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In the first week of my PhD studies, another student of my advisor asked me strange and racist questions regarding my religion and country of origin. We are in Germany, and the other student is from Italy (if it matters).

I didn't say anything, because I don't know how things work here and I didn't want to be seen as a troublemaker as soon as I arrived. In addition to this, I had doubts, because I came to another country and did not know the subject I was going to study very well.

But I want to complain about this student to human resources after I graduate, or I want to tell my advisor. Which of these actions would be appropriate, if any? I have never encountered such a thing before, I don't know how to act.

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    Were these remarks directed at you personally, were they directed at someone else, nor were they not directed at anybody in particular? Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 8:56
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    I think it might help to indicate the country. Unfortunately, attitude towards racism and how you should handle it differs between countries.
    – user9482
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 8:57
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    Are you German too? If you are foreigner and If you need to that person I suggest to avoid debating with him and say him to speak just about work or thesis! Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 9:57
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    it sounds like you're assuming malicious intent from the other student. How do you know their remarks weren't due to them being insensitive? Did you tell the other student that you found their remarks to be racist? It's possible that they didn't realize they said something offensive to you, and it's not clear from your post whether you tried to check that possibility and resolve it by talking to the other student.
    – Elodin
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 17:01
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    Moderator’s notice: Please refrain from debating and inquiring whether the remarks are actually racist, but just assume that they are for the purpose of answering. It’s the asker’s responsibility to ensure this (and not yours), and they probably cannot quote the remarks here without revealing their identity. Same goes for whether the remarks were an intentional attack: It’s okay to inquire how the asker judges and treated them (like Elodin did), but we need not and cannot judge them ourselves. All posts violating this will be deleted without warning.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 18:37

3 Answers 3

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I am going to try and suggest what I would do from a UK perspective, which I think would apply to most European countries with protections against discrimination based on a number of protected characteristics in place (such as Germany).

I can see that you are clearly upset, and will not question your claim it was a racist remark. I would only make a difference between two cases:

  1. It was a demeaning/insensitive question or request.

    Things like addressing somebody as "little lady" (happened to me) or "drug lord" (happened to a Mexican friend).

    If this kind of thing repeats, or even if it still bothers you, the first advice would be to clearly tell the other person: "This remark was completely inappropriate and I would kindly ask you not to say such things and consider their implications."

    I am not trying to imply you have a requirement to educate anybody about how they should behave, but you do need to make it clear to the other party that they had acted inappropriately towards you. If the other party asks, and you feel inclined to offer more explanation as to why it is innapropriate, you may, but you should not feel obliged to either.

    Unfortunately, we all do have prejudice we might not even be aware of. In the best case, this will be a wake-up call that makes them consider the implications in their words, re-think their actions and change their behaviour. But at least you will make it clear to the other person that you find their behaviour unacceptable.

    If this behaviour does not stop after you had made this clear, the next step would be to go talk to your colleague's or your supervisor. In this case, this is the same person. The supervisor is the person with the authority to discuss the professional behaviour of his student and ask him to correct it.

    The next, and final step, would indeed be to contact HR (I think?) -- your University should certainly have some services signposted on their webpages.

  2. You felt threatened by this racist remark

    Something much worse, like "your type shouldn't be allowed to be here". (I can think of much worse examples but... I don't really want to)

    If you are afraid for your safety, you should not confront your harasser directly but rather get out of harms way and bring the case to the attention of the correct University and public services.

    In the UK, the correct way to handle this would be to go talk to your advisor ASAP. While they would not be able to actually intervene in most cases, they are required to know which University and public services can help you, and offer support in making that contact if you need it (i.e. walk you across to campus to the right service, or be with you when you make the phone call).

In both of these cases, I would suggest you document everything in a diary, making note of:

  • when it happened (date/time)
  • where it happened (Uni/lab/campus, outside of uni?)
  • what exactly was said, by whom to whom
  • who else was present (and how they reacted / did not react)
  • any subsequent communications you had regarding the issue (with your advisor, the other PhD student...)

You should not suffer harassment through your PhD and I would encourage you to take all of these steps as soon as possible. Try and confide in a friend that is at your location, or even a family member over the phone to get some confidence, if that helps you take the correct steps.

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    Excuse my ignorance, but how is little lady demeaning/insensitive? Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 17:26
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    @oguzismail Usually used to a child, so to an adult it is condescending at best and outright derogatory at worst lexico.com/en/definition/little_lady
    – Dragonel
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 17:59
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    @OwenReynolds They may not need to know but knowing is helpful for anyone who has offended someone unintentionally, so that they can avoid similar mistakes. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 18:40
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    Also "You don't need to know" might be considered patronizing and borderline offensive. It's the sort of thing said by a superior to an inferior, so by saying it you are implying that the other person is your inferior, and should stop asking questions and just obey your orders. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 18:52
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    The "little lady" is indeed a nice example that imho also highlights a point that could improve the answer: the educating part is not necessarily universal and that's totally fine. I.e. some things aren't universally perceived as racist, sexist etc. In some contexts some things are perfectly fine while in others they aren't (to at least part of the audience). It's fine to voice that you subjectively feel something is demeaning to you and that the other party stop addressing you like that even if there is no objective/universal consensus on that. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 19:02
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At a German university I would expect a broad consensus that racism is bad, mkay, but not necessarily much awareness of concepts like subconcious bias, microaggression, etc. In the German public discurs, the realization that racism (other than anti-semitism) is an important issue for daily life is still an ongoing process.

To give a concrete example, the ZEIT had not too long ago an article about how conversations such as "White German: Where are you from? -- "Black German: Bremen" -- White German: No, I mean, where are you really from?" -- "Black German: ..." are problematic, and a lot of people didn't really get it.

For your concrete situation, this means that if the comments were a blatantly open racist attack on you, you can probably expect that informing proper authorities will at the least give them some stern talking to. However, if the comments can plausibly be explained by a combination of weapons-grade cluelessness plus unexamined racist cultural baggage, I'd be much more pessimistic about telling HR producing any desirable consequences. Reporting those comments after you graduate (ie a long time after they were made) is even more likely to just be ignored.

As for telling your supervisor, that will really depend on them personally. Some supervisors would really want to hear of such issues and try to improve things; for others the "don't get it" mindset mentioned above will apply. You'll probably be able to judge this better once you've gotten your supervisor to know a bit better.

To keep your options of reporting this later open, I'd advise you to write down exactly what happened. That way, the accuracy of your recollection of the event will not be in doubt if you do report it.

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  • Snitching on fellow PhD students will create a bad atmosphere for everybody. Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 19:00
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    @YuvalFilmus I think this is a very problematic attitude. Some stuff should be dealt with by a person with relative authority, and this can only happen if people feel comfortable informing those persons.
    – Arno
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 20:09
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Not knowing what was said, it's impossible to give definitive advice. But you should also consider the possibility that some people are socially awkward (or have some 'neurodiverse' condition on the autism spectrum such that they don't understand social nuance), don't share your social rules regarding polite conversation (especially if they are themselves from a different culture), and are simply trying to start a conversation the only way they know how.

Starting a conversation with a stranger can be tricky. It's common to start with what you already know about them and ask them about that, because people usually like talking about themselves. If you know somebody collects postage stamps, or plays football, you ask them about that. If all you know is they originate from country X, and you don't realise race and nationality is an especially sensitive or dangerous subject (because in their culture, it isn't), then you might start with that. And if you don't know a lot about their culture or religion, bar the broad stereotypes in the media, then it's easy to unintentionally sound racist or prejudiced. They might be trying to say, 'As you can see I know very little about your culture, please educate me.'

You can tell the difference because if you start talking about your home and your culture, a racist will continue to argue and criticise, and insist on their view, and someone who just wants a conversation will listen attentively and encouragingly, and become more polite and friendly.

And if it turns out they are a racist, then you might also consider how your response will affect their views. If they get a friendly response, then they might consider that maybe you're not so bad after all, and maybe their prejudices are wrong. If they get a hostile response, and hounded by the authorities simply for asking a few questions, they'll consider their prejudices confirmed. They'll consider their free speech and freedom of belief to be under attack. They'll point out that you can be offensive to them by calling them a 'racist', for example, but they aren't allowed to offend you, even unintentionally. We all say things other people find offensive - 'tolerance' that only tolerates things we approve of or agree with isn't worth anything; it's meaningless. Tolerance necessarily implies tolerating views we don't like and don't agree with. We have to treat others as we expect to be treated ourselves.

That doesn't mean you have to put up with repeated and continual harassment. But if your attempts to be friendly or politely non-committal are rebuffed, and they escalate their hostile campaign, then by all means seek help to get it stopped.

If on the other hand they realised they said the wrong thing, upset you, and stopped doing it, then you could surely ask for nothing better and it was likely just an innocent mistake. There shouldn't be any need in such circumstances to take further action. Consider how you would feel if as a visitor to a foreign country, you asked an innocent question about the local culture, and someone thought you was being highly offensive (I assume calling someone a 'racist' in Germany is considered offensive...) and you got reported to the authorities for holding slanderous beliefs about them? How would you want to be treated?

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    I had many of these same thoughts myself. Even if it isn't applicable to the current case, it is good to keep in mind in general. I ask a lot of people about their origins, but out of a desire to connect with another human. I've learned a lot from that.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 24, 2021 at 19:29

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