Unspoken Rules

Posted on February 9, 2009

Vivian Tseng (bio) discusses issues of privilege in the workplace.

 

When I started graduate school, one of the things I noticed was that academia places a very strong emphasis on verbal assertiveness. And, how well you can talk and communicate, and really verbalize in an assertive way your opinions, is really important, and it's highly valued. Which, I think for me as an Asian-American woman, it wasn't so easy, especially when talking to faculty members.

It's like, here's someone I really respect and admire, and they're authority figures, and to be as verbally assertive just wasn't as comfortable for me. And it was, so that was something I had to recognize and learn how to do; sort of that code-switching back and forth, that I can sort of hang onto my notions of respect for authority and all of that stuff, while being able to be more verbally assertive.

I think another set of issues that comes more around issues of privilege is that, I think white students and students who come from more middle-class, or upper-middle-class backgrounds, feel more comfortable asking for things, and are more willing to put themselves out there, I think. I've noticed this in this mentoring program that we have, because I sit with the mentees of color, and we talk about some of the issues that they struggle with. And a lot of them talk about, I think, especially when you come from racial ethnic groups that are denigrated, academically. So you're already fighting against stereotypes that you're not as smart, that you're not as accomplished, and that you're not here because you deserve to be.

And I think it's much harder, then, to feel comfortable revealing the things that you don't know, and asking questions because you have to fight how it's going to be perceived. And I think there is, that's a very real thing, because there is a lot of racism and prejudice, but at the same time, it prevents, I think, some growth, some opportunities to grow by asking questions, and by revealing the things that you don't know.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2008 Leadership Training Institute in Bethesda, MD.

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