Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Privilege of Language: “something to think about”

by Emily Hoang

At the end of January this year, Megan Neely, head of a master’s program at Duke University, sent out an email advising first and second year graduate students against speaking Chinese on campus after receiving complaints from two unnamed faculty members. In her email, Neely warns of the “unintended consequences” of choosing not to speak English, implying that by doing so students risk jeopardizing their opportunities for future advancement.

According to Neely’s email, two Duke faculty members approached her to identify and obtain the names of the students “so they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a research project”. In her words, the faculty members were “disappointed” that the students were not taking the “opportunity to improve their English.” They viewed the students speaking in Chinese as “impolite” because “not everyone on the floor could understand”. She includes, at the end of her email, “copying the second-year students as a reminder given that they are currently applying to jobs”.

To me, this email was not only insensitive, it was racist. The content of the email demonstrates how privilege, power, and lack of understanding come together to harm students perceived as “Other”. The fact that the Duke faculty members sought to punish these students by withholding academic and professional opportunities is a gross abuse of power. And by framing the issue as a matter of ‘politeness’, not only are the faculty members unfairly policing the actions of the students, they are also enforcing an inherently biased hierarchy where those perceived as “Others” are often penalized for the way they speak and the language they choose to speak. 

This is not the first time Neely has sent out an email advising students to speak English while on campus, but it seems to have been the first time she has received such public backlash to her comments. A committee of Chinese graduate students drafted a petitioncalling for Duke to conduct a full-scale investigation of the incident. In response, Duke’s Office of Institution Equity has begun an internal review of the graduate program, and Neely has stepped down from her position as head of the master’s program, though she remains an assistant professor at Duke. 

But the fact remains: not one of these faculty members saw anything wrong with their actions until there was public outcry. 

This incident is not exclusive to Duke. Just as these biases are not exclusive to Duke. Subtle racism and biases dressed in supposed well-meaning intentions exist across university campuses in the U.S. and here at MIIS.  It’s easy to condemn overt racism, but how do we bring awareness to the less obvious micro-aggressions and implicit biases so clearly at play in this particular incident and similar incidents?

We can start by addressing the privilege behind these actions. 

At many higher education institutions, MIIS included, international students are educated on how to interact in American classrooms and American settings. Even in ‘international’ schools, the ‘international-ism’ is decidedly one sided. American students are not taught how to interact with international students.  Instead, they falsely fed the idea that they have the responsibility to educate their international peers—a mindset they often take into their professional careers. 

Then, like the Duke faculty members, they will take it upon themselves to kindly remind international students to speak English because they are in America; that they should take advantage of the opportunity to improve their language skills; that it’s polite and respectful to speak English in an English dominant country. 

Yet, ironically, this idea of speaking the language of the country you are in, taking advantage of opportunity to improve language skills, and this concept of politeness and respect doesn’t seem to apply to Americans studying or working abroad. Why don’t we question this double-standard? Why don’t we criticize the American student who studies abroad in China only to interact solely with other Americans students studying in China and speaking only English?

As Americans, we must recognize the privilege and take the initiative to not just reach out to international students but to also learn from their experiences. We should not be complacent in the participation and perpetuation of biases and discrimination—especially on our own campuses. International students and American students have the responsibility to reach out to each other and work together to build a more inclusive community. Faculty members, as well, have the responsibility to be aware of and properly address the power and privilege at play in their classrooms. They cannot remain complacent in maintaining the ‘Status Quo’; they cannot continue to disregard how their actions or lack of it affects minoritized students. 

In reflecting on the actions of the two unnamed faculty members and Neely, I wonder how different their actions would have been if they understood racism is not always declarative, and that prejudice can manifest in subtle actions. Maybe if there was an orientation session for faculty members and American students on how to create more inclusive environments for international students, rather than just a session for international students on how to cope with the educational environment in the U.S., then this bigoted and xenophobic incident at Duke would not have happened.