Offensiveness Week – Exhibit B: Racism in Sign Language

(If you missed Exhibit A yesterday, click here, and if you don’t know what’s going on, read this quick introduction.)

At the end of yesterday’s blog I asked you to imagine what the sign language for “China” might be. This is the answer…

Unless you already have some knowledge of sign language, this was probably impossible to guess. Fair enough, that was the idea. But how surprised will you be when you find that it used to be pulling back of eyes, to make them look slanted? Yep.

I found this out last week in my sign language class (For those of you that do not know me, this is one of the things I do), and was not particularly surprised by it. I mean, words and meanings change all the time in any language, and the different levels of acceptability for different words has changed over time, and there’s no reason that sign language wouldn’t evolve just like that. However, what did surprise me is that there is a bit of a split in opinion over these changes in the deaf community.

One thing I have found over my few years of interaction with deaf people is they do not often worry about seeming rude. That’s not a negative thing; it’s just that the way their language works means they are often much more direct with their communication. We English-speakers have thousands of euphemisms and ways to skirt around issues; signers just get stuck in.

An example of this (and the one that stemmed my investigation here) came from my British Sign Language (BSL) teacher. He is himself deaf (which is, by the way, a really cool way to learn), and he told us that he thought it was a ridiculous change, and that it’s not inherently racist (which is, as you should have now guessed, the theme of this Exhibit). Just as a side-note, the old sign for ‘Germany’ involved miming a pointed helmet, but is now the letter ‘G’ twice. He believes this to be pretty silly too, and argues that if we are to do that, why not just have ‘England’ being the letter ‘E’ twice, or ‘France’ the letter ‘F’ twice?

I agree on this latter point, that the replacement of the old Germany is a pretty lousy and unimaginative one. However, that argument is a different one from the question: “Should it have been changed?” And if we all think really hard, I think we can come to the real root of this question, which is “Does it offend people?”

Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. Since we regrettably have no Chinese or German people to specifically ask (and there’s no guarantee they’d all say the same thing anyway) we must extrapolate. If you perform a crude impression of a Chinese person, complete with accent and slanted eyes (and please, do not), you would probably be considered racist, and rightly so. This is because you are essentially mocking an entire race for looking different to you. So does the sign mock the Chinese, or is it merely an simplified form of recognition – something that sign language by necessity bases itself very heavily on?

An easy answer to all of this might simply be this: the sign has changed now, so surely that must have happened for a reason- the reason being that someone found it offensive. Right? Mmm. It’s a little more complicated than that. My teacher again has his own theory as to why the change occurred. He basically says that hearing culture and deaf culture are two very separate things, and it was not until relatively recently that hearing interpreters and translators appeared, bringing with them a different set of attitudes and ideas that were not necessarily welcome in the deaf world. One of these could well have been a definition what does and does not count as racism. So, by changing a sign that was not originally considered offensive, are we imposing a different culture upon deaf people?

I’ll level with you here; I don’t have the answer. There is no answer to this question, because it’s truly a matter of taste- if you’re happy with one sign, and you don’t worry that it’ll offend anyone around you, I guess you’re free to use that sign how you like. However, personally, as a hearing person I feel a little uncomfortable using the old sign, so I’ll stick to the modern one myself. Regardless of how offensive I think I’m being, there is almost certainly someone out there who will think something else.

What do you think? When is racism racism? Let me know in the comments. Also, stay tuned for tomorrow’s Exhibit C, in which we will examine another internet argument that will hopefully be a little less stupid that yesterday’s. No promises, though. See you then.

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