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Seminar Series to Raise Awareness of Language Discrimination

Faculty leading the Mellon Foundation project: Edna Andrews, Lee Baker and Liliana Paredes,
Faculty leading the Mellon Foundation project: Edna Andrews, Lee Baker and Liliana Paredes,

A seminar series focused on language discrimination in fragile and precarious communities proposed by faculty in the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke has attracted key funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project has been designated a Sawyer Seminar Series and awarded a grant of $225,000 over two years. Institutions must be invited to apply for the opportunity.

Leading the effort are professors Edna Andrews, chair of Linguistics; Lee Baker, chair of Cultural Anthropology; and Liliana Paredes, director of the Spanish language program in Romance Studies.

Their grant application defines fragile communities as “areas with high proportions of residents who struggle financially in their daily lives and have limited opportunities for social mobility.”

“Language discrimination is one of the most ubiquitous yet ignored forms of discrimination,” the team wrote. “Linguistic forms can signal who has privilege and who does not, who has more power and agency, and who does not.”

The series will explore four central themes:

  • Minorities, underrepresented communities and language-based discrimination
  • Linguistic diversity in education
  • Multilingualism, immigration and identities
  • Indigenous and endangered languages

“Within a particular language, people who use the linguistic form associated with privilege and power typically claim that they are more civilized, refined, or advanced; they certainly have more access to institutions essential for upward mobility,” the team explained.

“Conversely, those who do not speak the prestige dialect face stereotypical characterizations of being uncivilized, stupid, and even criminal. Language use is a powerful social construct with very real and material consequences.”

The series is expected to launch in fall of 2020 and will feature approximately 20 guest speakers from around the globe addressing the many layers of social and cultural tension in language discrimination. Four neighboring North Carolina universities will partner with Duke on this effort, and graduate students will have the opportunity to be involved throughout the series.


Genetic Race? An Exploration of Ancestry Testing and Racial Identity

Trina Jones (Duke Law) and Jessica Roberts (University of Houston Law Center)

October 8 at 5:30 p.m. Video to be made available soon.

Can genetic tests determine race? Americans are fascinated with DNA ancestry testing services like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. The speakers will introduce the concept of "genetic race" by considering ways in which DNA ancestry tests may affect contemporary understandings of racial identity. They argue that these tests are poor proxies for race because they fail to reflect the defining social, cultural, relational, and experiential norms that form identity. Consequently, they strongly caution against defining race in predominantly genetic terms. Three separate legal contexts are addressed: (1) employment discrimination, 2) race-conscious initiatives, and (3) immigration.


Endangered Language, Cultural Crisis

Professor Thomas Belt (Western Carolina University)

October 15 at 6 p.m. via Zoom


The intrinsic relationship of linguistic expression and a dynamic culture determines the continued existence of a diverse and unique society. Belt is retired after serving many years as the WCU Cherokee Language Program Coordinator where he worked to create a state-of-the-art Cherokee language program at the university level. Belt taught the first four semesters of Cherokee language and he co-taught courses on Cherokee grammar and Cherokee language literature. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Belt is a fluent Cherokee speaker and works closely with speakers from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to produce culturally-based Cherokee language learning material. Before joining the Cherokee Language Program, Belt worked as a counselor's aide in a local treatment center for native youths with chemical dependencies. He attended the Universities of Oklahoma and Colorado and taught the Cherokee language at the Cherokee elementary school in Cherokee, NC. Belt has also served as a consultant to various cultural archives and to various indigenous language programs in public schools and on the post-secondary level.


Crying, Control, and Masculinity in the Language of Donald Trump

October 19 at 5:30 p.m. via Zoom


Professor Norma Mendoza Denton (UCLA, Linguistic Anthropologist)

Donald Trump’s speeches as president provide many examples of narratives of masculinity where he elevates himself as the pinnacle of virility, strength, toughness—and whiteness. Wallace Chafe (1998) and other scholars (e.g. Norrick 1988) have written about the ways in which repeated tellings of the same story open a window not only into patterns of language, but also into the workings of the self. In the case of Trump, a revealing example of a narrative of masculinity is found in a series of retellings that Trevor Noah of The Daily Show compiled into the satirical Christmas video, “Trump’s Mythical Crying Man Yule Log” (The Daily Show 2018). In this video montage, a stone fireplace frames the center of an old-fashioned cathode-ray TV where video clips of Trump are gently licked by flames. The clips are taken from Trump’s campaign stops, speeches, and conversations with reporters, documenting 15 distinct instances of Trump retelling the same story with minimal variations. The structure discernible in Trump’s narrative series is formulaic, with each instantiation filling in variable details, and recycled on many public occasions. Sometimes, the man is a steelworker, or a miner, or a farmer. Sometimes it’s a group of men who are crying. Occasionally there is one holdout in the group who does not cry. This man-crying-before-Trump sequence is a great example of not only a narrative of masculinity, but also a “comedic gesture,” where Trump dramatically drags his hands across his face to show copious crying (Goldstein, Hall and Ingram 2017). While it is well attested that politicians recycle narratives and inflect them to suit their audiences (Fenno 1978), Trump’s narratives go one step further, often revolving around self-aggrandizement, situating him as both the pinnacle and arbiter of toughness. The recurrence of this leitmotif is precisely what renders it an organizing narrative of Trumpian masculinity.

The Duke Mellon Sawyer Seminar strives to host inclusive, accessible events. Live captioning will be available for attendees. To request additional accommodations contact Yana Lowry (


Spring 2020 Seminar Lectures


Sociolinguistic (In)justice in Higher Education: Solving the Problem We Created

Walt Wolfram (North Carolina State University)

February 13 at 6 p.m.

153 Rubenstein Library


Latinx Languages and Identities Beyond Borders

Jonathan Rosa (Stanford University)

March 4 at 5:30 p.m.

153 Rubenstein Library