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Hearing (mis)Understandings

August 3, 2009

I happened upon a twitter conversation today. The only reason I saw it was that I was scanning a search on #deaf and came across a tweet by ZenMonkey. Made me curious, so I opened her page and also the pages of Hermantmetha and Jbrtva (who, as far as I can tell by their bios, are all hearing people).

Here are the tweets, put into time order, from the beginning to the end of the conversation.

I just learned the sign language signs for Chinese, Indian, Mexican, and Jew. I’ve concluded that all deaf people are racist.

8:40 PM Aug 1st from web

@hemantmehta did you learn the “new” signs or the “old” ones?

11:50 PM Aug 1st from web in reply to hemantmehta

@jbrtva totally the old ones.

9:32 AM Aug 2nd from Tweetie in reply to jbrtva

@hemantmehta deaf people don’t mean to be offensive…just very blunt…

about 21 hours ago from web

@jbrtva Someone explained to me an example of Old sign language vs. New. You’re right: Old is more blunt, even if offensive at times

about 21 hours ago from web in reply to jbrtva

@hemantmehta But there was still no public retraction of that comment about #deaf people. Coming from you, I am really surprised.

about 18 hours ago from web in reply to hemantmehta

@ZenMonkey I think most people who follow me understand when I’m being sarcastic.. the bit comes from a comedy routine, referring to old ASL

about 18 hours ago from web in reply to ZenMonkey

@hemantmehta Totally get that about your followers. Unfortunately many of them likely don’t know why it’s a joke, & why it’s not cool.

about 18 hours ago from twhirl in reply to hemantmehta

@hemantmehta Not a slam on your followers at all; just generally Deaf culture and ASL linguistics aren’t widely known.

about 18 hours ago from twhirl in reply to hemantmehta

The “it’s just a joke” argument for casually offensive remarks only works if your audience is in on the joke. If not, it’s just offensive.

about 18 hours ago from twhirl

I think this is a great conversation and I’m not offended by it. For me it comes under the category of “oh, that’s how hearies think about us.” It helps that ZenMonkey spoke up in a respectful way, instead of slamming Hermantmehta (thanks for being an advocate!).

First, let me say that I’m deaf, but was raised hard of hearing, isolated in the hearing world. I didn’t start signing until I was 24, so I understand where the hearing people’s attitudes come from, since I made the same mistakes as a newcomer to the deaf community. But I learned, changed, evolved.

Deaf people are VISUAL. This should be an obvious fact, but it’s not. In fact, one old friend of mine even did a Ph.D. dissertation on this topic. Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest ones to get through to people. So I say it again, deaf people are visual.

Because they are visual, deaf people use their faces and their bodies differently from hearing people. For example, hearing folks use their faces for emotion; deaf people use their faces for grammar and emphasis. This is a very deep, and for hearies, a difficult thing to learn. So many hearing people misread deaf expressions as anger, when we’re simply using ASL and being emphatic.

In the context of the twitter conversation above, the fact that deaf people are visual is the basis for labels such as “racist” (even as a joke), “offensive” and “blunt”— no, we’re just visual. The “old” signs are obvious: “Chinese = slanted eyes,” “Indian = painted cheeks” (assuming that’s American Indian, East Asian Indians are dot on the forehead), and so on.

Political correctness hit the deaf world, however, so the new signs generally focus on culture, rather than visual differences, and deaf people try to use the signs that people develop for themselves, rather than give them one from our culture. “Chinese” is now a sweeping sign across the chest and down, following the buttons of traditional Chinese dress. American “Indian” is now a sign signifying “of the land.” The old signs can be hard to give up, though, just because they are so visual and clear to the deaf eye. To be honest, I slip, and sometimes use the old signs. And, I don’t even know the politically correct signs for Mexican and Jewish (I’ve seen a new sign for Mexican, but don’t remember it; and I don’t know any sign for Jewish or Hebrew other than “beard”).*

The point, again, is that deaf people are visual. And it’s difficult for someone who comes from one culture, particularly a dominant one, to avoid imposing the assumptions of their culture onto others. Respectful discussions such as this help us all to understand and appreciate others better.

—Nancy Creighton


*I just looked it up in “Signs in Judaism,” 1986 by Adele Kronick Shuart— one of the first books I worked on (I did the typing on a word processor, not a computer). The alternate sign for Jew is “people” plus “Torah” but I’ve never seen anyone use that sign in casual conversation.

PS: Comments on this post welcome. Let’s use hashtag #DfHr (for deaf/hearing) and/or #deaf if commenting on Twitter, okay?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2009 5:25 pm

    Thank you for this post. The conversation well illustrated the limitations of Twitter for delving into this kind of topic. I am, as you guessed, hearing, although I’ve worked and played in the deaf community for years. Mr. Mehta is a smart and thoughful man whom I respect. I dropped the topic because I prefer not to be the hearing white knight, and also I don’t really know how much Mr. Mehta actually knows about this.

    That deaf people are visual people is such an important notion for hearing people to understand ASL and its history, as well as Deaf culture. There’s always room for an easy joke, but what about the more difficult task of eliminating stereotypes and communicating across cultures?

  2. purpleswirlarts permalink
    August 3, 2009 6:42 pm

    Thanks for the comment and support, ZenMonkey. I didn’t think about it till after I wrote the post, but there’s also the issue of humor— not just what translates (or doesn’t) across cultures, but also the difference between spoken and written humor. If it was said by a stand up comic as part of a longer spiel, it would work. But by itself it doesn’t.

    And you’re right, not many people who aren’t involved with deaf people know much about signs or deaf culture. That’s probably because it’s what social scientists call a “low incidence” disability. But with more conversations like this, it may change.

    —Nancy C.

  3. Hemant permalink
    August 3, 2009 7:09 pm

    Nancy– Thanks for bringing this up. Let me provide a little more context to what I was referring to :). An Indian comedian, Russell Peters, does a often makes fun of different races and cultures. That’s his schtick. In one of his shows, he also made fun of deaf people. When the audience didn’t laugh (as he expected), he went into a bit on old ASL and how it’s racist. I know it has changed since then, but I thought the bit was funny given context. The downside of Twitter is you don’t get that context. Anyway, I’ll try to be more sensitive next time and I did learn more about deaf culture as a result of a few tweets 🙂

  4. purpleswirlarts permalink
    August 3, 2009 7:34 pm

    Ah, thanks for the backstory, Hemant! That makes a lot of sense. And goes to what I said earlier about humor and the difference between spoken and written language. Deaf people jokes often don’t translate very well to hearing people, either. You really need to understand the signs to do that.

    I learned a lot, too. Thanks for discussing it with all of us.

    —Nancy C.

  5. Jessica permalink
    August 3, 2009 9:27 pm

    Great topic for a blog post! I, like ZenMonkey, am a hearing individual who “works and plays” (I like that phrasing, so I borrowed it) in the Deaf community. I often find it difficult to explain to my hearing friends some of the idiosyncracies (sp?) of ASL and how the grammar, tone and emphasis are in facial expressions, when some people think that signers are being rude. I was told by a Deaf individual when I was learning that ASL (as a visual language) is blunt. It is much more efficient to describe someone in ASL by appearance (the fat girl with brown hair in the red shirt) rather than the American culture way of using platitudes (you know, a little bigger than I am, wearing a red shirt, brown hair). That’s all I meant…

    Thanks for starting this conversation, and for letting me in on it.

  6. purpleswirlarts permalink
    August 4, 2009 12:36 pm

    Hi Jessica, thanks for weighing in. Yeah, I was often told that deaf people are “blunt” and compared to the hearing culture, I can see why it’s said. Your example is a good one to show how when deaf people describe someone visually, it can seem blunt, when it’s really just visual.

    Lots of deaf people have no qualms about seeing someone and saying “you’ve gained weight,” or “you’ve gotten fat.” Again, it’s a visual difference— you’ve changed your looks. Maybe not on purpose, and maybe not the way you want to, but you look different. Thing is, that if a hearing person says that to me, I’d think they were judging me. When a deaf person says it, it’s usually simply a statement of a visual fact.

  7. Morgan permalink
    May 21, 2012 8:23 pm

    Thanks for a fascinating insight into something I didn’t even know existed, or had thought about. Glad I stumbled on your blog today. Lots of good reads.

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