Thrive on Campus//

Appearance and Appearances: Dispatches From the Ivory Tower | Part I

Code-switching & compliments while navigating graduate school as a first-generation student.

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By Sarojini Rao

This article is the first of a two-part follow-up to my first article on navigating graduate school as a Millennial Women of Color.

“You don’t look like a (scientist, mathematician, economist, engineer, etc.)”

You know how there’s always some sort of “happy hour” excursion at the end of the first week of anything? Whether it’s a new job, a new project, or a new school year, no orientation week is complete without a social outing of some sort. They’re supposed to be fun events where you can get to know your new colleagues and maybe even make new friends.

I have (for better or worse) attended three of these: at a summer internship in a corporate environment, at my first full-time job in a more research-focused environment, and then at the end of the first week of classes in graduate school. At every single one of these “networking events,” there has been one white man who would either consciously or sub-consciously look me in the face and say something to suggest that I didn’t really belong there.

I’m not the first to point out that women in all professions are far more likely to have their appearance scrutinized. I’m also not the first to highlight the extra double standard (triple standard?) in academia, where an unkempt man is “eccentric” but still competent, whereas a similarly unkempt woman is “distracted” and presumed less competent. Multiple (white) women academics have written blog posts on choosing outfits for the classroom and specifically for conferences.

But there’s appearance as in clothing and makeup, as well as appearance relating to the physical attributes of your body: the color of your skin, your curves or lack thereof, your height, weight, and eventually, the wrinkles and grey hair. It’s hard enough to love our bodies without the additional pressure of feeling like we somehow have the wrong body for the job when the job itself doesn’t need any specific physical requirements.

“But I meant it as a compliment”

Of course, he did. To look attractive and have it acknowledged is flattering, and especially so when academia is known to take such a toll that people can develop stress-induced health issues and, sometimes, age prematurely. That said, those of us who don’t come from an academically-leaning family tree, and who may have to justify the decision to go to graduate school in the first place, are already walking the tightrope where we try to “fit in” while still being ourselves.

Before I started graduate school, someone warned me about how much weight they’d gained during their Ph.D. I realized recently just how much this had burrowed into my subconscious mind. At some level, I had kept myself from totally honing in on my work to the exclusion of all else, as I would have liked, precisely because I was worried that any weight gain or signs of premature aging would eclipse the value of having an advanced degree. It weighed on me (no pun intended) that people who didn’t get what the big deal was, including family members, would look at me and wonder if it had been worth it given the toll it took on my body and appearance. After all, we live in a society where even women who give birth are immediately harangued about getting back to their “pre-baby” body! Otherwise, I’d be the first one pushing a copy of my dissertation around in a stroller.  

On Faux Compliments & Code-Switching

“You’re so articulate!”

The flip-side, of course, is the “compliments” one receives from professors and colleagues: the ones that betray their own unthinking prejudice. Many of them may sound like compliments at first glance, but they’re really not. I usually get stiff and awkward when I hear these, and I suspect the person paying the compliment thinks I’m just being modest, but I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

I may be articulate, but the tone of surprise that accompanies the compliment suggests that you looked at me and lowered your expectations. Do white guys ever get told they’re articulate? Doubtful. Maybe it is just me (no, it’s not) but I would rather be complimented on the ideas expressed in my speech or writing, or on my public speaking skills, or on my sense of humor. Even “articulated” as a verb loses its sting because it points at the complexity of the content, as in “I think you articulated the issues at hand really well.”

Other faux-compliments that have left me fumbling for an appropriate response include “you don’t sound Indian…your accent is barely noticeable,” “you don’t look Indian,” and “you’re just one of the guys.” To the extent that these statements contain even a grain of objective truth, it’s only because I spent my first four years in the United States in a veritable sea of white faces and so constantly exert the mental energy to not stick out.

It’s called code-switching, a practice wherein people who speak multiple languages or dialects of a language change how they sound depending on the context. The “compliment” rankles because it’s the opposite of looking or sounding “fresh off the boat,” one of those phrases that can only be reclaimed by those who have genuinely lost something by its use. To “be one of the guys” has positive connotations only if being a woman is somehow inferior. Even if the person giving the compliment intends to congratulate me on my impressive capacity for code-switching, it’s still a painful reminder that I am actually an outsider to academic culture.

Imposter Syndrome And The Limits Of “Fake It Till You Make It”

Perhaps I would not be so sensitive to these slights if I didn’t already feel a deep sense of not really deserving to be in my program. Imposter syndrome is rampant in academia, but most people derive a sense of validation from clearing the hurdles of qualifying exams and proposing one’s thesis. You expect it to ease up as you progress through the program. People who experience imposter syndrome often attribute their successes to luck. And so, a common piece of advice, given a million different ways, is to “fake it till you make it.” That is, you may feel like an untalented fraud, but if you just keep showing up and doing the work as if you know what you’re doing, you’ll eventually be doing it successfully.

Faking it till you make it fails miserably as a strategy when you’re having to fake an entirely different personality. Repeated suggestions that you owe your success to some form of formal or informal affirmative action, that you’re a diversity candidate, or the “right” kind of Brown person is deeply pernicious.

What does “faking it” mean for someone like me? Am I supposed to constantly act like a white man and hope nobody notices that I’m actually a Brown woman? If so, what does it mean to make it? If keeping up the appearance of confidence and competence is just the price one pays for success, having to compensate for your gender or ethnic identity is an unfair tax. Now that’s the stuff of revolutions!

This article was originally published on Witted Roots.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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