Random Thoughts and Musings by moi

Musings by a feisty, opinionated Deaf gal who wants nothing but the best for her community and her people

jeudi 13 juillet 2006

Deaf Privilege?

I went to a divorce party tonight to celebrate the end of a marriage. It was a novel experience for me, and it got me to thinking. Y’see, I was the only guest who had grown up with signs. Every one of the other nine women present did not know sign until adulthood. One of them still does not sign. This was not an issue for me at all, because that kind of thing does not hinder my acceptance and respect of others. But from a sociological and cultural anthropology perspective, it was fascinating to observe this close-knit group of women who had basically grown up together for the most part. They were all friendly, pleasant, and well-educated.

Signing skills ranged from a couple who looked like they had spent time at a school for the deaf, to a few who looked like they used some form of manually coded English when they were younger, to some who obviously did not learn signing until later, to one who knows very few signs and does not sign in general, and this woman will be called Gigi. However, all of the other women, except for Gigi, appeared to prefer (or maybe made more of an effort?) to communicate using signs. Some signed more in ASL the whole time. Some simcommed with Gigi but used more ASL signing with the others. Some signed but reverted to voice only for a few words or sentences here and there. Gigi’s deaf sister signed when others were part of the conversation, but she voiced with Gigi. This whole dynamic among the women was fascinating to observe.

There is a quote that I absolutely love but cannot remember who it originated with. “Deaf people are people of the eye.” This was proven to be so true tonight. Everyone moved their heads to follow the conversation, paused and waited for people to turn their heads towards the signer, and waved to each other for attention. Gigi’s being deaf was clear after some observation. For example, she waved to others to get their attention. She was also very alert. She moved her head and her eyes were constantly scanning the room or intently focused on the conversation. She is living proof of that quote, even though she can’t sign her way out of a paper bag. Apparently she wants to learn to sign, but she doesn’t have a compelling enough reason - yet. When I was sitting at that table, watching the various conversations and how they interacted, a thought struck me. This is Deafhood in action. This group of women are all on a journey to self-actualization and pride in their being deaf. They are all at different points in their journey, some further along than others, but we are all in this together. A coin doesn’t have enough sides for all of us, so allow me to take liberties with the saying - we are all different sides of the same die. It was just so cool to watch and be part of this group.

I chatted with one very pleasant, friendly woman. The subject of deafhood came up, and I asked her what she thought, how she felt, and her perspective. This opened the floodgates. She feels like the only people she can really socialize with are oral people. They accept each other and they feel comfortable with each other, probably because of their similar background. She named one deaf family that lives just blocks away from her, saying, “They don’t socialize with us at all.” She named school employees who are friendly and pleasant, but when other “strong-culturally-deaf” people are around, they ignore her. She said, “I don’t feel like I can go on campus without going with someone that works there, because I won’t be accepted otherwise.” I said, “And now me. Now we’ve met. Feel free to stop by and say hi.” Later, when she was leaving, we murmured the usual pleasantries, then she added, “I’ll visit you at school, and you won’t reject me, right?” with a smile... but she was dead serious at the same time. During the conversation, she repeatedly said she felt rejected and like the school people are so clannish, she can’t break in. I can imagine this happening to an extent, but the people she named are people who say they socialize with everyone or who I’ve seen making efforts to be open to everyone. This woman signs pretty well, so that isn’t an issue. My first reaction was, “Whoa - got chip on your shoulder?” But I listened and reflected on what she had to say. I’m wondering if she is actually overly sensitive and jumping to conclusions or if she is actually experiencing all of this. Perhaps the truth is a bit of both?

This made me think long and hard. People shouldn’t have to socialize with people we don’t feel a connection with, but we should be open and friendly to everyone, regardless, unless there is a personal issue between two individuals. We as a community need to address this. (Note to self: bring up with friends - we talk the talk, but do we walk the walk? This is a question each of us needs to individually reflect on, myself included.)

One thing that was subtly present which saddened me was how some people put up a wall when I was introduced as having graduated from a school for the deaf, graduated from Gally, and now work at the local deaf school. Once they saw I was friendly and open, the wall lowered, and with some people, disappeared. There is a lot of talk on GallyNet and on the East Coast about white privilege. White privilege is essentially about how much easier white people’s lives are because they are white. They take it for granted that they will not be discriminated against, they will not be made to feel different, and so on. I’ve wondered about Deaf privilege in the past, and tonight brought it to the forefront.

Before I go on, it’s necessary to explain my experiences. I grew up with a hearing family who signed with me almost from the beginning but encouraged auditory training, speaking, and lipreading. I always did and always will prefer signs, though. I went to several local day programs and was mainstreamed until junior high. I was given the power to decide where I wanted to go to school after sixth grade, and I decided I wanted to go to the school for the deaf. My signing was very much manually coded English, and I’d barely been exposed to ASL before. Within a few years, probably because I was in the top class with deaf of deaf, my signing improved a lot, to the point where I started socializing with them. But all through high school, I was open to anyone and everyone. The “elite” deaf people were the ones who sent mixed messages through most of high school. By the time I was a senior, my signing had improved to the point where I was selected, along with a very few other high school students, to be taped for the then-in-development Signing Naturally curriculum developed by Ken Mikos, Cheri Smith, and Ella Lentz. At Gallaudet, again, I was open to everyone, but the “elite” deaf were a mixed bag. Most were quite friendly, while others seemed to have a mental checklist to determine who was acceptable to them and who wasn’t. One time in the cafeteria, I met someone for the first time and we hit it off. An hour later, it came up that my family wasn’t deaf, and she promptly lost interest in the conversation. We never chatted again. Now I’m well respected by many people, people are often surprised I’m not from a deaf family, and I enjoy a lot of perks. But I believe this is because of who I am as a person and I’m reaping the rewards of hard work as a professional and as a community member. My friends now vary from people who are the stereotypical definition of “elite” to people who only recently joined the Deaf-World, with people at many points in between. This is important to me, because my life is made richer by knowing these diverse people, and all of them have something to offer and to teach me. All of these years, I have remained true to myself and tried to be the best person I can be in general. I still believe things like background, signing skills, schooling, and membership in organizations should not decide how valid or worthy a person is. In short, Deafhood is what I’ve believed for a long time - both the journey part and the idea that it is for everyone.

Yes, Susie, there is such a thing as the “deaf elite,” and with it, “deaf privilege.” I personally abhor it, but now I’m benefiting from it. I graduated from one of the best schools, graduated from Gally, I work for a school that is becoming known as the Deaf Mecca, I sign well, and I know “the right people.” I’m not boasting. I have seen how people react to me after they hear my curriculum vitae. It was clear at two recent nationwide events, by their smiles, slight inclinations of the head, and in the increase of warmth. Nice, yes. Fair, no. When people complain about it, I understand completely, because I’ve been on both ends of the stick. I’m sure that’s one reason I’m so overjoyed with Deafhood. It would remove all this stratification and allow people to be valued for who they are and what they have to contribute. That’s just one of the many reasons I love working where I work. Most of my colleagues value people as individuals, not compared against a mental checklist that includes items like where you went to school and how well you sign.

I want Deafhood to bring us all together. I thoroughly enjoyed the group of women I met tonight, and I would very much like to get to know some of them better. Who else have I not yet met because of how fragmented our community is?