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In a comment to How do you answer "Oh, you're a professor? What do you teach?", @JohnSmith wrote

I'm black so it generally goes "Oh you're a professor? So you teach African Studies?" I generally storm off.

John's reaction is understandable. But I'd like to explore some alternatives. Note that John's experience is not isolated to black professors. For example, another comment on that thread pointed out that some stupid people tend to assume a female professor teaches gender studies.

How do you answer "Oh you're a professor? So you teach African Studies?"

I'm looking for a lot in an answer. It should:

  • be short
  • open the thoughtless person's eyes
  • allow for a graceful exit by both parties

Here is an example of the kind of answer I'm looking for:

Question posed by a white person to a transracial black adoptee: "What country were you born in?"

Answer: "Long Island."

Edit: Please assume there was no hidden agenda. Just some combination of garden variety cluelessness and stereotyped thinking.

Typical scenarios: neighborhood picnic... parent meeting at your child's school... standing in line at the grocery store....

Edit 9/18: This question closely mirrors the other, in which the questioner is not an academic, and the academic feels socially isolated and uncomfortable, and unsure how to respond.

What's different here is that there is an additional layer of discomfort related to being an obvious member of an under-represented group. Think of a Venn diagram. The set of people interested in "So you teach African Studies" question is a subset of those interested in the original "What do you teach?" question.

I would ask enthusiasts of this site who have no personal interest in this question to allow those of us who do, to explore this very real problem -- even if you yourself have never experienced it and do not anticipate experiencing it.

But who knows, you might encounter a similar problem some day on a trip to an overseas conference, or in an unfamiliar corner of your own country.

Permitting an exploration of this question can potentially be useful to white, male, straight, in short, hegemonic, academics in another way. If your department is one of the many that are striving to diversify, this question is an example of things that matter to the diverse candidates you are trying to recruit.

Edit 9/22: Reading the answers and comments led me to an idea. (If the question gets re-opened again(!) I can post it as an actual answer.)

Well, no, but if you're trying to choose an African Studies course for next semester, you're welcome to bounce some ideas off me.

(I have a feeling this is the kind of answer I'd get in a lot of trouble with from my children. They'd say it's too annoying....)

locked by StrongBad Sep 24 '16 at 17:12

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 19 '16 at 18:45
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    Please see this meta question about the suitability of this queston – StrongBad Sep 21 '16 at 15:08
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    I've just come to this question. Generally 'explore' isn't a good word to describe the aim of a question on this site. It isn't really intended as a venue for discussion. – Jessica B Sep 22 '16 at 6:56
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    I don't get the point of your proposed answer. – quid Sep 22 '16 at 7:04
136

What's wrong with a sensible answer: "No, I teach Chemistry."

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    If the question does carry a hidden agenda, this carries a very sharp edge. If not, it is harmless. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 17 '16 at 23:05
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    @PatriciaShanahan I must say, I do not see any edge in the response, not even hidden - perhaps you can enlighten me? It may work in combination with the disapproving look, but that presupposes you have a good guess of the speakers' intention. Anyway, a nonconfrontative OP may be satisfied with remaining on this level. It is a perfectly valid solution, though may not carry the additional slap on the wrist that the OP may be looking for. – Captain Emacs Sep 17 '16 at 23:22
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    @CaptainEmacs It treats the assumption that a professor with black skin must teach African Studies as being too obviously silly to be worthy of the professor's notice. It slaps the asker in the face with the fact that the professor can and does teach a different subject. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 17 '16 at 23:30
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    @PatriciaShanahan If the asker had been so intelligent as to get this hint, they wouldn't have asked the question in the first place (or would have put a clearer edge in the question if it was intentional). Or, if indeed the asker were in to needle the OP, they have now got much too graceful a way out. I thus interpret this response as distinctly neutral, nonconfrontative and most certainly not a hard response. Which is, of course, perfectly fine if that's what the OP wishes. – Captain Emacs Sep 17 '16 at 23:50
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    @PatriciaShanahan The statement "No, I teach chemistry," in a neutral tone of voice, does not slap anyone in the face with anything. – user37208 Sep 18 '16 at 17:05
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I would suggest:

No, I teach X. But I wonder what makes you think that I would teach African Studies?

This answers the question and turns things back on the questioner. Note that, at least logically speaking, it is too soon to jump to conclusions, as there are innocent answers to this question, e.g.:

Oh, Karen told me about a friend of hers who teaches African Studies. His name is also Eric. I guess that's not you!

I also think that there is a good chance that when the question is reflected back, the questioner will just realize that it's a stupid question and apologize. If they actually say

Because you're African American.

then I think it might be worth a brief public service announcement:

Actually, most African American faculty members don't teach African studies. You really can't tell what someone teaches by looking at them, and it might be better not to try.

The idea underlying all of this is that you just got asked what is probably a pretty stupid question. If it turns out the person really does believe that African Americans are only cut out to teach African Studies, then that's terrible and probably unsolvable, but that is certainly not a standard racist stereotype. There is a good chance that the question is at least somewhat motivated by ignorance -- this is not someone who has spoken to a lot of African American professors, and probably not many professors at all -- and that is in your power to try to fix. I also think there's something to be said for "not sinking to the person's level": ideally the questions and answers are delivered in a polite, neutral tone, not angrily or sarcastically.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. (Note that comments can be moved to chat only once, so future comments are likely to be deleted instead. Also see When should I comment? – ff524 Sep 25 '16 at 1:22
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How about a zeugma?

"I teach chemistry and people not to stereotype."

Too glib? I'm not sure, having never been in that position. Perhaps it provides just enough humor to allow a slight saving of face, but little enough humor to be clear that it is also intended as a reprimand.

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    Yes, I like this response. You may increase the impression by saying something like: "My research is about hyperextrinsic excitations in beta-gamma-pseudochiral dextrorganic compounds and the question whether they always decompose into stereotyped forms or rather into free radicals. [the last part is obviously just a joke] - I found highly technical, specialised, specific statements which are unlikely to be general knowledge an excellent riposte to possibly condescending comments/attitudes, at the same time without precluding a potential real interest in your work if that exists. – Captain Emacs Sep 17 '16 at 22:07
  • I understand the point but I think it's a point that genuinely doesn't need to be made in the usual context of polite small talk. – Nicole Hamilton Sep 17 '16 at 22:59
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    I think this would work better with a sentence format that's easier to understand. We're already asking them to drop their stereotyped thinking, let's not also tax their brain at the same time with a challenging sentence structure. – aparente001 Sep 18 '16 at 14:24
  • @aparente001 Actually get people to think about what was said is a good way to wrongfoot (or, in this case, "rightfoot") them. – Captain Emacs Sep 19 '16 at 8:00
  • @CaptainEmacs - sorry, these words are new to me. Wrongfoot? Rightfoot? – aparente001 Sep 19 '16 at 8:09
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I am an engineer and female, and foreign, so have heard lots of useless comments:

  • Whose secretary are you?
    Me: I'm an engineer, whose secretary are you?

  • What are you studying?
    Me: Engineering.
    You mean English?
    Me: Eng-in-eer-ing.

  • But girls don't do that!
    Me: Watch me. This is me studying Engineering.

  • You must be the translator.
    Me: No, I'm the engineer. Though I do indeed speak 4 languages.

I try not to get annoyed, and just stick to the facts. Now if they start arguing about it, that's a different story. After 40 years of this job there isn't an insult I haven't heard and I have an answer for all of them.

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    This does not answer the question and is exactly the kind of content that I fear this question will attract further motivating my vote to close it. – Cape Code Sep 19 '16 at 12:31
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    Well, I disagree. People make the same kind of silly remarks to me, and I have a way of dealing with it without being rude or getting angry. Which I think is what the OP is looking for. – RedSonja Sep 19 '16 at 13:36
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    Okay, @RedSonja, your answer was entertaining and inspiring. Now could you please apply your imagination and sharp wit to propose a creative retort for the specific situation in which the uncomfortable professor is black, and the stupid person is assuming he teaches African Studies? (Not even African American History, or Africana Studies, etc., mind you.) – aparente001 Sep 28 '16 at 21:09
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    @aparente001 depends a lot on the situation. OP can say "no, I teach Chemistry. And do you teach European Studies?" But accompanied by a big grin. Vary the adjective as appropriate. – RedSonja Sep 29 '16 at 5:14
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    Doesn't work, because the stupid person isn't remotely in Academia. You have more creativity for these things than I do. I hope you can come up with some more ideas. – aparente001 Sep 29 '16 at 15:34
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To better meet OP's bulleted criteria, I would expand on the bare-bones answer:

No, I teach Chemistry, to African-American students as well as everyone else.

It gives the asker a chance to gracefully exit by acknowledging the mistake, instead of having to back-pedal in response to the shorter version.

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    The roller coaster of this question's fate continues. At four close votes (on the second round of close voting), I think this is the magic moment to accept an answer. This is the one that fits the best for me so far. Thank you for your contribution. I think it is a good starting point but if we had more time, those of us interested in this issue might be able to make some refinements. For example, one idea that occurs to me is "No, I teach Chemistry. My students come from all walks of life and all races. And you? What do you do?" – aparente001 Sep 19 '16 at 16:52
  • Why would you want to "allow for the graceful exit"? Either the question was well-intentioned (if ignorant) and no harm is done, or it wasn't and this isn't the kind of person worth talking to anyway. – user9646 Sep 20 '16 at 13:32
  • @NajibIdrissi, to comply with the bulleted stipulations of OP's question. – user1717828 Sep 20 '16 at 15:54
  • The question was re-opened.and I am therefore undoing the acceptance of this answer to allow more answers to be proposed. (However, the end result may be a re-acceptance.) It will be interesting to see if any new ideas or variants are proposed. I do hope new answers will be based on a careful reading of the question and the previous one this is based on. – aparente001 Sep 25 '16 at 1:26
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What about:

"No, I teach chemistry. African chemistry, obviously."

or just:

"African chemistry actually."

I like these ... they are typical of the kind of thing I would say in such a situation (then again, I don't always do that well in my interactions with humans ;-)

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    Careful - as funny as that may work with the right person, this may permit in an unlucky combination of circumstances, end up putting the person in question into the informal category of "witch doctor" - generally, I discourage self-deprecating jokes that may end up becoming ones epithet, unless the person at the receiving end has very thick skin and a very healthy sense of humour - but then, they would not ask this question here. As charming as the answer is, I suggest to handle with care and close understanding of the situation. – Captain Emacs Sep 18 '16 at 0:36
  • Good point, Captain ! – HDTV4free.info Sep 18 '16 at 1:37
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    If someone said that to me (a non-chemist) I would be very intrigued and need to know more, because I never heard of it and it sounds interesting. – RedSonja Sep 19 '16 at 8:11
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    "African Chemistry" deserves to be the name of something. Perhaps a band? – William Kappler Sep 19 '16 at 15:37
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"No, White Studies."

Instant mental derailment that might prompt a dialog.

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    This is more of a comment than a real answer. – jakebeal Sep 19 '16 at 14:14
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    No, it's a real answer. It contains (a) what to say and (b) why it should be said: there is no program called "White Studies" (that I've ever heard of) because everything is implicitly "White Studies". – MMacD Sep 19 '16 at 14:28
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    This is an intriguing idea and I'd like to see it in the form of a question. – aparente001 Sep 19 '16 at 16:49
  • @aparente001 I don't think I'm following. If you could expand a bit, I'll try to respond intelligently. – MMacD Sep 19 '16 at 17:19
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It would suffice to reply "No; I'm a chemistry professor".

If you want to reinforce the lesson, let the silence hang after your reply.

There's no need to do anything more than that. In fact, anything more explicit, would only make the person more defensive and thus less likely to revise his or her beliefs about black professors.

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