Opinion: Yes, Racism & Whitewashing Still Exist in Higher Education

On January 26, a series of tweets from Hua Sirui (a producer for Now This News) went viral. The tweets included screenshots, which can be seen below, of emails sent by Assistant Professor Megan Neely of Duke University’s Masters in Biostatistics program. The series of emails can be seen as criticising Chinese international students for speaking in their native language.

 

While this may be an isolated case, Sirui tweeted another email Neely had sent to Duke students back in late February of 2018. In this email Neely writes:

Beyond the obvious opportunity to practice and perfect your English, speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously. As a result, they may be more hesitant to hire or work with international students…

While Neely may come across as being concerned for the wellbeing of international students, the problem with her series of emails is that she holds the English language above a foreign language as being superior and more accepted. Despite there being no official language in the United States, Neely furthers to push this belief among students in her later emails.

 

As an Asian American, I read these emails as self-serving and containing a racist agenda (as did many other people). According to CNN, Neely apologised for her emails:

We very much value our international students and their contributions to our program and we recognize that the message that was sent Friday was not appropriate. Although it was not meant to be hurtful, it came out that way and was clearly in error.

 

My biggest problem with this incident is that white washing is still alive and well - even in higher education. I believe that with the multitude of technology, media and social media platforms, it is easy to separate ourselves from racist incidents and view them only as a NowThis video.

If you are unfamiliar with the term white washing, here’s a quick run down:

Originally, white washing was a term used to define a practice in film in which characters or casts of colour were replaced with white actors or actresses. Ultimately, this erased true representation of people of colour and furthered the success and presentation of white folk.

 

Although this incident occurred in real life and is not film-related, I believe white washing has a greater societal meaning. That is, it is used to erase the culture, norms and experiences of people of colour and replace them with those that are more acceptable to white people.

Another identifiable problem with this incident is that Neely holds “unintended consequences” over the heads of international students. She comfortably states that by refusing to speak English, other professors and employees will view them as less than when considering them for employment.

 

Neely’s ability to threaten their education and jobs is evidence (to me at least), that she did not have good intentions within her emails. At UMass Amherst, there is constant reminders about Title IX and Equal Opportunity when applying for jobs on and off campus. As a person of colour, this is reassuring that I will be judged on my work ethic and academic success rather than my race, ethnicity or gender.

 

To see an authority figure in higher education (remember, this is a Graduate program, not Undergraduate) is disturbing on so many levels. I am in no way supporting discrimination at the Undergraduate level but am calling on further reformation to target these acts of hate. Instead of letting targeted incidents slide and accepting the perpetrator’s apology, members of higher education must stand together to educate why difference is good.

 

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