have more experience with such situations than I:

I don't think you were being paranoid. Unfortunately, it seems that you can't know for certain why she was chosen and not you, but I think it's likely that white/Western ways of knowing were privileged unjustly over your more experiential knowledge. Also, I think your white friend displayed a common white tendency, which is to rather arrogantly explain away the probable racism that a black person is trying to point out -- a terrible irony, because the black person is actually more likely to know what is probably racism than the average white person is!

I look forward to hearing what readers have to say, and I hope it all helps you sort through your situation.


  1. i really appreciate this article, but i am uncomfortable with the use of "girl" to define a phd student--to me, that is obviously a woman.

  2. The simple answer would be that a Ph.D. beats a Masters in the Academia Game and things like 'experience' aren't considered relevant. (Clearly, they weren't considered relevant here.)

    This, however, suggests a more disturbing notion--that "Africa" is being treated like some kind of abstraction that cannot be experienced but only be studied.

  3. @Nomunfo
    I am right in the middle of reading Said's "Culture and Imperialism" and up pops this article. I think that says enough in itself for anyone familiar with Said, whose words made over 30 years ago still go unheeded by the academy at large. In that respect, I don't think that you are incorrect in assuming that race had much to play in it. The fact that your white friend thought you were being unfair to the woman totally obscures the fact that most likely her knowledge is valued moreso than yours because of white privilege. But that's an assumption that is hard to make. But if your research of her background stands firm (which I assume it does), then yeah, it was definitely a race thing.

    However, I also notice that you also play into the prestige game and boost your own standing with "world" languages like French and English. Although I feel that there was a race aspect of your argument, I'm reluctant to sympathize with the elitist aspects of your argument. I guess my follow up question would be: how do you compare yourself to other Africans who were not raised in the privileged environment that you benefited from? (As a disclaimer, you don't mention much about your background and whether it was prestigious or not, but from your argument, I superficially glean that from your posting. Please correct me if I am mistaken...)

  4. This situation can best be avoided if everyone just come to the reasonable conclusion that Whites are experts to EVERYTHING.

    Thanks and don't forget to tip your server.

    You're more concerned with a Ph.D student being called a girl than a woman. Ok? I'm not offended as I do tend to call fellow women girls sometimes.

  5. I don't think you can adequately relay the relevant factors here--for that matter, I doubt whether you can know them yourself.

    The applicant you were up against is not simply "someone who is working on a PhD and who has publications but who has not lived in Africa." Obviously you have not read her application letter, nor her letters of recommendation, understand whether she had an inside line on the position through some connection, or whether she brings some unique qualification you don't know about, or whatever. As someone who has been involved with many hiring committees in academia, I can tell you that trying to understand why she was picked and you weren't is just impossible unless you know someone inside the committee whose judgement you trust. By the way, I'm sorry you didn't get the job.

  6. @Objectivus
    You've blasted it into this realm where no one can know what's going on. So unless those academics want to be upfront and explain their decision, we have to go on not knowing what the hell happened and not blame racism because "we don't REALLY know"?

    Now you have to be smarter than that to think that that's an acceptable line of thought. Basically you're saying that racism is only racism only if it is verbalized/communicated in an overt manner, no? So basically I just want to let you know that I'm NOT saying that you sound like a douchebag overtly.

  7. I understand your feelings.

    There's just one thing I want to add here. If I ever take a class on African cultures and African politics, I would rather learn from YOU than from that woman!

  8. I swear, from reading this, I am starting to get the feeling that Africans are supposed to be spoken for and we need someone else to always come up with the solutions for us. I don't care how much research she's done It makes a difference to me whether or not she's lived on the continent. It makes a HUGE difference. *sigh*

  9. I would say that the other person was more qualified for the job. Literally, not more experienced, she simply has more qualification. That qualification brings with it a whole bunch of "experience". She will have more experience writing papers, presumably better research skills, and so forth. She has more experience relevant to the job (based on the admitidly poor amount of information available). Remember the job is doing research on Africa, not knowing about Africa. You would be employed to do research, not to have knowledge or experience, and so here experience is more valuable than yours. Now if you both had PhDs and she got the job you would have a much clearer case...

  10. technically, a Ph.D candidate may have better knowledge of African history and can analyze African politics, African history or African literature better than a non-scholar... but one fact remains. a Ph.D candidate will never understand or have the experience what it's like to grow up in an African nation and to be surrounded by an African culture.

  11. Drowned Lotuses: I don't think he was trying to "boost" his standing. Some Countries in Africa speak French as a first language and some speak English. I think he was trying to point out that those would be an added advantage in relation to the job. If he spoke Swahili he would've put it there as well which would also be an advantage in relation to the job.

    Nomunfo, no matter her qualifications, someone who hasn't been to Africa and thus knows nothing about it apart from what she has read and maybe seen on TV shouldn't have been assigned that kind of job. If perhaps, she'd been to it and experienced it like you then yeah I would say you're overreacting but I don't think you were here.

  12. Interestingly, you can refer to some other tendencies of whiteness here such as not derailing POL experience or even better, the title of the entry, devalue non-white experience' to provide further insight for how people comment.

    Sure, we don't know much about the fairness of the selection process just as we don't know much about how truly 'PhD' the PhD the girl (or woman) has. But we can certainly talk about how consistent the trend is with many other issues regarding places where PoC live or come from.

    Remember, the academia and related institutions (e.g., gov., marketing, etc) are dominated by white people. They don't care about your experience. They do care about white people's expertise on PoC. That's one of the points by Said in Orientalism. The native's knowledge is irrelevant unless it is represented by white people.

  13. @OP,

    I think because you do not know specifically why she was chosen you should not assume they dismissed your application simply because you are a person of color.

    Although disregarding the knowledge and skills that come with 'experiencing' Africa is a common white tendency that is ever so present in academia, politics, and global economics, I would say that you should not feel as if you were turned down simply because of her being white.

    Like you said, she does have a lot of qualifications. She is certainly suited for the job. Hopefully, she will go to Africa soon. But in this situation, the scales are not exactly equal in that you are a Masters student and she is a PhD with published works. So to answer the question of whether you think you deserve the job over her- the clearest opinion I can give is that while your concerns are valid, she is not under-qualified and doesn't NOT deserve the job either.

    But you bring up a great point, as do many other commenters, on the issue of Africans and blacks in African and black politics. When you look at the first world trying to promote development solutions for the third world, the noted advocates, activists, politicians, and experts are NEVER people of color. They are always white people.

    Look at Bob Geldorf and freaking Bono. Goddamnit I hate Bono and his 'give them aid!' nonsense. Celebrity economics are nonsense.

    But when you think of who is the 'voice of Africa' (excuse the homogeneous implication), you are not going to think of a black or African person. You will automatically remember so and so white dude said this will help fix Africa or whatever.

    So please, do not feel dissuaded by this temporary setback. I hope that one day the voice of whichever country or landmass will be represented by a person belonging to that landmass.

  14. @Drowned Lotusses

    Gonna have to side with Objectivus on this one, given the nature of academia and of this particular situation.

    However, as others have articulated, there's an inherent bias towards "academic" rather than real-life experience in academia, and this bias ultimately results in fewer PoC occupying the upper echelons of academia due to racial barriers. Whether this woman's acceptance was racially-based can't be confirmed, however, and I don't want Nomunfo to become discouraged when it might simply be the lack of academic experience that brought him down.

    It's perfectly natural to wonder about such things though, and if your friends can't see why you're justified in pointing out the possibility of racism, that's really unfortunate.

  15. hmmm.... as in any other situation like this, i wouldn't deny that race could have played a factor. we've all been there.

    HOWEVER, not knowing any more about the other candidate for the job than what you said, it is very possible that she was considered to be more qualified than you. being a Ph.D. candidate in these situations, as well as having been published before carries a great deal of weight.

    i was a research assistant for many years, and the principle researchers on any project do not care how much personal experience you have on the subject that you're assisting on. it's just not a factor. the most important things to them are:

    --are you a strong academic writer/editor?
    --have you been published?
    --what kinds of research projects have you worked on before, and who have you worked with?
    --how strong are your research skills?
    --how good are you at summarizing materials and writing abstracts?
    --if there will be statistical analysis involved, how well do you do that sort of work, and are you skilled at using SAS or other software?
    --can you work independently with little supervision?
    --how well do you work with other assistants and researchers?
    --who are your recommendations from?
    --what is your thesis/dissertation subject, and how close are you to completing it?

    i'm sorry you didn't get the job, but in academia, the game looks completely different than if you were doing work that required personal knowledge of the countries themselves and the people that live there. academia is ALL about the ivory tower; to what extent you've read, written, and taught about your subject, and how much alphabet soup can be found after your name.

  16. The position was the part of a Research Assistant. So, while anecdotal experience may be helpful, I'm guessing the work involved might be more quantitative. Then again, if it's doing more qualitative research, then the anecdotal experience would probably be better, especially if the position involved actually going to Africa or interacting with people from an African country. Though, we don't really know what exactly they wanted out of a research assistant.

    Something not really clear in the post is whether she was in the process of completing her Ph.D or if she already had her Ph.D (it says both). Since it's a research assistant position, I think it'd be kind of weird of a Ph.D applied for a position like that.

  17. to follow up my prior comment, i'd be interested to know what the subject of the research project was that Nomunfo applied for. was he to be just a general RA? would he be working on specific issues? did he have experience working on those issues when he lived in Africa? because then his life experience could potentially hold a bit more weight.

  18. As some of the other commentators said, unfortunately in today's world a PhD is strong than a Masters when it comes to the Academic World unfortunately. And I do agree with Shelia who made an excellent point about Africa always being studied as opposed to being experienced. If it wasn't for the Academic World's strict rules and bureaucracy on qualifications for PhD qualified research, I'd say Nomunfo your experiences living and growing up in Nigeria, Liberia, South Africa, etc beats the PhD woman's qualifications any day.

    And what is with the common white tendency to assume Blacks and people of color who have studied abroad, speak multiple languages, are middle class and not necessarily poor, have global awareness and intercultural are either uppity and privilaged just because a person of color does not fit the stereotype of being stuck in poverty, ignorance and violence? Look at the Obamas! People of color have been defying narrow stereotypes of white people for centuries.

    P.S. People of color have traveled around the world and speaking multiple languages for thousands of years including Africans. As a matter of fact, you can find African communities in Turkey, India, Palestine, Europe, Latin America, etc who are both well educated and well off according to each society because not everything is defined in American terms around the world. Many Africans can also teach the world about their own culture as well as Western culture living double experiences.

    For those who do not know Ethiopians were in Ancient Rome not only as slaves but as soldiers. There were other great world travelers during the 13th-14th centuries other than Marco Palo who were also people of color. Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim commanded one of the world's most advanced navies that sailed around both East and South Asia, Africa and Indian Ocean. Ibn Battuta, an Morrocan explorer traveled in Africa, Europe, Asia, Russia, and Middle East traveling to more regions, interacting with so many cultures and hearing different languages that his travels surpassed and put Marco Palo's voyages (mostly in Asia and parts of Europe) to shame. Battuta later published his travels in a book called Rihla, Arabic for Voyages.

    The notion that only Whites are the know all experts on world traveling and cultures no matter if its academics or street smarts is not true and never was.

  19. Uhhh, perhaps if Nomunfo were white, all of this speculation as to why s/he didn't get the job would be relevant. But since that's not the case - why is it SO HARD to just assuming s/he has a GOOD reason to believe that the rejection had something to do with race?

    What? Is it just not possible because it's Germany? Like racism doesn't exist there? Seriously?

    Of course there are other possible factors but I really think you're (the people who insist on doing this right here in the post) insulting both the intelligence of the author in assumptions that s/he hasn't thought of that already, and the intuition of the author to have already experienced this before so s/he knows what it feels like ...something we WP most certainly have no experience with.

    Since some of you seem to have missed it: THE "OTHER FACTORS" HAVE BEEN ADDRESSED IN THE POST. You don't need to make a full comment about the other factors. We're discussing the very real possibility of racism.

    Go Google "racism in Germany" if your comment has anything to do with other factors.

  20. Hiring processes are pretty confidential stuff - trying to second guess why someone else was hired seems futile. (Personally, I would think it would be a huge strike against you that you don't speak German, but I don't really know the job market there.)

  21. Nomunfo,

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Credentialism.

    Academia is famous for it. "Real-world" experience and "Real Life" perspective are discounted because they cannot be verified by paper credentials from local institutions (whose purpose is more about money collection than actual education).

    You have a perspective and experience that your competition does not, will not, and cannot have...and no amount of book reading will change that. Citing that the person that was hired came with a "better degree" and had "published works" is classic "Appeal to Authority".

    Besides, what more unique qualification could there be than being born within the continent in question and living within various countries of the continent? No book read, no paper published, no language spoken is going to be able to trump that. Not a one.

  22. @AC
    Yes, there are people that speak English and French in Africa as first languages. I guess my question (out of my own ignorance) is which segments of the population speak those languages solely or as mother tongues?

    What happens if you probe further into why POCs are not part of the upper echelons? What happens if you probe further into what "academic" knowledge consists of/is based upon? I would recommend Said and Vine Deloria, Jr. to start delving into those questions.

    And your sympathy that his friends do not entertain the "possibility" of racism in this situation is not artful at all...

  23. Remember the job is doing research on Africa, not knowing about Africa.


  24. through the windowMarch 23, 2010 at 6:19 AM

    It's always interesting to note the difference between whites and non-white's views on meritocracy. It's undeniable that whites tend to assume the world is neutral unless you can for sure prove it wrong while PoC tend to have the opposite assumption. That is, the world (i.e., white dominant) is NOT neutral to begin with. As we know, the former tends to see racism as an individual problem; most people are good and few are racist. The latter sees it as systemic phenomena. With such different assumptions, whites wants to see the evidence of a specific racist act whereas for PoC anything suspicious is normal facts of life.

  25. I'll never understand friends who can just brush off their friend's feelings on a situation like that. Sorry, but I don't think that's a friend at all. I spent most of my life being friends with people who constantly belittled my feelings and rarely let me feel I was justified. To me, a friend is someone who stands with you, who will say "Hell yeah! That is total bullshit! What the hell is their problem?!" with you, even if that may not be exactly how they feel.

    So that may be something to consider. Not saying you should dump your friend, but if they want to just sweep how you feel under the rug then I know I would take great issue with that.

    I think you are completely justified in how you feel. People commenting here keep mentioning academics and credentials over experience. While that is true, I think these ideas in the academic community are racist. Experience is something anyone can have, but only people who can afford it can get credentials. When the best colleges (also read: most expensive) in the country end up predominantly white I don't think it's a coincidence when you, a person with lived experiences in Africa on top of your academic studies, is passed over for a white woman with no lived experience.

    I hope that helped some. I don't think you are paranoid. You seem to have thought it through a little and you know that you don't know EVERYTHING about this woman who got the job, so the comments that go through that are kind of a waste. We are not post-racial, and many times what people perceive as just a class issue or a credential issues is very much entrenched in issues of racism.

    Thanks for the guest post. :)

  26. island girl in a land w/o seaMarch 23, 2010 at 7:47 AM

    thank you for the post. i am sorry, op, that you did not get the position you sought. i hope that a new (and better) opportunity presents itself in the near future.

    i'm sensing a disjuncture, through, between the post's title and what many highly (or over-) educated POC experience when declined for a position. i'm echoing other commenters when i say that being rejected for a position for which one feels imminently qualified often leads us to question our abilities, self-worth and even our own sanity.

    perhaps this happens, too, when some white people are formally rejected from inclusion in institutions. but, it's different for POC, and it's not an issue of self-esteem or psychological impairment. this is a consequence for POC of living in a racist society. one never knows if one is rejected because of one's race or for some other reason.

    many of us get the message that we have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as a similar white candidate. on top of that, we're often called on to be role models and spokespeople for our communities. it's no wonder that we sometimes burn out.

    so a question: how is the NGO/NPO/ academe game a meritocracy when so much more is expected of POC in comparison to white people?

    this is connected to the phenomenon of some white people devaluing "non-white experience and expertise about non-white countries" as the post title suggests. i think, though, that the issue runs deeper, that, as a previous post has presented, some white people (and i would add, LOTS of white people in the academe) devalue non-white expertise in general, as well as knowledge acquired in the field.

  27. @ Victoria

    i went back and forth about my position before i hit "publish comment" last night for the very reasons you state. but see, here's the thing: i'm having trouble separating all of the issues in this post. there's the issue of Nomunfu's reasons for not getting the job. and there's also the general issue of the actual title of the post, "devaluing non-white experience/expertise about non-white countries." i don't feel that there's a seamless connection here.

    i actually thought a lot about this last night. again, as a PoC, i have an idea what Nomunfu is going through, so i'm loathe to pick apart the poster's story.

    i keep thinking about whether or not Nomunfu's life experience would have been a benefit or not to to the research department. well, of course it's a fabulous benefit that is irreplaceable with book knowledge that the other person has. but since i don't know the nature of the projects to be worked on, i can't be sure if it's important in this situation.

    if the department is working on issues that Nomunfo may not have had life experience with, then unfortunately his/her resume might not have seemed as strong as someone else's. i keep thinking about how something like the study of women's issues gets contentious in the same ways.

    for example, if i'm a man who was born and raised in France, but is only starting to look at French feminism, is my knowledge of the subject better than a woman from Spain who has been researching the work of French feminists for longer than i have? well, maybe yes and maybe no.

    so Macon, can you help? there is ABSOLUTELY a problem when it comes to the experience of PoC's being devalued in the face of academia, and what a student might learn from books. book knowledge is not a replacement for what someone knows from actually being born/raised in a given context. in addition, the WAYS in which researchers think and write about "the other" really has to change, and that will only come by involving more individuals who actually come from the places that they are examining.

    but using this specific situation to address the over-arching problem of isn't quite working, in my opinion. i'll apologize up front if i'm being dense and doing my own brand of derailing that we frequently caution WP not to do.

  28. I'm sorry you didn't get the job and that your "friends" weren't sympathetic. I hate it when I'm down and can't get a sympathetic ear and for that reason I am to the point that I try to reserve any racial suspicions I have of motives to myself, other black folks, and my Mom and leave white folks out of it no matter how friendly I am with them. Though sometimes it just slips out.

    I don't think you are being paranoid, your race may have played a factor, and her being a PhD candidate might be a factor, but I guess it depends on how far she has gotten. I mean if she is a newly minted masters who is just embarking on the PhD that would sort of suck. It is so hard to tell why people get hired. What I don't get is, someone who takes the time and energy and expends the financial resources to get on a PhD track for African studies whose never been to Africa. I'd think at least going there, even if just for a short trip would be expected. If she were just casually studying it, or even just on the undergrad level I could see it but to go so far in studying a place you've never gone? Seems a bit too sterile to me.

    Good luck and I hope something turns up for you soon.

  29. Do you know that the woman who was hired for the position was white?

    Whether she was or not, I agree with those who have said that academic institutions will tend to privelege academic achievements. Given that you have attained a lower academic degree, you'd have to balance it out with a good publications record to be considered on the same level by most institutions.

    Your "life experience" is somewhat analogous to the situation of what are called "heritage learners" in the field of languages. Children of immigrants may speak their family's languages with perfect fluency, but because they were not educated in that language, they may not have the same familiarity with its formal grammar and literature as people who studied the language as outsiders.

    Is it so surprising that the academy values academic achievements most highly?

  30. Whatever the circumstances of the decision, I think it's really disingenuous of people to jump on the "it must be some reason other than racism!" bandwagon - it's racism-apologia, and it's not cool.

    I think the OP isn't being paranoid; the tendency for white institutions to pick white people because they value the "objectivity" of their experience is well-known. They may have rationalized it in several ways, but I'm willing to bet one of them was that the OP wouldn't be "objective" enough about the subject because they had lived on the continent, and had direct experience.

    The white academic model is to look at *all* research as only legitimate when studied from an outside perspective - and this is not only limited to racism, but racism plays a large part in who is chosen to do the research, especially if it is something academically "hot". [sarcasm] It is well-known that only WP can be objective. [/sarcasm]

    The determined denial of racism when it clearly plays a part in this case, under the guise of "objectivity" or "qualifications" (the other candidate is a PhD student, they don't have the qualification yet) is wrong, but I see it all the time. OP, your friends are trying very hard to deny racism, because they're uncomfortable with the idea, not because they're right.

  31. Example of white privilege: I'm guessing that the woman who got the job is probably not thinking about the role that race might have played in the decision. White people generally have the privilege of not worrying that our race might work against us in hiring situations--but we don't often entertain the corollary, either: that our race works in our favor.

  32. Macon,
    Thanks so much for posting this and for comments thus far. It's been very insightful.

    Just a few things

    a) I am a she not a he

    b) I do speak, read and understand German but since I'm not fluent I do not list it as a language skill.

    c)The qualifications for the job stated that the person have an advance degree, is familiar with the continent, and has read numerous publications about Africa. Yes, it was that vague.

    d)I do have very strong research background having worked as one during my undergrad years and wrote graduate and undergraduate honours theses which coincidentally was about imperialism.

    Lastly (just a few more things bear with me please):

    It was not my intent to demean her by calling her a "girl" and if I did, it clearly does not take away from her credentials.

    @Drowned Lotuses
    Most Africans speak more than one languages even those who have not left the continent. I don't necessarily consider myself an elitist/privileged because I've lived in poverty. I've just been fortunate enough to have opportunities which I've worked hard to seized.

    I suppose I can agree with some commenters that in the world of academia it's about how many letters are at the end of your name. But often the face of Africa is a celebrity rather than Chinua Achebe or Ellen Sirleaf. And rather than analyzing the problems, they simply send "aid" with conditions to these countries than understand how they can work with the populace to effect change.

    I know that was a bit long but thank you all again for your comments.

  33. I think the title of this post could also be something more along the lines of "SWPD: study abstract people of color without ever acknowledging the ones next door".

    In reading this post, I admit to not focusing on the "whys" of losing the job itself, since I don't think I have enough information (that would be impossible) to make a clear-cut diagnosis that Nomunfo lost the job because she is Black. However, this post did make me think of something I brought up recently in my Mental Health Iniquities class--the fact that many (White) people don't realize the irony in vigorously studying "other" groups of people while not actually knowing anyone who belongs to those groups. I've taken classes with people who've so-called "seen the light", renounced their privileges (of whatever nature), and called out other White people for their prejudicial beliefs, but what I don't notice are these people actually changing their lily-White surroundings or seeing it as a problem that their lives are so racially homogeneous. Long story short, I definitely see the value in this post as a tool for shedding light (maybe someone White has a personal story?) on why White people are enthusiastic (and even passionate) about other cultures from a distance, while disdaining those same cultures up close.

  34. i had the same reaction as dude's friends. She has a PhD and she's published. In academia those two things are typically very important.

    Now, I do see how that's an arbitrary standard that actually might not have much to do with who is more knowledgable about Africa, or who will do the best research, but people like those kinds of standards. They give the impression of fairness.

    So, that's how I saw it. I can see why dude would be mad that his experience, which he views as very valuable, was not given more weight, but I feel like that's the system that's in place. In some ways it's unfair, in other ways it's more fair than what used to be in place.

  35. I'm also puzzled by the derailing. It's true that on an individual level, when someone is rejected from a job, talked down to, followed around in a store, etc, there's no way to know whether it's because of their color or because of other "simpler"(?) factors (credentials, people are jerks, salespeople are paranoid). But somehow when you put all these instances together, you see systemic racism.

    The weird thing is, even on a blog devoted to overcoming racism, where most of the readers probably *accept* that racism exists on a systemic level, when it comes to any given individual situation there will be a ton of people denying that racism played a role. But if every single one of these individual experiences can, in fact, be fully explained away by other factors, then racism doesn't exist.

    You can believe in systemic racism all you want, but if you consistently deny it on an instance level, your "awareness" is useless.

  36. Nomunfo,
    Of course you'll never know for sure, but it seems completely normal and not paranoid at all to wonder if race or country of origin or a combination played a role.

    And I think it's worth saying that race could have played a role WITHOUT the person making the decision having much awareness that was happening. There was that research a while back about employers being more likely to reject a resume with a black-sounding name than one with a white-sounding name, even if their qualifications were the same. But I don't imagine these employers [most of them anyway] were consciously discarding the resumes of candidates they believed were black. What seems much more likely is that a whole host of unconscious and subconscious associations was working in the background, but so quietly that these employers probably believed they were rejecting candidates based on their merits alone.

    So, really, Nomunfo, it's no wonder you feel like it's hard to know what to think--it could very well be that the person who made the decision about your application doesn't know what REALLY influenced him/her. It's a bit crazymaking, actually. And having friends who didn't listen or believe you couldn't have helped either.

  37. @ through the window. I think your right but systematic racism would manifest in individual situations like the one in this thread no? If your going to examine whether or not an institution has racist hiring practices, you have to evaluate it on a case by case basis. innocent until proven guilty and all that. Though here and in the minds of most poc I guess it's the other way arround. Racism as original sin.

  38. Drowned Lotuses: Ah but you're willing to learn. I admire that a lot. Now to your question. It depends. Like in my country, the first language is English but there are local languages. Those are even up to a 100 but there are three main ones. Most people can speak English either well or in a broken form. That's like another language on it's own (it sounds like patwa)

    But you get some countries that speak French only and no local languages. If you want more information you can always google 'Anglophone Countries in Africa' for the English speaking ones or 'Francophone Countries in Africa' for the French Ones. Don't even get me started on the one's that speak Arabic or Portuguese.

  39. HG,
    I think what you say here is really interesting:

    The weird thing is, even on a blog devoted to overcoming racism, where most of the readers probably *accept* that racism exists on a systemic level, when it comes to any given individual situation there will be a ton of people denying that racism played a role. But if every single one of these individual experiences can, in fact, be fully explained away by other factors, then racism doesn't exist.

    I agree, and I don't appreciate all of the innocent explanations being offered here either. At the same time, though, isn't the rub for Nomunfo in trying to figure out how the systemic and the individual intersect or don't? That is, even if Nomunfo had gotten this job, that would not mean that systemic racism does not exist.

    Did that make any sense?

  40. @the other Julia re: "What seems much more likely is that a whole host of unconscious and subconscious associations was working in the background, but so quietly that these employers probably believed they were rejecting candidates based on their merits alone."

    This is what's so hard for people who are used to thinking of racism as racially motivated hostility or discrimination. The motivations of a hiring committee or hiring authority might be benevolent, but the effect is still that applicants of color don't get a fair appraisal when all other qualifications are comparable. A company or institution hires based on many factors, not only on measurable qualifications such as degrees and experience. Nobody is compelled to hire the person who is "most qualified" on paper, nor should that be the case, IMO. Other factors come into play, and some of them result in unintentional (but just as real) racial discrimination.

    Sometimes, this can take the form of "concern" for the applicant: "I don't think she'd be comfortable here" (in a white-dominated space). A similar result comes from the "good fit" qualification: in a white-dominant workplace, the whiter the applicants, the easier it is to imagine them "fitting in." To counter that aspect, hiring authorities, especially in white-dominant workplaces, might have to consciously go out of their comfort zone in considering applicants.

  41. @Jas0nburns
    "whether or not an institution has racist hiring practices, you have to evaluate it on a case by case basis."

    Such case by case assessments inevitably encounter the usual well intended justification (e.g., i'm not racist, it's the law, it's the way it is, etc --see here for more examples, very ironic). That's the trick of systemic racism--now you see it, now you don't. When you individualize the problem by the case by case inquiry, you essentially end up calling the whole society racist (I'm not saying that's not the case) and people think it's silly-- the way we do things are very very normal for most of us. It's just unthinkable that the whole thing is set up in the way to benefit one group of people. Moreover, in many setting, whites tend see calling someone a racist is worse than being one. Of course, it would be helpful if whites realize this collective position, but that's very hard since we worship individualism--aren't we all different? It just cannot be that I'm one of the whole thing.

  42. "I don't think you were being paranoid. Unfortunately, it seems that you can't know for certain why she was chosen and not you, but I think it's likely that white/Western ways of knowing were privileged unjustly over your more experiential knowledge. Also, I think your white friend displayed a common white tendency, which is to rather arrogantly explain away the probable racism that a black person is trying to point out -- a terrible irony, because the black person is actually more likely to know what is probably racism than the average white person is!"

    What he said.

    It's a troubling reality that whites think they know better about the world than other people do, and when they are confronted with other views, they are likely dismissed.

  43. Nomunfo,
    Thanks for giving more details what's going on, particularly this one:

    c)The qualifications for the job stated that the person have an advance degree, is familiar with the continent, and has read numerous publications about Africa. Yes, it was that vague.

    If the woman chosen has never been to the continent, that's kind of really ridiculous.

  44. Unfortunately I think the original poster might be correct in her assumption. Whilst we don't know much about the qualifications of the individual who was successful I do wonder why the poster was passed over when the job description was so vague.

    The Academic world seems to be terribly insular at times and there is a lot of emphasis on research experience rather then actual experience. Given the rising costs of higher education this is worrying because it means that a lot of disadvantaged groups will struggle more and more to find routes into academia and teaching.

    I was lucky to have a few lecturers who did have direct working experience of the countries/institutions that they lectured about and the difference to my learning was huge. It's also a shame that we have a sort of Ph.D vs Masters trump card situation going on. In my experience academic qualifications have little relevance to actual teaching ability, I have to wonder if its the same for research ability.

    I hope this experience doesn't make you too discouraged. Is there anyway you can get in touch and ask for feedback as to why they didn't consider you?

  45. I'm really confused as to how someone can receive a PhD. on Africa and not have been to Africa. I was under the impression you have to do some sort of field research. What did she receive her PhD in?

    @Minday: in this context, who cares that she is called a girl? like really? that is your main concern? chill.

  46. @Jasmin: What do you suggest people do to change their 'lily-white' surroundings? I ask because I've never been in a position to easily gain non-white friends (I've had, uh, one)--I would have had to actively seek them out. And that's something I'm not comfortable with, because then I'm not treating them as people.

    Don't get me wrong, I've always felt unfortuante to have such a monogamous life, but I'd like to pick my friends on something beyond the colour of their skin, and I've just never been a position where meeting non-whites was really an option.

  47. @Jas0nburns, in regards to your "innocent until proven guilty" comment, this is why racism must be treated as a systemic problem and not as individual acts of prejudice. As the following anonymous poster replied, "Such case by case assessments inevitably encounter the usual well intended justification." Short of explicit hate acts and overt racist policies, it's usually impossible to prove a racial motive in individual cases. However, if you look at the large-scale data, clear patterns of racial preference are staring you in the face. And the pathetic attempts to justify them as the result of anything but race (for example class, education, etc.) are just another layer of filthy racist behavior.

    What this all means is that just because you can't fight an individual act of racism, or even be sure that it was racial to begin with, doesn't mean you discount it when looking at the big picture. Rather it means you need to review the policies and underlying behaviors that are leading to racially biased outcomes and institute new policies to fix the system.

  48. Jayn,

    I agree that people shouldn't actively seek out people of color just to have friends that are people of color, because that's just creepy. What I think people should do is evaluate how they choose who to associate with, and how those patterns might shape their interactions, rather than relying on the (false) assumption that being friends is as simple as "hanging with the people you have the most in common with." For example, upon self-examination a person may notice that she always chats with the White people sitting around her in class, but never speaks to the Black ones, even though the White ones are just acquaintances. Or someone might subconsciously make an effort to sit away from people of color (in a Starbucks, at a movie theater, etc.).

    I think a lot depends on where you live, because the simple probability of being friends with a person of color in a town where they make up less than 5% is ridiculous. My line of thinking is more along questioning the assumption that you (the general you) must have more in common with other White people just because they are White. Hope I've made sense.

  49. As someone stated earlier, what I find super unbelievable is that this person who was hired never actually went to Africa. Isn't that like, a degree requirement for a lot of international studies majors?

    And I don't think I've read any comment on this blog that states simply, IT WASNT RACISM. More that the racism that was exhibited was perhaps not the only reason for the rejection given the combination of traits that make the academy an elitist institution(not only is it a bit racist, it's also sexist and classist), or that while the OP had a right to be angry about not getting the job, that doesn't mean that the PhD student was NOT qualified.

    Another structural harm of the academy, as previously pointed out, is the fact that it treats any and all cultures as something to be studied rather than experienced. This is a dichotomous problem that cannot be pinpointed by ONLY racism or another -ism.

    To the OP, it will, of course, be a bit more difficult for you to do what you want to do in academia, simply because of the color of your skin or because of your name and origin. But you should really try to just use this situation as further motivation.

    Because I am really tired of Bono and Jefferey Sachs telling Africa what is good for Africa when they have not experienced Africa from beyond the vantage points of their textbooks.

  50. Actually, plastiknoise, several of the comments on this post have said "it can't be racism, it's probably [blank]". WP have a strong tendency to bend over backwards to deny racism in specific instances, while admitting that racism exists in the abstract. I see it happen all the time, and call my friends out on it when they do it.

    Academia is famous for claiming objectivity as exclusively a white thing, especially when applied to anything remotely "ethnic" or sociological. Until you've heard a bunch of smug academics refuting careful reasearch with "well obviously they're biased, because they're [insert race]", you don't realize how racist academia can be.

  51. I actually never really thought of this picking from a race perspective. I guess because I'm unable to specifically define what classifies as racism. But now I think it may have played a part? No?

    As an African, I've never really had to deal with racism until I got to the US and started to grasp what it is. I thank Macon for this blog because I've learned so much.

    At the end of the day, no one will ever know why I was never picked and I hardly doubt the contact person will be as honest with me as I want. Nonetheless, I thank you all for your comments.

    As I pointed out to my friend, if an American scholar who had never been to Europe was picked to discuss European Political issues on an UK television, would he have a problem with it? His answer: Of course. However as he also stated, "it's just not the same situation". Maybe it's not.

  52. @Nufomo, I don't know how right your friend who you mention in your last comment is or at least I question his full honesty (whether it is conscious or unconscious). I have a white friend from college who is a fellow American but who went to Ireland right after graduation to attend graduate school about 16 years ago. He subsequently earned his PhD and has lived there ever since. He got his degree I believe in Peace Studies and Irish politics and he said sometimes he has Irish students who look at him askance and ask him what he, Mr. American is doing teaching them about Irish and European politics and he is THERE. Also since he moved there at 21 he has lived there only 4 years less than he lived in the States.

    They seem to understand once he explains but can you imagine the even greater questions he'd get if he told his students that he'd gotten his degree in the US and had just arrived in Ireland and had never been before? Let alone if he was black? Or if say he was teaching remotely from the US? Of course lots of people would question an American scholar who studied Europe and had never been.

  53. @Nomunfo wrote:

    As I pointed out to my friend, if an American scholar who had never been to Europe was picked to discuss European Political issues on an UK television, would he have a problem with it? His answer: Of course. However as he also stated, "it's just not the same situation". Maybe it's not.

    The reason it's not the same situation is that Africa is something "other" to be "studied" by "independent" observers who are "objective". It's unfathomable that people who are actually lived in such a "dirty", "backwards" place as Africa, much less actual Africans, would be qualified to speak from such a divine perspective.

  54. I'm still trying to work out the best mechanism by which white people can acknowledge systematic racism. Most of us view racism as like a rattlesnake or something. A bad scary thing to avoid at all costs becaue if we try to engage it it will bite us. When you look at something as so terrible you will do anything to avoid the realization that it's sitting in the room with you. Hence all the rationalizations and dismissals. Nobody is going to want to think of themselves as bad. so then what? Is it unfair of us to devillianize it enough to make seeing it in ouselves more palatable and probable? Or are the consequences of racism just too awful to allow that?

  55. One thing that troubles me here--a small issue, perhaps--is that so many posters seem to think having a PhD is some kind of negligible qualification. A PhD, unlike white skin, is not a form of "privilege" one is born with; it is earned through years of toil and scholarly engagement. It sounds like we don't even know if the successful candidate has a PhD or "is working on it"--two other levels of achievement which mean very different things. But one cannot compare earning a masters to earning a doctorate; the two levels are a world apart, as reflected in 2008 US Census Bureau statistics showing that while about 6.5% of the American population holds the masters, less than 1% holds a doctoral degree. You can argue that the credentialism upon which academia is based is also a form of social reproduction or stratification, if you want, and maybe it is. But there's a disturbingly cavalier anti-intellectualism at work in the leap to dismiss the more educated candidate's "alphabet soup," one one commenter names it, and also in the numerous (and, I suspect, self-serving) attacks on "study" as opposed to "experience."

  56. @OA

    Toil and scholarly engagement with an area/field with which the scholar has never actually been to? What kind of toil and engagement is that?

    You seem to suggest that a PhD automatically allows someone prestige. But as I've stated before, the foundations on which the academy are built reek of colonialism, racism, sexism, and classism, so I hope you are not just dismissing the skepticism without qualifying yourself more clearly...

  57. @OA, we do know that the person who got the job is a studet, the original post says she is a "PhD student" not candidate, not receipient, student. So we have no way of knowing if she is a newly minted MA who has just begun doing the PhD coursework or if she is an ABD or what. And I don't think there is "anti-intellectualism" going on here, but what most people have said is that racism could be a factor, particularly since this individual has not been to Africa and the ad, as the OP stated said they were looking for someone with an advanced degree, with a familiarity with the continent and strong research skills. If the ad had called specifically for a PhD it would be differnt. Also, since very PhD program and this person is just a student there is no way to know if they have more research experience or not. No one is saying a PhD is noting, but in a job that doesn't specify a PhD, and asks for familiarity with an area and one person has more hands on experience it isn't always the case that the person with more formal education is the better candidate or not. It can depend and people are just pointing out to the OP that she is not paranoid and her race may have played a factor. What is anti-intellectual about that?

  58. Nomunfo, sorry you lost the position. I think it should've been yours (based on the job posting itself).

    I spent a good chunk of my childhood on the continent, learned my mother tongue, practiced our customs, still adhere to many of our cultural views, and yet I've had white folks who've "visited" Africa--never the country I'm from, by the way--speak to me very confidently as though we are "equals" on the subject. It's annoying as hell.

    That said, your friend is an idiot and you should keep him at arm's length.

  59. island girl in a land w/o seaMarch 24, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    @ OA

    i am trying to understand how you reached the conclusion that other commenters are treating doctoral degrees as if they were trivial achievements. rereading the thread, it doesn't appear that such devaluation, or anti-intellectualism, as you call it,is going on at all.

    the devaluation of the expertise and knowledge of POC in general and scholars of color in particular occurs at the intersections of multiple systems of inequality: racism, sexism, able-ism, heteronormativity...i could go on and on. the issue is more than simply who has what initials after their name or the "divide" between experience and scholarship.

    ultimately, this is an ontological and epistemological issue: is the knowledge that POC and indigenous people possess considered to be knowledge, or is it something less than? who is empowered to hold knowledge, to disseminate it, to challenge it? i submit that knowledge and knowledge production are racialized, but perhaps that is a topic best reserved for another day.

  60. I'm sorry, my last comment was very poorly edited and had lots of misspellings. I was trying to say that every PhD program is different and b/c we don't know what stage this PhD student is at, we really can't state categorically that the woman who was hired actually has greater research experience than the OP.

  61. @jas0nburns re: "Nobody is going to want to think of themselves as bad. so then what? Is it unfair of us to devillianize [racism] enough to make seeing it in ouselves more palatable and probable?"

    This is an issue I have been thinking and writing about for a few years now, and here are some of my takes on it. Like most of us, I was indoctrinated in the "racism=evil" equation and spent most of my life trying to distance myself from racism because, as you say, no one wants to think of themselves as evil or as promoting or tolerating evil. What was missing from the equation, IMO, was the historical context. Racism was not presented in history class as a policy, as something invented and promoted for a purpose, but that's what it is.

    Instead, it seemed to be presented as a kind of character defect, like rudeness or egoism (or at best as a sociological phenomenon like ethnocentrism). To be a racist was to be crude, ignorant, hateful, angry and so on. But even in the 1960s it must have been clear to many that what we consider the society-wide effects of racism--poverty, unequal treatment and opportunity, lower life expectancy and other effects--could not be caused by the relatively small number of truly hateful, evil "racists." Gradually some white people have realized (joining PoC who already knew) that racism isn't a character issue but an institutional one--even though there are certainly instances of individual acts of hatred and racially-motivated discrimination. Something much bigger and more pervasive has to be in operation to keep millions of people in a lower status economically and socially.

    So, to get to the issue, racism isn't a personal thing to me. I am not either racist or not racist. I am part of a racist social order; we all are. Whether we help perpetuate that order (actively or by doing nothing) or whether we work against it is the important distinction.

    I just don't think of anyone as racist or not-racist. Even if someone said, "I really believe that white people are genetically superior to all others," I would say that that person had bought the whole lie, not that that person was "a racist." I don't think that personalizing the issue is helpful in any way.

    I am a racist only in the same way that I am a capitalist or a "commercialist" or a corporatist. Those are all systems that I participate in just by virtue of being in this culture at this time however harmful they might be. Racism is similar. I believe that as long as we see racism as something that has to be purged from individuals, we will never see the end of it. It has to be purged from the culture BY individuals.

  62. @bloglogger, thank you for your post. definitely a few "aha" moments while reading.

  63. I think the problem with this thread is that we were asked to address this specific situation, and it really is impossible to know whether this particular hiring was racially-motivated or academically-motivated. To give her a definite answer one way or the other would be disingenuous, however, we can still acknowledge the fact that there is a general trend in academia of "studying" things instead of learning from experience, and that's inherently problematic when it comes to studying something like ANOTHER CONTINENT that you've never lived on.

    c)The qualifications for the job stated that the person have an advance degree, is familiar with the continent, and has read numerous publications about Africa. Yes, it was that vague.

    So the woman who got the job may have had a more advanced degree, but you're definitely more familiar with the continent than she is. I would hope that she had at least traveled to the continent before, or perhaps done some field research that you're not aware of, as others suggested. If not, that's definitely a huge problem. How could someone be so dedicated to studying a continent and not have even traveled there?

    Also, there's a lot of ingrained racism still kicking around in academia in a lot of ways, and that definitely needs to be discussed. It's not irrational to wonder if race was a factor, even if you can't know for sure in your case, because these this kind of discrimination does all too often. Even if we can't know for sure in your case because of our limited information about the other candidate, the hiring process, etc, we can still have a discussion about the general white tendency to devalue the experiences of PoC, which is pervasive.

    Perhaps your friends didn't want to discuss the possibility of racism in your case because they don't want to admit that it DOES happen, all the time, in academia.

  64. @bloglogger

    Definitely agree as well. Thanks.

  65. Sadface, I agree: it's not necessarily irrational to "wonder" if racism was a factor, as you say, but there are people here going much further than that, saying on the basis of very little information that it probably was a decision motivated by racism. That's poor reasoning.

    I wonder if everyone reading this thread is able to answer this question, just for themselves. What sort of information, if it were revealed, would convince you that this was NOT a racist decision?

  66. Quiz Ling,
    Please present evidence for your claim:
    "there are people here going much further than that, saying on the basis of very little information that it probably was a decision motivated by racism."

  67. A new post/poem at "Race Has Nothing to Do with You" provides another example of what Nomunfo highlights in this post:

    studies aren't knowledge

    after hearing several researchers
    frame that "this is what the research shows"

    i came back to this:

    "Studies show what those who study show"

    and this is especially true for social science
    data and numbers and stats all are collected, framed
    conceived of by people who are blinded in the same
    ways our schools teach: white knowledge is privileged
    and indigenous knowledge is smashed/invalidated/erased
    and so studies show what
    we want them to . . .

    The rest is here.

  68. Hey Macon,
    Thanks for providing this link. Will check it out.

  69. Dear nomunfo (and all others),

    First of all, I am sorry I didn't get round to reading the second half of the comments, but it's late and I am working on the last few pages of my Master's, so there you go. Please excuse my bad behaviour, just this once.

    But since I am a German student, I think I have a bit of an idea how this whole thing went. For once, I may be actually able to contribute instead of just read, so here goes:

    Yeah, racism does exist. In many places, unfortunately. Sometimes the outright, violent kind by deluded Neo-Nazis, but more commonly it's a just a mixture of stereotypes and smug ignorance, especially with regards to Africa (i.e. all poor) and the Arab world (i.e. all backwards).

    To wit: In a seminar on English-speaking African authors lead by a guest professor from Kenya, a fellow student after three(!) sessions seriously couldn't seem to remember the name Wole Soyinka (like, Nobel Prize laureate?), and instead turned him into a 'soljanka', i.e. an Eastern German tomato soup. Well done, A+ for creativity. Another student opined that the Yoruba creation myth was illogical, essentially asking, "How can they believe such a load of bunk?". Our professor inquired if, by any chance, she happened to be familiar with the book of Genesis and still a Christian. (Did I mention this man rocked my socks?)

    However, while you will encounter racism and ignorance when you come to Germany (but please do! I promise we aren't all that bad and many of us will be extremely interested – though still a little bit naive), I don't think your rejection was based on your race:

    German institutions are faaar too anal about job interviews and it was an Institute for African Studies, the staff of which, I think, would have been delighted to take you on. (Well, at least my English department loves having Indian and Caribbean teachers, because it's just, well, reasonable to study their varieties from a native speaker.)

    It's most likely that the department was (as usual) subject to restrictions, ones that they didn't make up themselves but actually are sort of the law here:
    1. Choose the highest qualified applicant. Qualifications are always academic, no exceptions unless you have a lot going for you, like being a published writer in other fields, etc.
    2. If two people are equally qualified, choose a woman.
    3. If both are women, choose an applicant with EU citizenship… with German language skills… with second related subject… with several languages… Etc. etc. etc. ad nauseam.

    I won't deny that this is institutionalised racism, or at least eurocentrism to n-th degree, but I don't think, honestly, that it was due to a disregard for your lack of expertise or your qualifications on account of you being African. It's more to do with German academia and bureaucracy in itself having a really, really insular mindset. And your "lesser degree" plus your lack of fluent German probably tipped the scales to your disadvantage.

    Maybe, just maybe, this other woman had some connections, knew an influential professor, etc. and you didn't stand a chance in the first place. Because sometimes everybody on the committee knows who they want but still have to advertise the post as universities are public institutions. They usually just rig the game against all other applicants, then.

    I guess, what I want to say is: No, it probably wasn't outright racism. But in my eyes, it's silly nonetheless and the students, at least, would have benefitted far more from your presence than anyone else's. What can I say, the job market is unfair, and I am sorry.

    (Sorry that this got so long)

  70. technicolorsheep

    Thanks for the explaination. Helps to have a German perspective.

  71. Yes, there is institutionalized racism in academia. Anyone who denies this is not living in reality. Yes, a PHd is more "advanced" than a Masters but I still would have given you the job given your experience. Like Technicoloursheep said, I don't think this was outright racism but it may have still been there nonetheless to a certain extent and yes the job market is extremely unfair!!! The other applicant should have at least been to Africa once. I personally have suffered from severe forms of racism in university by white professors. It does still exist and to honor "individualism" would be ignoring the systemic problem of racism that pervades all facets of life including the medical, educational, judicial and entertainment industries. Your anger is justified and it's good to see you're exploring the reasons as to why you were not chosen. I do that myself very often ( contact me if you like. I agree with everything said.


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