Beyond My Advising Expertise

Not having been born or raised in the US means that there are cultural aspects that I don’t understand as viscerally as someone who grew up here, went to school here, and had their formative experiences here. I am white, and I understand that it confers considerable privileges to me in this society; being foreign-born means I also lose some. I am not going to claim that I have no biases, but I probably don’t hold the exact same ones or don’t hold them in the exact same way as someone who looks exactly like me, but who grew up right here. I am also sure that I do not have a very good grasp of all the challenges that people of color face in the US; I am reading and learning, and I do understand that the issue of race in the US is still very, very painful.

An undergraduate researcher who just started a summer project in my group is among our top undergrads, extremely smart and talented for the type of work that my group does,  as well as a really great person. She is a young black woman from Africa. Today, she came to ask for advice regarding where to go to graduate school, because she doesn’t want to stay in the US. I asked what she didn’t like about the US, and she said she wanted to go somewhere where her skin would not a big deal; she felt race was all that she was hearing about in the news these days, and she wanted to go someplace where it’s not going to be an issue.

My first though was, “Dang… I don’t think there’s a place like that in the West.” My second thought was, “I think I am totally unqualified to give advice on this topic…”

We talked for a little while. I think I understand some of what she is feeling — she is facing the racial tensions in the US, and even though much of it seems like it should apply to her because of her skin, she does not really feel like it does. She is new to this country, she is black but not African American, the complex and painful history of racial conflict in the US is really not part of her heritage. She is black, but she has not grown up black in America.

I told her that I thought she was very smart and talented and that she really could do great in her chosen field. I also told her that she was female and black and that it’s probably going to be a double minority whammy going forward, with role models few and far between.

As a woman, I told her that people sometimes commented that I had gotten something based on my gender. I told her she was likely to experience such comments herself, both on account of race and gender, especially as she progressed through her career. These comments would make her question her worth, and I said that, to be successful, she would need to find a way to not let those comments have her doubt herself for very long. I said people sucked, but luckily not all of them , and that there were great people everywhere who would support her and she needed to surround herself with them.

We went on the web and I pulled up the pages of several black professors we have in the college, and some who came to mind at other schools, whose proposals I remember reviewing and who I thought did really great work.

I also told her that, strictly as an immigrant, she might never be as comfortable anywhere as in her home country, regardless of skin color. I am as white as they come, and I still live with perpetual low-level discomfort of being other. If I were a person of color, I am sure it would suck much more to live where I do now.

I wish I could have told her more, but I am not sure what. I hope I at least clearly conveyed that I thought that she’s really awesome, that she belonged in this field, that successful people who looked like her existed even if they weren’t numerous.

She said I’d given her a lot to think about. I wish I could have given her more or better advice, that there is this utopia where she can just be her awesome self and kick butt while getting her advanced degree.

Is there a country in the developed world where it sucks less to be black than it does in the US? My experience with Europe is that it’s more closed off and xenophobic than the US; every European country seems to have its own dark-skinned ethnicity to hate.

Is there something important that I missed? Should I make sure she talks to some of the faculty of color in the college? I would like to help but I honestly don’t know that I am even qualified to give advice on how to navigate her future career as a woman of color in the physical sciences. Maybe she is right to look outside of the US, maybe there are countries where she’d be more comfortable. Should I have recommended looking at cities where young black professionals seem to be doing well, like here or here?

I feel like I should have said something more, but I am not even sure what that would be.

Maybe it’s one of those issues where I should just follow her lead and talk when she needs to talk, otherwise leave it alone.

I just hope she knows she is really awesome.

What say you, blogosphere? Any advice?

It would be really great to hear from readers of color about what they think might help my student. 


  1. Within Europe, I get the impression that the Netherlands and Sweden are the only places where a black person has even a hope of not being particularly judged, but at the same time, they will never completely fit in (arguably just as much as a white person who is not Dutch or Swedish will never quite fit in). France, Italy, Spain, and even Germany seem to be much worse places for a black person to be in academia than the US.

    South Africa is a plausible option. Due to the policy of Affirmative Action and latent racism in society, black professors there are basically assumed to have gotten their jobs based on their skin color alone until proven otherwise. However, the country does still have some strong positives for a black African academic: the science funding spigot is unlikely to ever run dry (given that the government is. and for the next 100+ years will be, run by the ruling black majority with a strong mandate to redress past inequities), and there will be many opportunities to advance. The color of the professoriate is changing rapidly, and within 20 years, the two best institutions in the country (UCT and Wits) are likely to have a majority of black professors. This will make the academic environment very favorable for a black professor. Two further downsides to consider is that South Africa is still a deeply sexist society, and South Africans are remarkably xenophobic against other Africans, although both these negatives pertain more to the lower classes than the upper classes (which academics most certainly fall into). (c.f. )

    My advice to this young scientist would be to do her Ph.D. in the US, making sure to get as many first-author papers as possible so that noone can plausibly question her credentials, and then consider her next move, giving strong consideration to both the US and to South Africa.

  2. Australia / New Zealand might be good options for your student. (Funding is better in Australia, urban NZ is less racist/sexist than urban Oz but funding for science isn’t great).

    While neither country is free from race problems by any stretch of the imagination, there isn’t the level of xenophobia that occurs in Europe. Like in the US, everyone is an immigrant.

    Also the racism that is there is isn’t directed towards people of African descent *. This is partly/mostly because there simply hasn’t been as much immigration from Africa as there has been from elsewhere. Sydney/Auckland etc are very multicultural but few Africans (non-white immigration mostly from Asia/Pacific), and the black people you do see are just as likely to have been born in London as Lagos.

    * Australia has definite issues with people from the Arab – Muslim world and its indigenous population.

  3. Within the U.S., some programs will be less racist/sexist than others. Unfortunately, the only way to figure which are better is to look at the composition of the programs and to ask POC who are in them. The top program in my field is better than the next 10 on these fronts, though the city is still not the best. In terms of cities, there are some in the US that treat upper-class blacks very differently than those with lower SES. A science PhD student would qualify as upper SES. Additionally, even though the south is pretty racist, PhDs have a lot of privilege. One of my black colleagues talks about how she got pulled over for driving while black and the officer’s demeanor completely changed when he saw her faculty ID with her license. Still racism, but mitigated somewhat.

    Is there a pipeline program she can join for networking purposes?

  4. I am an immigrant to the US and have worked in Europe for a short amount of time. I am not white but neither am I black. I went to school in the US and then postdocs/fellowships and eventually faculty position.

    In Europe I felt that I was being judged everywhere by a scientist as well as a mailman. I never did fit in (though these were short stays) and any where I went felt that I am in the other. In the US (atleast in big cities) I never had this feeling of otherness.

    I chose US as my place of immigration because I think I had a better chance than other developed countries. Though US has its share of problems with race/religion/otherness I think it will get better with time. Fortunately there is a big share of people who are well-grounded and do not make such judgements based on where I am from. This definitely helps !

  5. What about Canada? Yes, as with any former British colony we have our fair share of racism, but ours is not centred in such a huge way around blackness.

  6. If she decides to stay in the US, it would probably be worth doing a little research to understand the biases she’s up against. Actually, this is true anywhere you aren’t the dominant group, I guess. I had a book recommendation on my blog recently- let me know if you’d like me to dig around and find it.

    She might also want to talk to a Black American about racism in the different parts of the US, and think about which set of problems she’d prefer. All of our regions are racist, but my feeling is that it manifests in different ways in different places… but I have only a hazy understanding of that, since I am white, and I’ve also only ever lived in a few places.

    As for going elsewhere, I don’t think she can escape dealing with racial bias. Again, it will manifest differently in different places, and maybe she can do some research and find the place where the way it manifests bothers her least.

    And of course, if depends on her field of interest. If you’re comfortable emailing me that, do so, and I may have a couple of people to recommend she talk to.

  7. Very though call. All things considered, I would still suggest the US over Europe. In particular I have to disagree with Micheal P regarding the Netherlands, where maybe there are no cases of racism that end up on the news for dramatic developments (police brutality, and so on), but the general feeling towards immigrants (especially black or from Muslim countries) is light years away from positive and bias free. Just consider the Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet, that most (even liberal) Dutch people would defend and not consider a form of accepted, widespread, racism (google it, you won’t believe your eyes). As a (slightly dark-skinned) Eastern European I felt much more welcomed in the UK and in Germany than in the Netherlands, where if I was lucky I would receive constantly the stereotype associated to my own country, or I was “unlucky” I would be mistaken for Arab/Turk because of my dark complexion and asked why I would not wear a veil or other similar things.

  8. I’ve worked in Australia, Europe, and the US. Of those I would be inclined to suggest the US, but pick the region and program very very carefully. While race will be less of an issue in Australia ( in Melbourne, Sydney, or perhaps Canberra), sexism will be – which will of course compound any race issues – particularly if you’re in a traditionally male-dominated field. If she’s from a French-speaking country, France is a definite option, although I might avoid Paris.

    However, if she can find an arrangement in the US she’s comfortable with she’ll get a much better graduate education in the US than in either of France or Aus, where PhDs are three years and have no/minimal course work.

  9. There are plenty of good schools in the east and west coasts where she is likely to experience very little racism/sexism, and probably get a better education than anywhere else in the developed world.

  10. I have worked in central, northern and western Europe and after living in four different countries apart from my own, I can say that I don’t think you ever really fit in with the locals, even as someone who looks like people in your chosen country do.

    That said, I think in Europe there is one place where people of all types are most tolerated and that is London. Not other places in UK, only London. It is big enough and mixed enough that you meet people from almost everywhere and of almost any looks and types and so inhabitants are used to this mixture and multiculturality. So I would suggest to the student to look at universities in London for a PhD.

  11. This sounds like utopian thinking, not reality for a WOC: “plenty of good schools in the east and west coasts where she is likely to experience very little racism/sexism”. Unfortunately. But schools in cities with a significant black (especially immigrant) population might help provide some community outside of the campus. The suggestion of London, for those reasons, makes sense too.

  12. I think you did well. Maybe put her in touch with current graduate students from Africa? I know at least one (great woman from Kenya, studying Human Genetics at my University) and I would love to put them in touch if you think it may help.
    Good luck,

  13. I think she should consider Canada! A very immigrant friendly country, much more so than the US. And the PhD students at the top schools get excellent training.

  14. I’m going to be the third person to chime in with Canada as a possibility – particularly Toronto or UBC (avoid Quebec). I wish I could say she wouldn’t encounter any racism in those places but that would not be true. Canada is however far safer and less overtly racist than the US. This is not to say we don’t have racial issues but they are different than the states and the diversity of both regions is such that it is less isolating for people of colour than many places in the states. Quebec unfortunately is less welcoming unless she comes from a French speaking region – the divisions there are more about language than race but the divisions are deep.

  15. I’ll add Canada. Here’s some anecdata: recently there was a star student in our program. He won several awards, so there were various writeups in the university newspaper. I only got a chance to meet him a few weeks back. Turns out the chap is black, a fact that never came up in the various writings. That’s how much of a non-issue blackness can be here.

  16. Well, maybe my earlier comment was somewhat unrealistic, but on a relative scale, I would still vote for the coasts as opposed to most other places. As for London, I hear they make you take a test of “Britishness” or something during their citizenship process. I don’t imagine this will ever happen in the US.

  17. I’m a naturalized citizen and I’m not white. Where you live in the US matters greatly. Life in the big cities (and its surrounding suburbs) is very different from life in the smaller cities. I love my BigCity and feel totally at home. My suggestion for this young African student is to go to grad school in a big city university. By big city I mean Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago etc. I would also recommend avoiding the south. I’m sure people will disagree with me. The south is still not over the fact they lost the civil war. This is just my two cents. – Dr. S

  18. Another vote for Canada. And no reason to avoid Quebec–just stick to Montreal, where language is a lot less important. There are 2 English universities (McGill and Concordia) and 2 French universities (Universite de Montreal and Universite du Quebec a Montreal) in Montreal. Importantly, there is a large immigrant African community which can provide off-campus social opportunities for an African student looking for a taste of home.

  19. Another vote for Canada. Not perfect, but hopefully better than the US, and I would guess better than Europe. As a Canadian, I’ve studied at/visited a number of universities, and am happy to provide general opinions of schools and places. No need to stick to the “big” universities either (Toronto, UBC, Mcgill)… there are plenty of medium universities with great PhD programs. There are probably a dozen or more good schools in Southern Ontario, and then others scattered across the other provinces. I wouldn’t say Quebec (specifically Montreal) is necessarily more racist (haven’t spent enough time there to say), but definitely more snobbish. That is just my experience from spending several weeks in the city as a sorta-French-speaking but still very English Canadian – I’m sure some Quebec’ers would disagree.

  20. I am a African female prof in a scientific field. I did my PhD at Cambridge University and it was a wonderful experience. I just felt like a student there (for the most part), not a black-woman-student. I did my undergrad studies there as well – choosing it over top American schools partly because I could see the race issues on campus in just my short recruiting visits. Being in the US, I now feel like my double minority status is something I am frequently confronted with. But, on the other hand, I don’t know that someone like me would ever be hired as faculty in my dept in the UK…

  21. I did a PhD at Stanford in a physical science field (I’m a white female). I have a friend who is a current PhD student in my former department who is a black female from the Caribbean. She did her undergrad in the US as well, at a southern state university, and had a very good experience. So I’m adding to the chorus of people offering to put your student in touch with someone who may have relevant experience and advice. Overall, while black female PhD students in physical sciences were not common, there were certainly more than a few at Stanford. However, the surrounding area (Silicon Valley) is predominantly White and Asian, and black women may experience racism there. In general, I’d guess that major metro areas in the eastern US would be better, mainly because they have higher black populations and thus will have more black people at every level of society. I’ll also agree with most of the commenters, and say that the US provides high quality graduate education and is likely less racist than other places with similar educational quality. I spent some time in Australia and NZ, and I saw very few black people, so she would likely stand out there. NZ and Australia both have significant racism issues surrounding their native populations, as well. I wish there were a place where she could receive a top-quality education and never think about her race and gender, but unfortunately I don’t think there is.

  22. Indeed, Canada. Way way ahead of the U.S. and Latin America on race and gender issues.

    I lived there as an immigrant, and have lived in other countries as well. In Canada (Toronto and Vancuver I know well) it is not socially acceptable to be racist, and there is an overall acceptance that people are different and that’s ok. In Canada for teaching we had to take courses where they reminded us of all the ways in which people are different depending on their culture. We discussed ways to adapt our classes accordingly.

    In the U.S, when I am now, it is very different. We also had to take courses on diversity, but the tone was very different. It wasn’t at all about truly respecting the differences, but avoiding legal trouble. They call this “politically correct”, which means it is not really about respecting the other, but not getting in trouble about it.

  23. I’m not well-qualified to comment (white female immigrant to the US), but it seems to me that the student is concerned about more than avoiding personal exposure to racism. It sounds like she wants to be in a country where black skin color is not so inherent in the news/culture/history as it is here.

    Notwithstanding the huge issues the UK has with xenophobia (eg anti-Muslim sentiment in some sections of society, etc), I second AnonP’s comment about London: it is multicultural in the best way, nobody stands out in particular, and it is a fun place to be a graduate student at a good school.

    Re: wiliam Occam’s comment “As for London, I hear they make you take a test of “Britishness” or something during their citizenship process. I don’t imagine this will ever happen in the US.” Yes, the “Britishness test” is ridiculous, but you don’t have to take it to study there; only if you want to become a citizen. And the US does also make you take a “naturalization test” if you want to become a citizen, though I believe the questions are not quite so silly.

    Having said all of the above, UK immigration policy is sadly becoming much less friendly towards non-European immigrants.

  24. I would encourage her to think about Canada.
    Very few black students (the proportion in the population is not high), but a very accepting atmosphere in universities and in society as a whole.
    The student body at major universities is very very diverse.
    Moreover, in my department a significant proportion of couples (among faculty) are mixed, black-white, white-east asia, white-Indian… Some of them are not originally from Canada, and I think they picked it up for its race-is-not-an-issue atmosphere.

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