Duke’s Chinese Email Firestorm Shows Us What Social Change Looks Like

In January, an email from a Duke Professor went viral.  This professor was talking about language.  Specifically, the language of Chinese students in her program. She recommended that they not speak “Chinese” with each other when in the Duke Biostatistics Department. Ironically, this directive to not speak Chinese led to a huge amount of talk about speaking Chinese—and this talk about language now gives us a window into the interactional mechanisms that fuel social change.

What made this email become an agent of social change? Let’s explore that by looking at the conversations that followed it—from discussions online, to offline, and back.

The conversations began when students took a screen shot of the e-mail and re-circulated it.  First it went viral on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging platform. Since I do not know any Mandarin, my attention followed the subsequent English discussion on Twitter, which included a the screen shot of the email.

The number of likes, retweets, and comments following this post testify to its interest: 29,000 likes, 14,000 retweets, and 1,500 comments.

Even a cursory review of this single twitter thread reveals multiple concerns, among them the hypocrisy of this language policing, the implicit racism, and the threat that these students may be jeopardizing their future job opportunities within the department and beyond.

In some ironic policing of the language police, a few posts drew attention to the Duke Professor’s use of the phrase “upmost respect” instead of the standard, “utmost respect.”

While I include it mostly for comic relief, this post makes a point that we emphasize in our educational linguistics classes at the University of Pennsylvania:  There is no “perfect native speaker” of English. Demands for “appropriate” English are often masking other forms of discrimination.

When we tell people to change their “speech patterns,” presumably for their own benefit, we continue the eradication of difference, even while publicly most academics now recognize such eradication as ethnocentric and racist.
The tweets become more pointed about discrimination when discussing the email’s threat to these students’ future opportunities—that if they do not refrain from speaking languages other than English while in the building, they may have difficulty finding internships in the department. This, the email warns, may be among the “unintended consequences” of speaking Chinese. In response, one woman tweeted: “Reread this, even angrier now. The language is incredibly menacing: ‘unintended consequences’ for simply speaking Chinese during free time indicates there’s no end to the Othering of international students to make them feel inadequate and unwelcome.”

Repeatedly, tweets point out that denying students opportunities because they have been overheard speaking Chinese amounts to unfair bias—because this denial is not based on relevant skills, or even English ability, but simply the fact that these students speak Chinese in public.

Another thread more specifically points out the false assumption that those speaking Chinese need more English practice. Daisy Mengxi’s response to Mark Song’s initial tweet illustrates, “speaking Chinese” does not necessarily mean students cannot speak English well: “I scored top 1% on the GRE, 119 on TOELF, and hold a B.S. in philosophy with distinction from , do I get to speak Chinese with my friends on my own time when I’m on a university campus w/o my professional dev opportunities getting stripped away?”

Daisy Mengxi’s tweet illustrates that students at English-medium universities who speak Chinese to each other may also be highly proficient English speakers.  To his credit, Mark Song rethinks his previous tweet.

This is one small drop of the outpouring of Internet dialog generated by the Duke email—and the sheer volume of this outpouring led to more coverage in the print and TV media. Swiftly, the professor who wrote the email issued an apology and stepped down from her post as Graduate Director. The Dean announced they would be embarking on an investigation into the program’s cultural climate.

Then came the backlash—a history professor argued in the New York Daily News that readers should not “rush to judgment” of the Duke professor, and discussed his own experiences with an NYU student from China and how he helped her realize that “her speech patterns” outside the classroom might be “deeply limiting her professional opportunities.” This description echoes the “unintended consequences” mentioned in the Duke email—the threat that students would be judged poorly when applying for internships simply because they had been overheard speaking Chinese.

The controversy continued to burn, sparking more email and face-to-face discussions, including many among my colleagues and our students. Suddenly, issues of Chinese language and its role in our increasingly internationalizing campuses became something many people were talking about. And now we were discussing these forms of language policing more broadly—not simply as something that happened at Duke, but something we recognize in many contexts, including in our own communities.

Disrupting status quo feedback loops

Despite being cloaked in the passive, agent-less phrase “unintended consequences,” the Duke email actively produces discrimination. Warnings to students were not simply pointing out a harsh reality to which students must accommodate lest they face “unintended consequences.” These emails (and there had been a similar email from the same professor in February 2018) were producing that reality and those consequences. Discrimination against Chinese students, or any other ethnic group, is not a matter of “unintended consequences,” but a result of intentional choices by people in power. Rhetoric about students’ best interests in the face of “unintended consequences” reproduces this discrimination each time it’s used, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, where to “get ahead,” people must conform to an English-only context—a context produced repeatedly in the rhetoric of these warnings.

How can one disrupt that rhetoric and the context of discrimination it creates? Here’s where we may have been witnessing social change: These Weibo, Twitter, and otherwise mass-mediated discussions created a rupture in a feedback loop that has been reinforcing a status quo policy of “English for their own good” for centuries in this country—centuries that have led many “well-meaning” people to reproduce ethnocentric and racist norms. As colleagues of mine pointed out in our discussion of the Duke email, forcing people to speak English, and specific types of English, is nothing new in this country—a nation built on language eradication. Hundreds of distinct languages were spoken in North America when Columbus arrived centuries ago. Far fewer than half are still spoken today, and most of those are endangered. Only decades ago, our school systems erupted in controversy when it was suggested that we recognize and respect speakers of African American English in K-12 classrooms rather than relegate them to remedial classes; and, until recently, most children of immigrants in this country were instructed to speak only English both in school and at home, even with their family members who knew almost no English. Not surprisingly, most grandchildren of immigrants to this country become monolingual English speakers.

Much of this centuries-old pattern of language eradication, including the forced education of indigenous people in English-only boarding schools, was done to individuals ostensibly to save them from the “unintended consequences” of limited opportunity. These policies and actions—like those of the Duke professors, were not simply pointing out a monolingual reality to which multilinguals were advised to accommodate, they were creating that monolingual culture by talking about different languages as if they are inherently detrimental to an individual’s success.

When we tell people to change their “speech patterns,” presumably for their own benefit, we continue the eradication of difference, even while publicly most academics now recognize such eradication as ethnocentric and racist. In the feedback loops made visible in the Duke controversy, we’ve witnessed a rupture in the “unintended consequences” rhetoric. Instead of discussing how students can change their speech patterns, we’re thinking about how institutions might change the way we treat linguistic diversity. Instead of reproducing monolingual achievement norms, we’re questioning the institutional discourse that upholds those norms.

When students used the internet to circulate that email outside its usual institutional range, they brought new voices into the conversation. They questioned the “unintended consequences” rhetoric that has built monolingual institutional power for centuries in this country and in institutions of higher education worldwide. While we can lament the idiocy of Twitter and other social media, these platforms function as a valuable tool to circulate everyday opinions about language—including those opinions we’ve heard before and those that are new to us, those we agree with and those we don’t. In the Duke controversy, someone’s ordinary institutional email became a springboard for discussions about language policing. Online, via viral tweeting, we began to see a rupture in the usual feedback loop that reinforces the old monolingual status quo—and to see what social change looks like.

I suspect (I hope!) professors who have followed this controversy will now think twice before policing the languages students use with one another. Thanks to the Internet, we will soon be able to see what new forms the feedback-loop takes—and we are all free to play a role in those conversations, voicing our own opinions in whatever language we choose.

Betsy Rymes is professor and chair of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches about language and society and how they relate to educational projects. She introduced the concept “citizen sociolinguistics” as a vehicle for sharing and engaging in dialogue relating to everyday encounters with language.

Please send your comments and ideas for Anthropology News columns to CAE contributing editors Cathy Amanti ([email protected]) and Patricia D. López ([email protected]).

Cite as: Rymes, Betsy. 2019. “Duke’s Chinese Email Firestorm Shows Us What Social Change Looks Like.” Anthropology News website, February 6, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1089

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