News Briefs

Governor appears in racist photo

Ralph Northam, the Democratic Governor of Virginia, has come under fire recently after news surfaced that he allegedly appeared in a racist photograph in his medical school yearbook. The 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook section displays Northam’s full name across the top, with three images: a portrait of him, a picture of him leaning against a car and a photo of him in a cowboy hat.

The controversy arises from the image at the right of the page, which depicts a man in blackface standing next to a person who is wearing the full garb of the Ku Klux Klan (New York Times, “Governor Admits He Was in Racist Yearbook Photo,” 02.01.2019). On Feb. 1, Governor Northam issued an apology in which he confirmed it was him in the racist photograph, and that it was his decision to appear that way. During his apology, Northam confirmed that he would not resign, but he did not disclose whether he was the one in the blackface or if he was the one in the KKK hood (Twitter, [at] [MikevWUSA,] 02.01.2019).

On Feb. 2, Northam retracted his apology, denying that it was him in the photograph that appeared under his name beside three pictures of himself. He also denied having ever seen the photo prior to Feb. 1 of this year (NBC News, “Special Report: Virginia Gov. holds press conference after racist yearbook photo surfaces,” 02.02.2019). It is unclear if any of his medical school peers attempted to inform him about the clearly racist photo on his yearbook page in the 35 years between then and now. Northam did admit to using blackface in the past, specifically recalling a Michael Jackson dance contest in which he applied shoe polish to his face (C-Span, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam News Conference, 02.02.2019).

Governor Northam’s yearbook malignity did not end there. His 1981 Virginia Military Institute yearbook reveals that one of his two nicknames was “coonman,” “coon” being a racist slur for people of color (Virginia Military Institute, “The Bomb,” 1981). When asked about this nickname, Northam said that he was aware of it but did not know why his classmates called him that (C-Span).

He again confirmed that he would not resign, even in the face of rare oppositional political unity between both the Virginia GOP and the Virginia Democrats. Northam has also faced calls for his resignation from presidential hopefuls Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi, Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and former Vice-President Joe Biden (RollingStone, “A Partial List of Top Democrats and Progressives Demanding Ralph Northam’s Resignation, 01.05.2019).

Northam is unlikely to face electoral consequences, since the Virginia Constitution bars candidates from running for consecutive terms as Governor and because he has only served one year of his four-year term. If he were to resign, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax would finish the term. Were he to assume the office of Governor, Fairfax would be only the fifth Black Governor in U.S. history, and the only one in the United States at this time. Fairfax has notably not called for Northam’s resignation (Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax releases statement after Northam’s press conference,” 02.02.2019).

– Jonas Trostle, Guest Reporter

Prof. criticizes Chinese speakers

On Jan. 25, 2018, Director of Graduate Studies for Duke University’s Master of Biostatistics program Megan Neely sent an email to a group of international students criticizing their native language usage in the presence of other faculty members. Two faculty members’ complaints regarding supposedly loud Chinese-speaking preceded the email, which stated, “[The faculty members] were disappointed that these [Chinese] students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English.” These two members also inquired over the students’ identities for later consideration, should the students seek an internship or ask to work with them for a master’s project (TWP, “Duke professor apologizes for telling Chinese students to speak English on campus,” 01.28.2019).

Titled “Something to think about…,” in capitalization, Neely’s message exhorted, “To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building.” Soon after its reception, image captions of Neely’s message permeated social media platforms, inciting strong reactions among international students and other readers.

One Twitter user replied: “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.” (Twitter, [at]ourobororoboruo,]01.26.2019). Another commented, “I speak Spanish to native speakers all the time and I’m not one. It’s fun to speak other languages. This is ridiculous.” (Twitter, [at]SusieusMaximus, 01.27.2019).

This was not the first time that Neely propagandized a disfavor of international students conversing in their native tongues. According to Duke’s independent student newspaper The Chronicle, Neely also sent a group of international students a caution email with the title, “To speak English or not to speak English,” with similar contents on Feb. 2, 2018. The 2018 mail has not been confirmed for authenticity, but will be included in further review (The Chronicle Sunday, “Grad program director who stepped down also sent email in Feb. 2018 telling students to speak English,” 01.27.2019).

Neely’s blatant threats regarding future employment opportunity and skepticism of international students’ linguistic capacity aggravated the trend of microaggressions directed at Asians and Asian-Americans in academia. Incidents such as a UCLA students’ 2011 YouTube tirade about “hordes” of Asian people on campus and Harvard’s low ratings of Asian students’ personal traits, such as likability and kindness, are only a few in the chain of events originating from multilayered social segregation (The Guardian, “Harvard sued for alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants,” 06.15.2018).

The controversial email prompted profuse apologies from both Neely and Dean of Duke School of Medicine Dr. Mary E. Klotman. “There is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other,” Klotman wrote in her Saturday email to Duke biostatistic students. “Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom” (The Chronicle Sunday, “Neely Apologized,” 2019). Neely also filed for resignation as Director of Graduates Studies but remained an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, as confirmed by Duke Vice President of Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld.

Duke students have since issued a petition for thorough investigation into both incidents. The petition reminds the university of its commitment to inclusivity, reading, “The University has the responsibility to invest in the personal growth of all of its members, regardless of their race, ethnicity, and national origin.” (Petition to investigate professor Megan Neely’s discriminatory emails, 01.26.2019).

– Ha Bui, Guest Reporter

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