Meet Megan Lee Neely, an assistant professor of biostatistics at Duke University. Over the weekend Neely resigned as director of graduate studies for biostatistics majors at the amid outrage after she sent an email on Friday in which she warned first- and second-year graduate students to only speak English on campus or face “unintended consequences.” (You might be wondering how the hell consequences could be “unintended” if she sent a whole ass email warning folk about them… chill, we gettin’ to that.)
The email read as follows:
“I had two faculty members come by my office today and ask if I had pictures of the MB students. I shared with them the headshots of the first- and second year coharts taken during orientation. Both faculty members picked out a small group of first-year students who they observed speaking Chinese (“in their words, VERY LOUDLY”) in the student lounge/study areas.” (So basically they did a whole Law & Order photo array thing in order to catch Chinese people *gasp* speaking Chinese… I mean, ok, nothing weird about that, please continue…)
“Both faculty members replied that they wanted to write down the names so they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project. They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.”
(Yeah, you caught that right: “Y’all foreign mother fuckers talk too loud, but also speak English so we can all eavesdrop on y’all asses!” I imagine minding your own muhfuckin business is far cheaper than Duke tuition, but go on.)
“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building. I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost respect for what you are doing.” (And no, that’s not a typo on my part, Ms. Speak-y De English College Lady misspelled “utmost”)
That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional building. Copying the second-year students as a reminder given they are currently applying for jobs.”
So Neely hit “send”, the email goes campus viral, people get appropriately pissed, Neely (likely) was made to step down and I’m left with a question I, admittedly, ask myself at least 3-4 times a day: Why are white people like this?
This story is a typical one (well, the NCIS photo lineup thing was kinda bizarre even for white nonsense standards, but I’ll just assume Neely and her colleagues were all “advanced Caucasity” majors and move on). White Americans have always had this weird obsession with immigrants speaking the King’s at all times including during private conversations that have nothing the fuck to do with them. Of course it’s usually Spanish or Arabic that gets their Star Spangled panties all in a bunch, but it appears that any language of non white origin can cause the Euro-American eye to twitch (I’ve never personally heard any white person complaining about French or Italian people speaking their native tongue on U.S. soil, but I digress).
It has long been my belief that the use of foreign language is largely a peripheral – in terms of what keeps conservative Americans’ collective asses itching – with the bigger picture being the existence of a non homogeneous (read: white) American culture.
After all, white people hardly only complain about the use of foreign tongue for practical reasons. I’ve witnessed white Americans get down right indignant while lamenting the fact that, when using automated customer service systems, they’re forced to press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish. Now, I also absolutely abhor automated systems because of all the tedious button mashing I have to do to get to an actual, human customer service rep, but language selection is by far the least of the aggravation. Normally, you don’t even have to wait for, “Para Espanol, presione dos” to move forward because the English option always comes first and usually allows you to move right along. So, what the fuck, really?
One in a grocery store I had to hold in my laughter as a white man was losing his shit at the self checkout machine because its English option was malfunctioning. This man actually had a temper tantrum, pretending he couldn’t figure out how to scan an item and press the big, green “pay” button because he was being forced to do it all while following instructions that were in Spanish. Of course, I ended up bursting out of my sides with a nice hearty chuckle when the self checkout attendant walked over, smiled at the man and said, in the most polite tone a person could possibly say this sentence in, “Sir, there are pictures there that demonstrate what you’re supposed to do, if that helps.” I died.
And as far as Megan Neely’s biostatistics students goes, it’s not as if they were conducting powerpoint presentations in Chinese while English subtitles scurried across a screen. They were on their own time and doing a thing as inconsequential as socializing in their first languages.
One line in Neely’s ill advised email that struck me as particularly disingenuous, was the line where she claims her colleagues “were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English…” Nah, bullshit!
There’s so much being assumed in that one fragment of that one sentence that makes no sense to assume: 1. That speaking Chinese automatically indicates a poor grasp of English, 2. that not speaking English 24/7 indicates that they’re not earnestly attempting to learn it at all and 3. that those unnamed faculty members (who, in all honesty, may or may not have even existed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing was Neely’s passive aggressive way of projecting her own delicate sensibilities along while attempting to distance herself from them) have any authority over how those students choose to speak on their own time. And let’s not pretend that when American students study abroad, they speak to each other in the local language 100% of the time lest they be accused of failing to take every opportunity to sharpen their grasps of said language. Such a requirement would be understood as incredibly unreasonable.
But again, it isn’t really about the use of Chinese, it’s about the use of Chinese within earshot of Americans who will always advocate that dominant culture remain dominant. For them, the mere use of non white, foreign language in their presence is not just impolite, but threatening. The shit is weird, yo.