Another Slice of Linguistic Racism

Recently, a video of the racist ranting of a white woman in a Mississauga, Ontario, medical clinic has been getting a lot of media attention across Canada. This has been used to exemplify how, despite the ways that Canadians love to situate themselves as free from racism or more tolerant of multiculturalism than our neighbours in the US, we still see even the most overt forms of racism manifesting here. And make no mistake – as others have pointed out, it is the overtness of this instance, the direct demand that this woman makes to have her son seen by a white doctor, that forces many people to acknowledge that it is, in fact, racism (and even then, some will refuse and find ways to justify this behaviour, as Paradkar documents in a follow-up post).

Among all the articles covering this story, though, this column by Shree Paradkar caught my linguistic attention (h/t @meg2386 for firing it at me on Twitter). Paradkar outlines a number of characteristics of linguistic racism, including the ways that certain types of speech are given authority and seen as ‘correct’, as well as how the apparent compliment that someone is ‘articulate’ or ‘well-spoken’ is deployed in classist and racist ways. The article, and the follow-up, make a lot of good points, but there is one aspect in particular I think deserves further attention – the role of racism in perceptions of accents, and the racial implications of demands that others speak English (and often, as here, perfect English).

I think these points matter because I suspect that, in the absence of the specific inclusion of race qualifications about the type of doctor this woman wanted her son to see, other elements of this demand would have gone less noticed. In other words, if she had simply asked for a doctor who speaks English, many more people would view that as a reasonable request, because who doesn’t want a doctor that they can understand? There are a number of complicated angles around this, including the question of how ‘official’ languages work in different places, how linguistic standards relate to licensing standards for professions like medicine, and who is expected to accommodate whom in a ‘multicultural’ society, and these bigger picture questions help to create a terrain that fosters racist beliefs. On top of that, we can see how these “speak English” demands take specific forms in specific types of interactions – even when it’s not relevant, people speaking certain languages (like Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, or Chinese) are subjected to random others who tell them they can’t speak those languages, that those languages mark them as not good Canadians (or Americans). Nelson Flores’ blog often addresses this topic, specifically in reference to how bilingualism and bilingual education are not neutrally interpreted, as native Spanish-speakers, regardless of their level of fluency in English, are frequently subjected to tests and categorizations that render their language use “deficient” and requiring surveillance. This is the same type of thing that emerges in this woman’s rant – certain types of speakers are put in a position of repeatedly having to prove their capacity in English, both to authoritative bodies and to members of the general public with whom they interact. It’s tiring, it’s time-consuming, it’s degrading, and it can, as in many of the examples Flores uses in his work, it can have material consequences on where a student is placed in classes.

I realize I keep saying “certain types of speakers” without clarifying what I mean by that, though I’m assuming that most of you are able to read in to my intent there anyway. This is, however, extremely important – when people try to legitimize their desire for a specific type of doctor by saying they find certain accents, or strong accents, difficult to understand, they are tapping into what is, of course, a reasonable requirement for certain relationships. We all need to be able to understand our doctors, or our teachers, or other people in positions of public service. But they are also making a tacit assumption that there is an objective, measurable, degree of intelligibility, or proximity to ‘normal’ English, that these other speakers are failing to meet, and that it is not the listener’s fault that they can’t understand them. This is driven home, in this woman’s rant, by the demand for a doctor whose English is perfect, as though this is an objective assessment, like the 10/10 you can get on an elementary math quiz. Paradkar’s follow up post makes note of part of the problem underlying this idea by highlighting that intelligibility is, in part, a matter of custom and familiarity. One reason people might find certain accents difficult to understand, then, is because they have, as a result of structural racism or pervasive patterns of racial/cultural segregation, avoided the need to learn to understand them. In other words, while members of minority communities almost always have to accommodate dominant speakers in order to function, part of the function of dominance is to allow people to never have to try to accommodate others.

There are, however, deeper levels to this limited understanding that I think also need to be addressed. The main one is that perceptions of people’s speech is not, in fact, detached from their physical appearance. In various types of experimental and statistical studies (one example is discussed here), sociolinguists have shown that students judge professors whose names or features are Asian as less comprehensible, and complain about their accents – even when these instructors are actually native speakers of English. Our brains absorb information from other sources – like visual appearance and indexical associations with names, ways of dressing, etc – and develop a much more complex, and decidedly not straightforward, interpretation of what that person sounds like. In so many ways, the presence or absence of an “accent” is a socially constituted thing, not an objective reality in the world, and so it is subject to all the dynamics of categorization and power that exist within the social matrix.

This woman’s rantings, along with some of the ways people have reacted to them, are examples of how racist discourses work, in both overt and more covert ways. Linguistic racism is a complex and multifaceted topic, and discussions of racism (or the limitations of idealized Canadian multiculturalism) need to attune to things like expectations of accommodation and effort in mutual understanding, as well as the interrelationships between different types of information that go in to interpreting someone as “intelligible” or not. This particular incident was absolutely vile, and blatantly racist and white supremacist, but it also included some more subtle reinforcements of these power dynamics that may have, in the absence of those other statements, gone unnoticed, when in fact they are pernicious and potent elements of racial inequality.

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