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I’m an Indian PhD student at a mathematics department in the US. A few months back, I was deliberately shoulder-bumped for a few seconds by another PhD student. This student had previously chased me across the department (literally), invaded my personal space, and stared me down. I asked to change offices, which is usually a routine affair, but a faculty member stepped in to prevent this. I had to remain in close proximity with this guy, who continued to act in passive-aggressive ways.

After the shoulder bumping, I threatened to go to campus police. The aforementioned faculty member responded (in writing) saying: “There is no proof of this ever happening; I can’t prevent you from going to the campus police, but be warned that both of you can get expelled."

Also prior to this, I had reported several racist incidents from another student. A few example quotes are:

  • "you fucking Indians" in a very threatening tone,
  • "don’t tell me you fucking Indians count so fast,"
  • "You Indians and Chinese are taking over,"
  • or in a mocking tone: "It’s funny there is racism in your country."

When I showed this faculty member documentation of these events, he wrote to me in an email: "I don’t agree with your assessment that there is anything racist in these incidents." He also said the racist PhD student was "special" (though there is no written evidence of him saying this).

Another teaching faculty member had been similarly racist. He said things like:

  • "I was scared to come here initially because I thought I would have to learn Hebrew",
  • "I'm so white I'll never be mistaken for an Italian who gets mistaken for a terrorist when doing Math on a plane"
  • Telling a room full of Chinese students and a couple of Indian students: "If you speak in Mandarin or Hindi in the corridors you will get into serious trouble, like some Chinese students and postdocs from the past who were speaking Chinese in the corridors and it created a lot of mistrust and there were very serious complaints" (no-one else has ever heard of these incidents).

Further, he physically intimidated me and barged into my office at one point. The faculty member said he had not done anything inappropriate (again no written evidence of this specifically). In fact he said, it is commendable and shows the teaching faculty member is very socially aware and aware of his white privilege.

I would not have necessarily made an issue out of this again, but I recently received a threatening letter from the dean and this faculty member. This letter warned that I could be "withdrawn" and stated that I wouldn't be allowed to defend a thesis right away. I replied saying "Are you sure you want to take such a tone after the murder of George Floyd?" Their reply was: "If you keep speaking like this, we will 'withdraw' you."

How should I proceed after these incidents? I'm particularly interested in legal recourse (though the incidents mentioned may be hard to prove in a court of law, although I have these written emails from our faculty member).

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    Moderator’s notice: This question had already been posted, was deleted and re-posted as per this new policy. The existing answer was merged here. In this respect, everything is fine. – Wrzlprmft Sep 12 at 12:23
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Comments after this one must request clarification or seek improvements to the post only; please see this FAQ. – cag51 Sep 12 at 20:09
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    What sort of university is it? Is it public or private? Can you give the state? – Acccumulation Sep 12 at 21:04
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    If there are so many people with an openly racist behaviour, the whole place's culture is seriously rotten. Any chance of going somewhere else for the PhD? – Captain Emacs Sep 12 at 21:26
  • Have you reported all this to the nearest Indian consulate and asked if they could help? – Michael Hardy Sep 15 at 3:37
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If you have irrefutable evidence of this harassment, you might want to go to the press. The university newspaper and/or local or even national newspapers. Your life will be turned upside down, but maybe it will protect future students of color from this harassment.

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    A particularly sad example is the newest answer proposing you secretly record the incidents and present the recordings as proof. What would actually happen is that such evidence would be thrown out, and then the legal system would promptly come down on you, because such recording is illegal. That's the system working. – knzhou Sep 12 at 18:34
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    The admissibility of recorded conversations varies widely by jurisdiction and situation. You would have to check the relevant laws for your specific state. That said, this route seems like it would be detrimental to finishing your degree. At the least you should try to finish before you do this. – Jeff Sep 12 at 19:07
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    Going to the press is fun for the press, and for all the other people who support general action, but it may completely ruin OP's career. Not good advice without tempering it with getting lawyer's advice and probably professional media advice, too, also to make OP's steps more effective. – Captain Emacs Sep 12 at 21:28
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    @knzhou "the system is working" is a cynical, inappropriate response on the ban of secret recording. The ban of secret recording is perfectly justified: its purpose is simply the protection of individual's and possibly company rights, otherwise no-one is safe to have a confidential conversation and you will get an overall paranoid society. The law has its justification, and given that the US already has very lax data protection laws (compared to Europe and especially Germany) it is a perfectly sensible law. Or remove all citizen's rights, habeascorpus etc. because they also help criminals? – Captain Emacs Sep 13 at 12:44
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    If you would go for this I would recommend you to find others with the same Problem. One voice might not be enough and it will be your word against the dean...you will probably only loose here. Nevertheless if it is an option you might want to read up on the silence breakers (one of them Celeste Kidd) at the University of Rochester. Its not totally related but the sad outcome was that that Professor is still teaching. So be aware, even such measures might not have the impact you are hoping. – JennyH Sep 14 at 6:43
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There's a lot to parse here, particularly in the lengthy comments section. The way I see it is you've got two options:

  1. Go outside of the department for help
  2. Avoid these conflicts and finish

It seems apparent that the department is not going to help you through this, since you mention both the Dean and the department chair being involved negatively. If you opt for number one, you should look for school-wide resources, similar to Title IX coordinators for gender issues. I'm not aware of this being standardized, so you should look through your university's resources.

I think whether you go with option 1 probably depends on how close you are to finishing. If you're close, and you've been able to work successfully with your advisor, is it possible to minimize, or even cut, all contact with the rest of the department, and just get your degree? It's hard to swallow injustice, but from a utilitarian point of view, there may not be much to gain by fighting with the people in charge of the department you're in. Letting bullying by fellow PhD students go unanswered by simply avoiding them galls me, even, and I'm the one giving the advice! But you should at least weigh the option when considering what's best for you; fighting racism in your department, or escaping with your PhD.

Of course if you're not close to finishing, option two becomes far less viable. I'm sorry you're in such a toxic environment, and I hope you can finish your degree successfully despite it. Perhaps some combination of 1 and 2 is possible - it seems sensible to immediately begin avoiding the sources of conflict in your department, even if you do opt to challenge their behavior at a higher level.

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    It is the department chair's job to deal with situations like this. They don't get to be "above such things". – JeffE Sep 12 at 17:53
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    @laputalanglang Have you talked to him about this then? – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 12 at 20:53
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    @laputalanglang Talk to thim. Why are you so reluctant? Before you go to media or elsewhere go to him first. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 19 at 22:04
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    @laputalanglang And you think that making caste a protected class gives you the right to practice discrimination against people you view as lower caste? That's some mental gymnastics. – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 20 at 19:02
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    Are you trying to say you made these comments sarcastically? If you wrote them the way you did here I would certainly not take them that way, and in that case you are not being treated poorly by HR but rather exactly how you should be treated based on your comments. Sarcasm is very very difficult to convey properly in text. – Bryan Krause Sep 20 at 20:29
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Can you get a lawyer? I know the universities give legal advice, but in this case they won't. Can you reach out to Indian communities? Perhaps a lawyer can offer you free services? 1) please go to the International Student Services for guidance. If all fails, 2) please go to HR and talk to them, but remember HR is not your friend, they will most likely try to keep it within the institution. If they cooperate, they will hire external reviewers to get their legal opinion on the case, but it can turn into you against the faculty member/dean and HR might take their side.

This might be stressful for you, but I think you are already living a stressful grad life, if anything at least you can make it right for others. I am sorry you are going through this, no one should! I did my PhD in USA and my university was really a safe place for international students, with a high international student population. International students bring in the most revenue/do most of the research, so if your university has any senses at all, they will try to resolve this. If you are just beginning PhD, I would consider other options as well: other labs, other departments, other universities.

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    I can't overstate this enough - do not make any legal threats until you retain a lawyer. You can't unring that bell, and a lawyer is very likely to tell you that you have no ground to stand on. – user128815 Sep 12 at 14:51
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    @laputalanglang "I went and disparaged the people in HR after they refused to do anything" - what do you mean by "disparaged"? – Captain Emacs Sep 13 at 12:43
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    If there is no proof, and there is no witness, it is a he said she said case, meaning it is one guy's word over other's. Not enough to charge a person guilty. There is the email but it is written between 3rd parties and is not enough to "prove" the bully's acts. If the university had senses, they would open a case and talk to all people involved. Also, are you sure that in EU this would be easier to address? Might depend on the location, but my experience is that EU is light-years behind in racism at workplace and mobbing in general. – dusa Sep 14 at 20:42
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    Look, noone should go through what you are going through, but may I suggest you try being less reactive? How can talking disrespectfully to HR people make the situation better? This could be used against you. – dusa Sep 19 at 20:10
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    I was just pointing out the conflict of what you wrote. I am not sure where "openly advocating to preserve it in India" stands with "I have friends from other castes now". If you say you are against it, okay fine, I don't read a strong message e.g. it should be a protected class in US but not in India? What am I supposed to get? I have black friends does not equal to I am anti-racism, for example. Anyway, I edited my comment, my emphasis was on the trolling, and my advice stays. – dusa Sep 20 at 20:24
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To me your description sounds like a fully grown mobbing/bullying situation. The conclusion is that I'm afraid your best bet is to get away from there, the sooner the better.

This is not a single misbehaving (harrassing, racist,...) individual or incident who may be made to behave themselves, but a whole group who ganged up, including some of your superiors and repeatedly harrass.

In addition to getting away from there for the sake of your own health and academic performance, you should not honor such a department with your work.

  • Do you already have a professional network?
  • Are there professors from other places whom you trust and who know your work?

=> contact them about openings

  • Are there fellow students whom you can trust?
  • International student networks?

=> contact them to find out whether the prospective new place is likely better.

  • Be extremely professional and reticent in describing why you leave. However, make clear that the reason is not lack of academic achievement - you may say that you count on being even more productive in the new environment, though.

    Where I am students can take their own thesis work with them when they happen to change university (with some caveats related to employment and employers having rights to work results). I.e., you may be able to use e.g. papers you already published for your thesis at the new university. Ask about this.

  • Is there someone to whom you can unburden yourself? Relations, friends, psychological counseling, a religious or spiritual advisor?


A few points about mobbing/bullying I picked from W. Taglieber: Berliner Anti-Mobbing-Fibel (in German) [Berlin Anti-Mobbing leaflet - it is mainly about bullying in school, but many of the points fit with what you describe]

  • The victim has basically no possibility to liberate themselves on their own [while staying at there]

  • Attacks are wilfully intentional and arbitrary

  • Mobbing/bullying is abuse of power

  • It will not end on its own

  • Sequence of events:

    1. the potential bully looks for weaknesses/sensitivities of the potential victim
    2. Outward characteristics are picked afterwards (ethnicity, hair color, dialect, ... literally whatever) to use as pretended "reason"

    IMHO it is important to realize: the chosen victim has no whatsoever chance to avoid the bullying attacks by changing the picked characteristic since that follows after the fact - and can and will be changed arbitrarily. (This goes in particular @Mandrill)
    (Even a characteristic that is not the case with the victim can serve. Say, bullying OP as "Russian" when they're Indian - which signals that the victim is not even worth bothering to label them correctly)

  • The victim is in a physiologically stressful situation. This is both a threat to their health and it is likely to hinder their academic performance.
    This is one of the reasons why you need to get away from there!

  • Whithin the situation there is nothing that the victim can do to reliably stop the situation: normally [in a non-bullying situation] adequate, polite requests to the bully to behave themselves are not sufficient. Strong actions that to gets results are counted as the victim overreacting, i.e. against the victim.
    See OP's description for an example.

Also as said above, the attacks are arbitrary and wilful, i.e. the only pattern they reliably follow is that they will happen when a bully (or one of their so-called helpers/followers) thinks the attack will be safe (see OP describing lots of situations where they do not have witnesses who'd stand up) and have impact.

  • There is a strong structural component to bullying: organizational structures that allow this to happen.
    Here: those authorities whose duty it would be to prevent or at least stop such bullying have joined the mob.

Last but not least: of course this may be genuine racism, i.e. race is the systematic and predictable trigger for the aggression rather than a picked "well-working" characteristic of a chosen victim. IMHO that distinction is rather academic, though: I think the practical possibilities and limitations are the same whether the underlying behaviour is mainly racist or mainly bullying. And for me, both rank as equally bad.

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  • The letter that I got; if I were to make the contents public, might be disturbing to read. – laputalanglang Sep 19 at 19:44
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Could you maybe contact the American Civil Liberties Union and ask them for advice?

https://www.aclu.org/faqs#1_5

I'm not American and have no experience at American universities but these guys are always in the news with cases similar to yours. Maybe someone who knows more about the US system can expand this answer.

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Do you have smartphone? Just install app called IP Webcam(I am not sponsoring this, I don't even know the meaning of sponsoring), now follow all procedure set it all up, it works even if your smartphone is locked. It can simply record videos and audios of them. If you can successfully record the incidents and then present them as proof, you are done with your part, let them handle the legal stuff now. Of course as mentioned by one of the answerer, if you are close to finishing your degree, better come home safe and quick! I wish I could help you real quick.

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    Not sure, but this could be illegal. – GoodDeeds Sep 12 at 17:54
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    Oh so if you are being killed you won't try to video them and present it as proof that they were trying to kill you??? – Dumb Sep 12 at 17:56
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    Recording people without their consent is illegal in many states. I would not recommend this unless you are sure (because you've consulted a lawyer) that you're not breaking the law. (This is not a criminal case, and they can use any illegality as an excuse to kick you out.) – JeffE Sep 12 at 17:57
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    Veering off-topic, but CCTV cameras are typically used in public places where there is no expectation of privacy (e.g., stores). Recording closed-door conversations and phone calls is a different ball of wax legally (in the US, such rules even vary state by state). – cag51 Sep 12 at 20:29
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    @Dumb It has to be made clear by signs that CCTV is used. So while you are recorded, you know that you are recorded. No hidden cameras are allowed without information that CCTV is used. So this is much different. – TheoreticalMinimum Sep 12 at 20:57
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I would say, your best chance is not fight against the system. I am not saying this is fair, but lets face it: Life is not fair. Your best chance is try to identify why you are triggering racist behavior. If just breathing is already enough to trigger racism then you are out of luck. But maybe you can identify that you are fitting too well in some stereotypes and work from there. Cloths, haircut, smell, shoes, accent, behavior idk. It maybe too much for you, but if it is not, then change.

I wouldn't be pride of doing it, but sometimes we have to suck it up and move on. On the other hand you might be willing to fight for your rights... But that is up to you. I know my personality is more beligerant but I paid a price for it and I assure you it isn't worth.

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    "Fitting too well into stereotypes": IIRC mobbing/bullying in general does not need a reason, but it will often claim one (e.g. any identifyable characteristic). This makes the proposed strategy totally useless, since the claim can and will shift accordingly. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Sep 14 at 17:27
  • -1, changing clothes, haircut, smell, shoes, accent, and behaviour is not a solution to combat racism. Perhaps OP should change his skin colour as well? – JBentley Sep 14 at 20:35
  • @JBentley Might be worth pondering this extra bit of information volunterred by the OP academia.stackexchange.com/questions/155185/… – Yemon Choi Sep 20 at 15:37
  • @YemonChoi What is the relevance? The OP's racist comments don't justify more racism. – JBentley Sep 21 at 7:39

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