Forum

Professor at Duke sparks controversy

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After her email to first- and second-year students at Duke University encouraging them to “commit to using English 100% of the time,” Professor Megan Neely has since apologized, and has been asked to step down from her position as director of graduate studies in Duke’s biostatistics master’s program. While she remains an assistant professor for the university, Professor Neely faced serious backlash for her email — in America and beyond.

The email, sent on Jan. 25th, said that two faculty members had approached Professor Neely complaining about students speaking Chinese “very loudly” in an academic building. The two members wanted to identify such students in order to “remember them” when the students would eventually ask for an internship opportunity or seek to work with them in the future. She ends the email pleading with Chinese-speaking students to “keep these unintended consequences in mind” when simply talking with friends or colleagues in an academic or “professional” setting.

After screenshots of the email went viral on social media, international students penned a petition demanding that Duke investigate further, because this incident is not isolated. For example, in Feb. 2018, Professor Neely sent an email with the same general message: speaking Chinese can give faculty the impression that you are willingly avoiding English, thus hurting your chances in future professional endeavors. On the international scale, users of the popular Chinese social media app Weibo have shared their thoughts extensively: two days after the email was sent, a hashtag about the incident had been used more than 6.7 million times.

In her apology, Professor Megan Neely notes that although her email came out very offensive and discriminatory, “it was not meant to be hurtful.” However, the act of sending not one, but two attempts to police Chinese students is hurtful in itself. The intentions of the emails may have been “good” (in this case, preventing students from losing professional and research opportunities), but in the end, Professor Neely ruined her white-savior justification with harmful language, like calling attempted blacklisting by two racist faculty members at Duke University the “unintended consequences” of speaking your mother tongue.

Time and time again, Asian students face the consequences of normalized racial micro-aggressions. From the lighthearted “jokes” on social media about assuming your nail-lady is talking badly about you simply because you do not understand what they are saying, to the use of slurs like the C-word, to the murder of nail salon worker Nhu Ngoc Quynh Nguyen over a $35 manicure, Asian people are consistently treated as unwelcome in this country simply because they are Asian. Furthermore, there are people with the audacity to use the model minority myth as an excuse for their racism. The Duke University email scandal, while relatively harmless and isolated, is another example of the centuries-old history of American racism towards Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans alike.

There is comfort, safety, and community in hearing, speaking, and engaging with others in your mother tongue — especially for international students, who travel far from home to pursue an education in the United States. Having that right threatened is thoroughly un-American. To see a fellow research university like Duke embroiled in this incident is upsetting; it is also a reminder that there is still much to be done in educating not only fellow students, but also faculty, about diversity of language, ethnicity, race, economic status, sexual orientation, and more.