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?
@jbrtva totally the old ones.
@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
@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
@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.
@hemantmehta Not a slam on your followers at all; just generally Deaf culture and ASL linguistics aren’t widely known.
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.
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.
*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?