After finishing my master’s, I applied for a couple of positions, and the first interview I was invited to was at a renowned research institution in my field. I was living in our capital at that time and the research institute is in a small city quite far from other major cities.

The head of the institute was present at the interview, and at the and of the interview, we had a little “personal” talk (while his other two colleagues that conducted the interview along with him were still there), and he asked me how living in the capital is, and added: “Luckily, in our little city, there are not as many migrants living as in the bigger cities.” From context, it was very clear to me and not only against migrants, but muslim migrants in particular. I was quite shocked to hear such blatant racism from the head of a research institute and was very tempted to say something, but in the end, I pretended as if I had not heard it and only answered his initial question.

I was mad at myself later for not speaking up. But I was afraid, at that time, that doing so might hurt my career (I am quite specialized, and in our field, many people know each other), because one does not simply accuse the head of a research institution of racism (especially as a lowly student fresh out of university).

So my question is: how can racist (or any other offensive) comments from a supervisor / professor or otherwise superior be addressed? Because I really think ignoring such things is very wrong (even though I did it myself).

Just as added information: although they offered me the position, I declined.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please note that continued discussion may be deleted without warning.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 16:01

6 Answers 6


My solution wouldn't be to attack the person in any way, not in real time nor later. I would probably be inclined to say (US perspective) "Actually I rather enjoy the multicultural environment that the city provides".

But if you need to accept any offer from such a place then you would be safest to focus on the work and the opportunities. Long term, you can work toward a world in which such comments are less acceptable and accepted.

And, you will find that same attitude nearly everywhere, even if unspoken. You have just gotten information that the person is bigoted and can avoid them as much as possible. Fighting from a position in which you have no power and no known allies is almost sure to result in a loss. Hold fire until it can be effective.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 3:25

You seem to be taking a fairly dichotomous view of this situation where you have to decide whether to “call out racism” or just sit there and do nothing. In my view, this false dichotomy comes from your underlying false premise, rooted in an overly broad conceptual view of what constitutes racism. You are also denying yourself and the speaker the opportunity to dig down into the underlying reasoning on the issue.

Let’s start by taking out the power dynamics here, and just pretend that you are talking about a remark by a speaker who does not have any particular standing in your profession. If you are really uncomfortable with a remark expressing misgivings about migrants, one useful approach would be to (politely) state your discomfort/suspicion with the remark and inquire into the reasons the speaker has for holding those views. If you frame this in a polite and measured way, it should not provoke conflict. For example, you could say, “When I hear remarks like that, I get a bit suspicious of the underlying reasoning, and I must say that it makes me quite uncomfortable. Would you like to give more detail on why you have misgivings about high concentrations of migrants?” Something like this expresses your discomfort with the remark without assuming it is motivated by racial animus, and it gives the speaker an opportunity to give details of their reasoning or rethink their position. If you can approach this with sincerity, confidence, and a measured and polite demeanour, it is likely to provoke some genuine consideration from the speaker (and if they were motivated by racial animus, they might be embarrassed about this and start back-tracking).

Now, let’s add the complication of the fact that you are talking to a high-level research in your field who is the head of an institute where you are applying for a job. In that case, provoking conflict probably has adverse professional consequences, so you are going to have to tread even more carefully. I may be naïve here, but I think that with most people you could still register your discomfort in a polite and measured way (e.g., like the statement above) and they would not hold this against you, even if they maintain disagreement with your position. Indeed, it is possible a person might be impressed by your willingness to disagree with an authority figure in a polite and measured way — they know they will not be getting a “Yes-Man”. (Like I said, maybe I am naïve and underestimating the probability of an adverse reaction; I guess I see the good in people!)

I hope that is helpful in expanding your ability to deal with this situation.

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    A significant chunk of this answer focusing on racism rather than directly answering the question has been removed as per this Meta question/answer. OP - If you wish to discuss this edit please feel free to do so on Meta, but please refrain from heavy editing as the current votes are based on what was present. Do feel free to post a new answer if you see fit.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 18:01
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    @eykanal: I think you have made an error here. The linked meta question/answer is for a completely different question. There has been no meta discussion of an edit to this answer; please revert your edit to this question.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 22:34
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    @eykanal: In accordance with that reasoning, I have rolled back the edit to the form the answer was in when it accrued its votes (i.e., without the additional section I added and also without your removal of the bulk of the answer). Happy to discuss further on Meta.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 22:10
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    @eykanal: Please also note that the linked question solicited user votes to determine if a coercive edit was warranted, and even in that case, no edit has presently been made to the answer. The present answer is a popular answer for which no edit has been disccussed on Meta.
    – Ben
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 22:16
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    Please do not engage in edit wars. If you wish to discuss this on Meta please start a question there. This answer is now locked.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 4:35

I guess you were a prospective PhD student. Students, or prospective students, are not responsible for the behavior of professors. You could do something about it, but it is not obligatory.

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    This doesn't answer the question, "How to address racist comments from a superior?".
    – BrtH
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 17:00
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    @BrtH My answer is "Do nothing." But I did not word it that way because that is not the only valid answer. Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 0:28

This will be difficult to address formally, in a way that’s gonna have any real consequences for the supervisor if that is what you want.

The main reason is that you have no proof that this actually happened (I assume). If you try to approach anyone with this, the supervisor will probably deny it/say their comments were misheard/taken out of context. In addition, the severity of the offense is relatively low on the scale of infractions towards students so it’s unlikely that anyone will formally pursue this if you complain, unless there’s a pattern of past issues you’re not aware of.

Your best option in my opinion is to send a short and polite email to the supervisor, thanking them for the opportunity and explaining why you ultimately declined the offer. Explain why the comments were hurtful, and express your hope that they were indeed a result of them misspeaking. If the institution has some dean of student affairs/diversity, you may consider CCing them, but do be careful about how you phrase it.

Good luck!

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    Unfortunately, turning down offers might not be an option for some.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 12:35
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    If it were me, I wouldn't cc the dean, that's a really escalating move that is going to make the person completely dismiss what you have to say (and in this case likely to end up with no consequences, or maybe some useless "training"). Simply explaining that their remark had consequences that they care about (losing a good candidate) might actually make them think before speaking down the road. Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 13:16
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    @Buffy, sure, that’s just what OP did.
    – Spark
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 2:51
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    "you have no proof that this actually happened (I assume)" -- FWIW, OP did say that the remark was made "while his other two colleagues that conducted the interview along with him were still there".
    – nanoman
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 5:10

In that situation, I think the most diplomatic thing to do would be to say "Oh? Interesting" and change the subject. You ended up not taking the position anyway, but you could have done some "detective work" to see what other people at that institute think. For example, you could ask them general questions like, "Do people get along there? Is the atmosphere supportive?" Things like that.


An accusation of racism is serious and should not be made without evidence. As the question stands, it is not clear to me the supervisor was being racist, and this needs to be clarified by directly asking the person in question before you make accusations.

"Migrants" are not a race and though Muslim may refer to broadly Middle Eastern people, there exist significant Muslim populations in Africa and South Asia. Your supervisor may be implicitly referring to one race of people who make up the Muslim migrants of the area, but he is not singling them out by their race, making concrete evidence of racism harder to provide, as he can claim you were misinterpreting him or taking his words out of context.

Your supervisor may be opposed to Muslim migrants on a theological basis, having nothing to do with race. In this case, by making an accusation of racism, you put your supervisor in an uncomfortable and defensive position that completely misinterprets his viewpoints, and engaging in a theological debate with a supervisor is likely not a good way to build a relationship (unless both parties desire to engage in debate). Similarly, your supervisor may oppose migrants from an economic standpoint, being opposed to migrants for example because they compete for local jobs or make use of more public resources (increasing the tax burden). This is due to their nature of being migrants and is independent of race, so again an accusation of racism is misplaced. Your supervisor may have multiple factors influencing his view, one of which may be racism, but it is not clear from the statement alone.

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    The first paragraph repeats what Ben is saying with so many words (e.g. the statement in question might technically be xenophobic rather than racist). Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 8:20
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    1) You allege there are theological reason against Muslim migrants without giving evidence. I'm not a theologists but as far as I know, there is widespread support in Christian theology for religious tolerance and compassion (you know, with Jesus being a Jewish refugee and all). 2) You allege that migrants increase the tax burden and compete for jobs, again without giving evidence, although prima facie migrants are either not allowed to work, or occupied in niches where domestic supply of highly qualified employees is lacking, or occupied in sectors that few locals are willing to work in. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 8:28
  • A debate about whether these concerns are supported belong on another stackexchange. I only claim they exist. 1. I make no claims on the viewpoints being theologically consistent or "evidence-based", if that is even an meaningful term.
    – qwr
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 8:41
  • 2. The point is that legitimate economic concerns exist, not that they are necessarily justified, but since you insist, here is some evidence in that direction: Angrist, J. D., and Kugler, A. D. (2003), ‘Protective or Counter-Productive? Labour Market Institutions andthe Effect of Immigration on EU Natives’,The Economic Journal,113(488), F318–22. migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/… for non-EEA migrants.
    – qwr
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 8:44
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    I downvoted this post for three reasons: (1) It does not answer the question. (2) It does not add anything which hasn't already been said multiple times here (for instance, in various comments under the question). (3) It seems to be based, though somewhat implictly, on a biological understanding of the word "race" - which contradicts scientific evidence. Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 13:07

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