I promise this is not going to be another blog post about Joan Walsh.
However, to get to what this post actually is about, I’m going to have to talk a bit about the whole Joan Walsh/Truthrose/ABL/Karoli Blog/Twitter War of 2011. Deal with it.
So: Joan Walsh wrote a blog post that contained some ill-advised and wrong-headed mischaracterizations of black people and their relationship to President Obama, and how much she resents them for what she thinks they believe about being Obama’s true base. [link removed by editor 7/6/11.] Joan had previously sniffed contemptuously at Obama’s announcement of his re-election bid, and carelessly slammed the genuine grassroots OFA people who had been keeping the dream alive since 2008. Truthrose, a person of color, read Joan’s blog post and didn’t care for what Joan had to say on the topic, and told Joan so on Twitter, without sugar-coating it or couching it in respectful white lady language. Joan blew up at Truthrose because she didn’t care for some of the words Truthrose used and the tone with which she expressed herself, and wrote a series of increasingly nasty tweets in response, causing several other people, including ABL and me, to respond via Twitter, and to each of us Joan was dismissive and hostile.
Then someone wrote a blog post about the exchange, and that motivated Joan to write another blog post in response [link removed by editor 7/6/11], and in it Joan misrepresented and selectively quoted her critics to portray herself as the victim of angry and irrational people of color on the tweet-machine. So ABL wrote a blog post about Joan’s willful obfuscation of the facts, which Joan pointedly ignored, until Karoli wrote a blog post saying that Joan and ABL were both right, and both wrong, and couldn’t they kiss and make up. Karoli, whom I dearly appreciate, is a nice white lady like Joan, and speaks a language which Joan can comprehend, and Joan responded to Karoli that she had given her something to think about.
Then Truthrose told Karoli on Twitter what she didn’t like about her blog post, and I watched in real-time as Karoli began to go down the same path with Truthrose that Joan had trod to such disastrous results, and literally jumped in and yelled at Karoli to stop arguing and just listen. Karoli was getting angry and defensive because Truthrose was speaking her truth to Karoli without sugar-coating it or couching it in nice white lady language. Truthrose has told ABL and others that she’s most comfortable communicating on Twitter, its brevity suits her and she feels that she can be herself when she uses Twitter; and the way white people get their panties in a bunch when she confronts them on Twitter only reinforces her perception that white progressives are not on her side and they are not allies.
What I pointed out to Karoli, and she was sensitive and aware enough to recognize, is that she was rejecting what Truthrose was telling her because of the bluntness of her language, which is an unconscious manifestation of privilege. Karoli had written a blog post, which is her way of expressing herself, and now Truthrose was using her preferred medium to respond. And when those of us from a dominant culture are interacting with people of other cultures, we need to be especially careful that we don’t stop listening because we don’t like what we hear, or how it’s being expressed. This is a lesson that I wish someone could teach Joan Walsh.
When the dust settled, I shared in an email to ABL and my other co-bloggers my experience working and living with members of the Deaf community and what I learned from them, and they suggested that there was a blog post in my story. So here it is.
Falling down the rabbit-hole into Wonderland
While living in Wisconsin in the early 1990s, I first became exposed to the Deaf community and Deaf culture through an instance of serendipity. I had left the latest of a series of dead-end jobs in retail and was looking for something different to try, and a call center providing telecommunications relay services opened in an office park literally across the street from my apartment complex, so I applied and was hired as a communications assistant.
Relay services act as a go-between connecting people who use standard telephones and those who use TTYs, or text telephones. Such individuals may be deaf, hard-of-hearing, or speech-impaired, so they type their messages. But since most people and many businesses don’t have a TTY of their own (or if they do, they lack employees who know how to use them), the ADA mandated that all states were to offer 24x7x365 relay services, in order that TTY users could have access to the telecommunications network that was functionally equivalent to that enjoyed by those of us who use standard phones. The CA dials the number the TTY user wishes to reach, explains the relay service to the person who answers, then reads aloud the typed messages of the TTY user, and types the spoken responses of the telephone user so the TTY user can read them. In this way, the two individuals can have an interactive, real-time communication, with a human intermediary acting as a translator between two incompatible technologies.
To be a communications assistant is functionally very similar to acting as an interpreter between two people who speak different languages, so training for the job included some education about the Deaf community, sign language, and Deaf culture. And many of the people who work in the administration, customer relations and community outreach departments in relay are themselves deaf or hard-of-hearing, and many of them consider themselves to be culturally Deaf, with ASL (American Sign Language) their primary language.
You will notice that I sometimes capitalize the word Deaf. This is to indicate the existence of a Deaf culture. Deaf culture is defined primarily by the use of ASL, and it is reflective of the lived experience of Deaf people, many of whom grew up in residential homes for the Deaf and forged relationships and kinship with their peers that can be as strong or stronger than their ties to their hearing relatives. In most large communities, there are Deaf clubs where people gather to socialize and interact with people like them, people with whom they can freely communicate.
Like any culture, there are norms of behavior and expression, rules and exceptions, in-groups and out-groups, and a shared sense of identity that ties them together. For example: when hearing people say someone is “very hard-of-hearing”, we mean that person has very limited ability to hear and is virtually deaf. But to a Deaf person, “very hard-of-hearing” means someone who does not know sign language, relies on lip-reading and speech, and does not associate with the Deaf community. It’s not an indication of the degree of hearing loss so much as it is a cultural marker.
ASL is not English on the hands. It is its own language, with its own structure and syntax, and it doesn’t always translate well into written English. Concepts like verb tenses are conveyed by the use of time markers and/or forward or backward movement to indicate past or future tense. Sentence structure tends toward topic first, followed by modifiers and descriptors, and nouns generally precede adjectives as in Romance languages. Conversely, ASL uses the space around the signer in ways that make spoken and written English seem puny and anemic by comparison. A Deaf person can relate an incident involving several people by establishing a place in space for each party, then show dialogues and interactions among the players that put our use of pronouns to shame. The facial expressions that some hearing people find discomforting can signify an incredible range of meaning and act as adverbs and adjectives, with mouth shapes that convey whether the item or person being discussed is small or large, thin or thick, average or outstanding. The statements “Ted works diligently” and “Ted works sloppily” use the same signs, and facial expression is what conveys the difference. Eyebrows go up to turn a statement into a yes-no question, and scrunch down for who-what-where questions.
Many Deaf people struggle with reading and writing English, and when interactions with strangers are reduced to typing and reading on a TTY, many opportunities for misunderstanding arise. Sometimes it is necessary to interpret the conversation between the two callers to facilitate communication, rather than typing and reading verbatim. Some refer to this written language as TTY-ASL, as it transcribes the series of signs used to convey a concept in ASL, and lacks many of the grammatical features of written English. In one situation, where the TTY user was clearly attempting to reassure the hearing caller, the person typed WORRY OK WORRY. I understood from the context to voice that as “Don’t worry, OK? Don’t worry,” because in ASL it’s not essential to include a negating word like no or not when you can simply shake your head no. Today, with the advent of broadband internet service, more and more relay services are also offering video relay, where the Deaf caller signs his/her side of the conversation, and an interpreter voices that to the hearing caller, and interprets the spoken responses into sign language.
The relay center where I worked offered sign language classes for the employees taught by our Deaf colleagues, and we had an open communication policy in the offices. This meant that if you knew sign language and were having a spoken conversation with another hearing person, if a Deaf person entered the room, you would begin to sign what you were saying so that he or she would not be excluded, and Deaf employees who spoke were encouraged to use their voices in the same circumstance. And those of us who developed sign language proficiency would interpret the conversation for the benefit of all others involved.
I had a knack for sign language. I was genuinely invested in learning it, in part because I could see that it was an important skill to cultivate within the relay industry. So I applied myself to my classes, studied my textbook, and made word lists for myself so I could drill and drill until the signs became second nature. When riding in the car, I would reflexively fingerspell the names of towns and roads I saw on street signs to develop my competency. I remember when I went to a bar with some of my coworkers and had a conversation about politics with a Deaf colleague, and the thrill I felt when I realized that I was actually discussing abstract concepts in this other language.
I had fallen down a rabbit-hole and landed in Wonderland. I was in a new world, with its own logic and rules that made sense to everyone else even if they didn’t to me, and I loved it.
I noticed that there are a great many gay and lesbian sign language interpreters. It made sense because we are, of necessity, bi-cultural. Like the Deaf, we live in a world that is dominated by another culture, one that is uneasy and awkward with our existence, and we too form our own families of shared experience and have hangouts where we go to be with other people like us where we can freely communicate.
You fucked up!
One of the hallmarks of Deaf culture is openness, candor and bluntness. People talk much more freely about their personal lives, bodily functions, their sexuality, etc. than most hearing people are accustomed to. It is one of the key areas stressed in training CAs for the relay service. If the Deaf callers are not satisfied with your performance, they will let you know. Bluntly. Someone is liable to give you feedback such as, “You fucked up!” or “You type lousy.” When relaying between Deaf and hearing people, you will sometimes cringe at the messages being typed by the Deaf caller to the person they are talking to, as they are more blunt, candid and explicit than you might be comfortable saying to a stranger on the phone. But it is not your phone conversation, and you have to put aside your preference for social niceties and euphemism so that the caller’s own authentic message is properly conveyed. We had a training exercise where the new CAs would practice voicing strident and expletive-laden written messages out loud so they could develop thicker skin.
The biggest challenge that Deaf people confront is the paternalism of hearing people. In more recent years, the word “audism” has arisen within the Deaf community as a cognate to racism, but at the core of much audistic behavior is the paternalism of diminished expectations for the Deaf, a lack of respect for their autonomy and capabilities, and a reflexive urge to protect them from what hearing people imagine to be their limitations. Any Deaf person can tell you stories about conversations where hearing people are amazed to learn that they can drive cars, hold jobs, shop in stores, and live their lives without some nice hearing person to help them.
As a communications assistant, it was important to respect the line between facilitating communication and becoming actively involved in that communication. We would redirect the hearing person to speak directly to their caller, and not to us. We weren’t there to explain or become involved; the two parties to the conversation would need to explain themselves to each other. When you and another hearing person are talking at cross-purposes on the phone, your telephone doesn’t step in and try to settle your differences for you, or stop you from saying that really rude remark, right?
But even in the relay center, where our very existence was predicated on bridging those cultural divides and facilitating cross-communication, the workers often retreated into hearing and Deaf camps. There were tensions and frictions between the two groups; misunderstandings and resentments arose and festered. Some of my hearing colleagues were CODAs (children of deaf adults), and sometimes they replayed the dynamics of their challenges and frustrations of growing up with Deaf parents and projected those on co-workers. One person in particular could not use sign language for more than a few sentences without becoming visibly angry, as if she were continuing some life-long argument with her parents. The hearing folks were often getting their feelings hurt by something a Deaf person said or did, and the Deaf folks were often feeling left out of the decision-making and communication loops. Both sides thought the administration favored the other camp when it came to working conditions. And the more that I was embraced by my Deaf colleagues as “one of the good guys”, the more I was viewed by other hearing people as part of the other team.
Dances with Wolves/Avatar Syndrome
Over time, I developed genuine friendships and personal relationships with some of my Deaf colleagues, particularly Tom and his partner Lee. They had relocated to Wisconsin from California, where Tom had directed the relay service. Tom is an amazing, charismatic, humorous and brilliant man, and a fascinating story-teller with the ability to bridge cultural divides effortlessly. He and Lee had bravely and fearlessly pulled up roots and moved around the country many times as their respective careers advanced. And at 32 years together and counting, they may be the most married couple I have known. They particularly embraced me and guided me into the Deaf community, easing me into social interactions with Deaf people. I would often find myself in a group of people, conversations flying, fingers spelling words and names so fast they blurred into incomprehension, talking about shared experiences of which I was clueless. But Tom or Lee would see me floundering and fill me in on some critical piece of information or back-story so I could get myself acclimated, and slowly over time, I became more and more self-reliant in a wide variety of settings.
Movies like Dances with Wolves, which you young folks know as Avatar, tell the stories of men from a dominant culture who enter another peoples’ world, ostensibly to manage or control it, but find themselves increasingly identifying with the people they came to conquer, until they eventually join forces with the indigenous people and go to war against their own kind to help secure their independence. I’ve always been a sucker for an underdog, and I truly loathe bullies, so it’s probably inevitable that I would follow a similar path with the Deaf community. I fit in well with the Deaf people I met, and I respected their autonomy and checked myself for paternalism. I learned to do things like wait for them to ask me to interpret for them in a public setting, as most of the time they could navigate just fine without assistance.
One time I went to breakfast at a diner with a group of about ten Deaf gay men in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. The waitress, an older woman, went around the table taking everyone’s orders, which most of them accomplished by pointing at the menu, and maybe speaking a few words about their choice of toast, etc. As is my habit, I let them order first, so when she came to me, and I spoke my order in the unaccented voice of a hearing person, she was taken aback at first. A few minutes later, a different waiter came to our table and said he would be taking over serving us and did we mind if we repeated our orders to him. Everyone ordered again, then I asked him what was going on. Apparently the waitress had refused to serve us because she was angry that I forced her to deal with all those Deaf people when I could have done all the ordering for them.
When a new relay center was being set up in Massachusetts, Tom was asked to direct it, and I jumped at the chance to relocate as the head of training. Sadly, some of those same toxic dynamics played out there as well. I supervised a headstrong young Deaf woman, and though at times it stung, I came to welcome and appreciate the blunt and candid feedback she gave me when she felt I had handled a situation poorly. One time the human resources manager wanted me to discipline her, because she had walked out of the office at the end of one day without acknowledging or exchanging goodbyes with the (hearing, non-signing) operations manager; and to the HR manager this was rudeness bordering on insubordination. I tried not to laugh in the HR manager’s face as I explained that taking such an action would ensure that she would quit her job in a flash, and I needed her too badly to risk it over some hearing person’s cultural sensitivities. Within a year, Tom and I were both fed up with the impossible politics of the situation and the Massachusetts lifestyle, so when he left to return home to California, and he and Lee invited me to tag along, I threw caution to the wind and followed them to their adopted home town of Sacramento. For the first several months, until I found work and got my bearings, the three of us shared their home and my life was completely immersed in the Deaf community.
There’s a saying “Deaf small world”, and it’s true. Because of the relatively small size of the Deaf community, and the fact that most young people were concentrated together at state residential schools and/or attended one of the few colleges that catered to Deaf students, like Gallaudet or RITD, the Rochester Institute of Technology for the Deaf, everyone seems to know everyone. If you find out that someone is from Florida, the first thing you do is ask if they know so-and-so from Florida, and most of the time they do, or they knew his younger sister who is also Deaf at the residential school, or they went to Gallaudet with him. So when I was at gatherings of Deaf people, and people would start down that path with me, and I would explain that I was hearing, I was flattered to be told many times that they thought I was Deaf; though they often supposed that I had been mainstreamed in public schools or attended an oral school like CID in St. Louis, which emphasizes lip-reading and speech, because my sign had hallmarks of someone who learned sign later in life as a second language. This even happened once when I went on a job interview at one of California’s Deaf schools in the bay area for a position as a job developer, who would work with students on career coaching and job placement. Toward the end of our conversation, the Deaf director of the program was apologizing for the low pay they offered, but helpfully added that I could get a BART pass very cheaply. I was puzzled and asked what she meant, and she laughed as she realized what she’d said; because people with disabilities can buy a deeply discounted pass, and she had forgotten that I was hearing.
After I moved out from Tom and Lee’s home and moved in with a hearing roommate, some of my behaviors were confusing to him. When I was cleaning up the kitchen one time, he came in and asked if I was angry about something. I didn’t know what he meant, but he said I was banging the pots and pans so loudly that he thought I was pissed off. I hadn’t noticed. I had simply forgotten that hearing people are sensitive to noise and think everything should be done as quietly as possible. When I was engrossed in conversation with a Deaf person, I would unconsciously tune out sounds and background noises, such that I wouldn’t notice when someone was speaking to me.
I met some amazing people through Tom and Lee, including once having coffee with Ella Mae Lentz, whom you can see here reciting a poem she created. Ella is the co-author of Signing Naturally, one of the most widely used curricula for teaching sign language, a lifelong educator and activist, and an out lesbian. The opening of the video is not captioned, though the poem itself is. In the introduction she thanks Maria Shriver for naming the month of April as Poetry Month, which project included posting the collected poems of Californians to YouTube. Ella explains the background of her poem, To a Hearing Mother, about raising a Deaf child and the tension of having an offspring who truly belongs to a different culture. She puts it in the context of California’s controversial referendum, Assembly Bill 227, which severely limited bilingual education, because it resonates with the ongoing debate about how and in what language Deaf children should be educated, and adults struggle with each other instead of focusing on what is in the best interests of the children.
And this ASL poem, Dandelions, by the late Clayton Valli, is a particular favorite of mine. He tells the story of the yellow flowers growing in the yard, and how their presence angers the man who owns it. He rips out the dandelions and mows the yard to eradicate them, but as rain falls and the sun shines, they begin to peek slowly back up and grow into flowers that wave in the breeze, and bees come and pollinate them, and they grow their fluffy seed pods, so when the man returns to rip them out and destroy them again, the seeds blow everywhere. It’s a great metaphor for being Deaf in the hearing world, as the dandelions always live on in spite of how unwelcome they are.
Deaf people taught me to listen
Ironic, isn’t it?
One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is, Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Let the other person go first. Listen without interrupting. When it’s your turn to talk, ask questions and offer up statements to test your understanding. Don’t get your defenses up if you don’t like what you’re hearing. Push through the discomfort to the other side. Then, when you set out to make your point of view known, you’ll do a better job of getting your own message across, in part because you’ll understand the other person more clearly, and the way you express yourself will reflect what you’ve learned.
Spend time in other cultures. Accept that you’re not going to fit in at first, but go anyway. See what makes other people special and unique, and appreciate them as they are.
Don’t presume that you know better than other people what is best for them. They’ve come to the place they currently occupy by surviving just fine in this world up until now, and they’ll be the ones who must live with the consequences of the choices and decisions they make today.
If I’m accepted more by members of the Deaf community than your generic hearing person, or accepted more by black people than your generic pasty white middle-aged man, it’s because I’m not trying to run the show or call the shots. I’ve taken the time to understand before asking to be understood. I look for people’s talents and strengths, and take the time to acknowledge them. I recognize talent even when it’s not expressed in the same fashion I would employ.
And when I see great intelligence (in both intellectual and emotional dimensions), incredible leadership skills and charisma, and a clear vision for the future, as I see in President Obama, it really doesn’t occur to me to presume that I know better than he does how he should respond to a particular situation. And I trust that he has access to information and the counsel of experts I can’t possibly duplicate on my own, and I know that he has more important things to do than respond to the news cycle’s demand for answers by 5 pm today for inclusion in the nightly newscast about developing and fluid international events.
And when Joan Walsh convinces me that she has any of these talents or resources at her disposal, I’ll give a crap what she thinks Obama should do, or what he needs to do to satisfy her expectations of a president. Until then, I’m with Truthrose.