As an international student, a recent scandal at Duke University has made me question how easily discrimination can become implicit and normalized.
Megan Neely, an assistant professor at Duke University, sent out two emails telling international students to speak English “100 percent of the time” while in any professional setting, sparking outrage in her community and leading to her stepping down from her post as the director of graduate studies in the biostatistics program last month.
In another email, Neely urged international students to not use Chinese when they are in the department buildings, referencing comments from two other faculty members who asked her for the names of students that they identified as speaking Chinese “VERY LOUDLY” in the student lounge. Most shockingly, the two faculty members were collecting the students’ names so that they could remember them whenever those students reached out to them for internship or project opportunities as the students were “being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.”
On the surface, the emails seem to be well-intentioned. While Neely likely believed she was being helpful by reminding Chinese international students to speak English to avoid experiencing “unintended consequences,” a bigger problem exists. In her email, Neely revealed that at least two faculty members were prepared to effectively blacklist a few Chinese international students from internships or future projects just because they were speaking their native language in a public setting, which is a blatant case of racism.
As an international student myself, I am always aware of when to speak Chinese based on my surroundings and the participants of a particular conversation. But I shouldn’t have to be.
My decisions are not made under duress, but rather out of respect for others around me who might not understand Chinese. As a result, I expect the same respect from others when I am conscious of my choice of what language to speak and, more importantly, I expect that others understand that I come from a different cultural background.
What is most troubling about this incident is that it shows that racism and xenophobia could easily become normalized if individuals who hold academic or professional power over others continue to speak out without considering how their words and actions will affect others.
Encouraging the use of different languages on campus is of great importance. Languages are more than a means of communication. They also foster understanding and respect and are a way to connect people from different cultures together.
Non-English speakers tend to attach memories and often a taste of home to their languages. Coming to a foreign country to live and study should not mean that international students have to involuntarily sever connections to our roots.
At the end of the day, what happened at Duke University should empower rather than discourage students to freely embrace and acknowledge their background and to be proud of who they are.
Marx Wang, a junior majoring in political science and philosophy, is a Hatchet columnist.
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