Language, Accommodation, and the View from Whiteness

I want to take a minute to make a quick point about the underlying implications of several stories that have circulated in the media over the last couple of weeks. These stories have all been pretty thoroughly reported on and critiqued, so apologies if you are already sick of them, but I think it’s worth gathering them in one place for comment.

The stories:

  1. Senior NBC journalist Tom Brokaw comments (and later apologizes for saying) that “the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation”, specifically noting that they should make sure “all their kids are learning to speak English”. (Ed: Wow, he really said ‘the Hispanics’, even, didn’t he? That’s…special).
  2. A professor (and now former program administrator) at Duke University wrote an email to students in a medical program blatantly stating that choosing to speak Chinese to their friends would be held against them when it came time to consider internship and employment candidates.
  3. A study of court reporters in Philadelphia found that significant inaccuracies characterized their transcripts that included African American varieties of English, to the point that 11% of the transcribed sentences were “gibberish”.

The first two stories contain an obvious similarity: racialized people are perceived as insufficiently willing to “assimilate” or become full members of the community, primarily as a result of their use of languages other than English. As several responses have pointed out, the claims made by Brokaw and by Duke professor Megan Neely are built on fictions – the language skills of Latinx people in the US are just fine, the assumption that English is the only language of US culture is an act of extraordinary erasure, and international students at Duke, for their part, are required to demonstrate English proficiency before even being accepted into the program. But facts like these don’t matter in shaping these perceptions — as scholars like Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa have observed, language and race are mutually constructed pieces of social life, such that, for example, Latinx bilinguals are interpreted as linguistically deficient, while White bilinguals are interpreted as exceptional and intelligent (my go-to example in class is this gushing headline about Princess Charlotte, which makes me sigh so hard). These raciolinguistic ideologies also come in to play as people’s interpretation of whether someone has an accent or not is heavily influenced by that person’s appearance (or other non-linguistic information, like the person’s last name)*. All of that is to say: in these two stories, discrimination based on (perceived) linguistic ability is being used to stand in for discrimination based on racial identity, since the latter is considered vile (at least for people like Brokaw, about whom any number of but he’s definitely not racist! defenses were marshalled), but the former is apparently justifiable.

The third story, about the Philadelphia court reporters, is a bit different. In this case, what we see is how court reporters demonstrate something that should actually be an obvious disqualification for the position they hold: the inability to understand and accurately represent varieties of English spoken by a significant proportion of the people whose speech they are paid to document. This is an especially high-stakes context that demonstrates a fundamental lack of care about these speakers, and can’t be detached from the well documented inequalities in court outcomes for African Americans (both as defendants, and as victims/witnesses**). Grammatical patterns of African American English(es) are well known (a few are even included in the linked article) and could easily be taught and learned as part of training for a position in which accurate rendering of speakers’ words is vital. But…they’re not, and people hired in to these positions are allowed to continue, despite their clear linguistic limitation.

These three examples illustrate the same story from two different sides: the language of non-white people is differentdifficult, and needs to be improved. Non-white people are responsible for working diligently to demonstrate, linguistically and otherwise, their membership in the group. White people do not have to bother learning how to understand or use the language of non-Whites – not even when it’s central to their job. Bilingualism and the ability to code-switch appropriately and effectively becomes a survival requirement for some people, and a complete non-issue for others. This functions not only to reinforce racist interpretations of different people’s linguistic abilities, but also to impose a cognitive burden onto those who are required to do the extra work of learning multiple codes, as well as the social expectations about switching between them, and of constantly monitoring for how their speech is being (mis)interpreted.

Whenever discussions of racism and racist comments emerge, a lot of focus goes on to whether or not the individual person who made the comments “meant” to be racist, or whether that person “is a racist”. The thing is, ultimately, Brokaw, Neely, and those individual Philadelphia court reporters are not what these stories are about. These stories are about the constant reminders that non-White people get about their “limitations”, about the work they need to do to be accepted in “mainstream” (read: White) society, about the shifting goalposts through which racial discrimination is enacted in practice, and about how the view from the perspective of Whiteness is continually rendered as the only “normal” way of being. Language is an extremely powerful force in the manifestation of racism, and these examples are pieces that make that force work.

*This research is complex, and there are a lot of theories around how and why it comes into play – a relatively recent discussion of it, for example, can be found here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13414-017-1329-2 .

**A particularly prominent example of the impact of African American language in court can be seen in the discussion, by John Rickford and Sharese King, of testimony given in the trial of George Zimmerman.

 

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