Monday, November 14, 2016

Language



Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.) acknowledges that actions are more important than words; however, language is incredibly important.

In fact, we have guidelines for writing for F.E.P. that describe what words we do and do not use. One example is that non-human animals are never “it.” Non-human animals are sentient beings and should not be referred to as inanimate objects. We also seek not to identify animals based on the oppressive system they are in – not “circus animals” but animals in circuses.

We are also careful with other issues, such as not using the word “American” unless we are referring to all of the Americas (America is NOT just the United States).


But we are always learning and adding more to our repertoire (lactose normal instead of lactose intolerant – thanks, Mark; Latinx instead of Latino/a – thanks, Anika).

Recently, I traveled outside of the US and spent some time in a country where English was not the primary language, and I started to notice how my personality changed. I am the type of person who says thank you often and wants to talk with service workers and people in general. And, well, even when I tried to say something to the one person I saw wearing fur, I realized they could not understand what I was saying.

I was not only in a different country, I was different. I felt a bit hindered, not like myself. Even though I was with my husband and I could talk to him, I was quiet when he wasn’t there and we weren’t able to strike up conversations with others on the train. I felt out of place.
 

I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be there permanently. *

This of course made me face the reality that migrants face all over the world, and most certainly where I live in the US.

I remember seeing the movie The Namesake (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0433416/), which does a beautiful and heartbreaking job of showing first-generation immigrants from West Bengal in the United States. It shows the woman (the mom) struggling as she tries to adjust to life in the US and having to do things like buy groceries.

I am not sure how many people stop to realize how brave people are who leave everything to come and live in another country where they do not speak the language. Many people do not want to leave their homelands, but they do, and many, like farm workers, do it with the hope of a better life for their children.

There is a lot that they leave behind – not just their families, but their ancestors’ land and familiarity; many also leave good jobs behind. There are doctors from other countries who end up being cab drivers here. Mark and I went to a Thai restaurant where the young woman serving us was actually a dentist, but she couldn’t get a job in the US doing that type of work.

When I travel to non-English-speaking countries, I am always so thankful for how kind people are to me, especially with my very bad attempts to speak their language. More than not, they apologize for not knowing English, and I always have to remind them that their English is far better than my Cantonese, Italian, etc. 


I worry that many in the US forget that English is not the most widely spoken language in the world, yet we expect others to conform to us.
 

Ironically, when we returned from our trip, we went to an electronics store (I had been without a phone for over two weeks as mine was run over by a truck) and an older white man came into the store. I won’t go into all the details, but he berated one of the employees (the manager, who was a POC) about a fee. I bit my tongue for quite a while, but when the man started to speak to the worker in his version of Spanish, I’d had enough.

I had to speak up. I found this to be incredibly racist. As if the worker wasn’t quite understanding him in English?

I told the man that the worker clearly spoke English so there was no need to speak to him in Spanish. I went on about him being an employee of a corporation and he was just following their rules so that the man should definitely follow up with them. I also mentioned how workers and POC are treated, and he said that this man was not a POC.


Then I had to ask why he was speaking to Jesús in Spanish and had to explain some colonization to him.


Many of the employees seemed to appreciate what I did, and the man (who I did agree with his complaint and told him so) didn’t seem to understand what was wrong with what he was doing. (“Jesús, I am going to spend 10 hours writing them a complaint letter and mention you specifically.”)


I don’t think that many white people understand the privilege they have of learning and speaking Spanish. For many, speaking Spanish or having an accent is NOT a bonus. Latinx communities have been encouraged to assimilate and have been punished when Spanish was spoken.

We have been made to feel ashamed of our language and our people. So, please don’t assume every Latinx person speaks Spanish or express shock when they don’t. For many, there is a history behind it.


When a non-native English speaker talks to me in words and not in sentences while not using perfect grammar, that is who I sound like when I try to speak Italian and am doing my best.

No one is perfect, but we can all do our part to use language like the living tool it is, and when necessary, adjust it to be more compassionate and inclusive when communicating with others.

*Okay, I am a resilient person and I could adjust, but what came to my mind were all of the people living in the US who do not speak English. (Just a reminder that many places in the US, like where my ancestors are from, used to be Mexico.)

2 comments:

  1. I was happy to see you mention the movie "The Namesake". I've watched it a couple of times now and just 2 weeks ago recommended it to someone. It does (I think) a very thought provoking job of prompting us to think about the incredible barriers faced by those who immigrate as well as the tremendous stress and loss entailed in such an undertaking. I really like that movie.

    Thank you for speaking out on behalf of the employee. I've been stumbling around for the past couple of years trying to gain a better understanding of my "whiteness" and one of the very salient aspects of being socialized into that ideology is the ugly arrogance and sense of superiority that is built into it (and, truth be told, those same offensive deficiencies tend to be associated with being male too). The behavior of the customer (an older white man...like me...jeez) seems to exemplify just those failings that we old white men get taught from birth. Sadly many of us (old white men) fail to engage in the hard work of growing beyond such distortings. And...as a result we end up behaving like jerks and all the while thinking our awfulness is because of "others". It makes my head hurt.

    I recently read a paper that pointed out that when someone speaks English with an accent, viewing that as a deficiency, instead of recognizing that it means the person can speak at least two language is one of the more common manifestations of "white people arrogance/ignorance".

    It's sobering and scary to realize that much/most of what we're taught (re being "white") is mostly how not to be a justice seeker or appreciator of difference. It's a hell of a lot harder to move away from being "a white male" than it is to become vegan...at least is has been (and continues to be) for me. There are way more negatives to this "white man" stuff than there are positives.

    You've long been a shero of mine and this blog post confirms my accuracy in being impressed by you. You have my utmost gratitude and appreciation for your ways of navigating the world.

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  2. Thank you so much for your kind words. It means so much to me. And for your willingness to look inward and critique your privilege as a white man in this country. I am glad you have seen Namesake too and felt similarly. And that article you read is so spot on! Absolutely! They can speak two languages (at least!). Thank you again for your feedback. It is so much appreciated! And thank you for sharing about you as I am sure it helps others who read this to understand.

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