Should Duke professor 'single out Chinese language' in her email?
The Point with Liu Xin

Last week, Duke University professor Megan Neely wrote an email to her students urging them to “commit to using English 100 percent of the time.” The email was soon widely circulated on Twitter and sparked outrage. Dr. Neely was accused of being racist against Chinese students, and soon apologized and stepped down as director of graduate studies for the master's program.

She said in the email that two faculty members had complained to her about a group of students speaking Chinese "very loudly" in common areas and asked to see photos of the first- and second-year students so that they could "remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master's project."

On students speaking their native languages in public, Prof. David Law, Chair in Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, said that students have to at some point be relaxed and be themselves, which for Chinese students means speaking Chinese with other Chinese students. It is just a “natural tendency,” he adds.

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In Dr. Neely's case, though she is trying to encourage students to learn more about another culture, it is unrealistic to expect them to keep doing so on all social occasions, and it is hard to find educational justification for that, said Prof. Law.  

Prof. Li Jinzhao from the Beijing Foreign Studies University pointed out that she believed Dr. Neely acted out of good will, but the problem is that she "is not being sensitive enough to inter-cultural conflict and misunderstanding,” and that she “singled out Chinese.”

In fact, Chinese students represent 36 of the 55 students in Duke's biostatistics master's degree program, and Chinese scholars represent one-fifth of the program's roughly 50 faculty members. Across Duke's graduate and professional programs, 1,300 of about 8,500 total students come from China.

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Prof. David Law from the University of Hong Kong added that this move demonstrates the stereotypes and bias facing minority groups, in this case, Chinese students.

“They (the faculty) don't ask themselves questions like if these were white students speaking French or German, would we have the same reaction? The answer is no,” he said.

On this point, Prof. Li Jinzhao mentioned that Dr. Neely is actually complaining about two things, which are students talking too loudly and students speaking Chinese. By juxtaposing these two points, Dr. Neely is forming a stereotype in which Chinese students always talk too loudly. This judgment might be very hurtful for Chinese students as a whole, she said.

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