When gender and immigration biases come together…

It was a rainy afternoon, with black clouds covering the sky and the thick humid air that is common during summer. Looking for shelter, I found a quiet corner in the hut my cross country running team was gathering in while we waited for the storm to pass. The variety of greens in the tree leaves was even more mesmerising with the shiny reflection from the rain drops. This combination made the Highlands Hammock State Park, in Florida, hypnotise me and teleport me the neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro, where I grew up.

My hypnosis ended when the cross country team coach approached me and said: “This is rain, you know?” I looked puzzled. Why was he telling me this? My face must have showed that I was not understanding what he was saying, because he then went further to explain that “When it is very hot, the water evaporates and then meets cold air in the sky forming the clouds and then it all comes back in the form of rain drops.” By the time he finished his lengthy explanation, I realised he thought that I had never seen rain before.

He knew I was Brazilian. In fact, I was the only one who spoke Portuguese in Sebring, the small town where I was attending the senior year of high-school as an exchange-student. At the time there was no internet, Google did not give people instant answers and I got used to being the eccentric character and being asked weird questions. It was not uncommon for people to ask if we had electricity, roads or cars in Brazil. Fair enough, without the internet it was much harder to know the state of development of different countries. But how could anyone think we did not have rain? I was so baffled by the idea that anyone could think there was no rain in Brazil that I did not know how to respond, so I just nodded. The conversation was so surreal that I still remember it as if it was today.

Fast forward 25 years, and here I am in a similar surreal conversation. With all the chaos surrounding Brexit, I was having a chit-chat with a distant colleague in one of my projects in the UK when he opened a line of thought saying: “I don’t know if you know a man in the Labour party…” That lead me to think he was going to quote one politician from the 2nd World War or the 60’s, and I would indeed probably not know it. Then, to my surprise he said: “There is this guy, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party…”

Again, my face probably showed I was puzzled. What?!?!? Ok, I am Brazilian by birth, but actually I have been living in the UK for so long now that I am actually British too. My colleague does not know that, but we crossed paths in the corridor for over a year, so he knows that I have been in the UK for at least one year. Yes, I still have an accent, but the work we do involves a good level of English, so undoubtedly I can read the papers. All this went on in my mind while I was trying to answer to myself: How could anyone, in the middle of the Brexit crisis, living and working in this country, not know who Jeremy Corbyn is?!?!?!

A chain of questions went around my mind: How do you respond to such a comment? Do I bother abruptly pointing out to him the absurdity of his comment? Where would I start? We were just having a conversation in the corridor, I was on my way to a meeting. I decided to let the conversation flow and I just answered “yes, of course I know who Corbyn is – who doesn’t these days?”

Similarly to when the cross-country running coach explained what rain was to me, I found myself just nodding and carrying on. On both occasions, I am sure neither the American nor the English man were consciously trying to insult me. Still, I felt insulted. I felt attacked – my intelligence was undermined. If I was a man, I doubt that either would have said the same thing. They would probably still think the same thing, but they would not have had the courage to say it to a male version of me.

As an immigrant women from South America, I am continuously subject to the unconscious bias towards females and developing countries’ immigrants. I have learned how to deal with the day-to-day mansplaining and manspreading on the tube and in airplanes, and I got used to challenge the aggressive looks or comments against immigrants. However, in situations like the ones above, the conversations become so bizarre that I still don’t know how to react to it. Writing this blog was a way of taking it off my chest. If you have any ideas or similar stories to share, please get in touch. I love to hear about other people’s experience.

Isabela Souza