From Pastor Dan's Blog

Language and Privilege

I’d heard it before, so this was only the most recent occasion.

            “It’s rude to speak in a language everyone doesn’t share when you could instead use a shared language, because you’re excluding people.  They might think you’re talking about them, or you might actually be doing so.”

            The statement drew a relatively strong reaction from me.  Though I’m not certain that the following is what the speaker precisely meant to address, our family is a bilingual family in which I speak to my daughters almost exclusively in Spanish.  It’s weird to their ears if I speak English to them, cutting out a key element of our relationship and acting as if it’s not acceptable in certain social contexts.  I do try to translate for others’ sake when others are part of the conversation, but I find that most people have enjoyed the curiosities that emerge in being part of bilingual conversations, even if they don’t understand the other language.  Imagine listening to the Beatles for your entire musical life and then being told it was rude to share John, Paul, George, and Ringo with a few music lovers similar to yourself when the majority of everyone else around you happened to know only Bach.  The stricture of rudeness would lead to a loss of musical richness.

            Anyway, my reaction:

            “You know that’s a conceit of white privilege, right?”

            It’s white privilege because the priority given to English in mixed linguistic contexts, when it is not, in fact, required for communication, reflects the “gold standard” mindset of groups that have become accustomed to being large and in charge.  Certainly, all humans measure others against their own group’s expectations and judgments, but add that to social or structural power, and you get social and structural effects.  It’s English that gets to be at the center.  Why?  Why does English happen to be the lingua franca of the current world?  Guns, germs, and steel come to mind.  The dominant languages of any region tend to be associated with empire (Spanish and Spain, Greek and Alexander and Company, Mandarin script and Qin Shi Huangdi after the Chinese warring states period, French and francophone Africa).  Closer to home, it’s the white man’s language that, mere decades ago, had to be taught in boarding schools for the savages.  More broadly, why are English-speaking countries the ones in which mono-lingualism is seen as normal?  When Brits and Americans and Australians do business around the world, do they expect others to make linguistic way for them since they bring the money?  How quickly the feed-me needs of the almighty dollar become the feed-me needs of privilege.

            For privileged individuals who find themselves linguistically outside a conversation, however, the feeling experienced may be merely personal.  More charitably, who really thinks about social patterns and structures when feeling excluded?  When the self feels at stake, we humans tend not to see structures of power or the aggregate force of a majority group that asserts its own culture and language as the one with which others must reckon.  No, it’s more about me.  “Don’t I deserve to be included?”  “What am I, chopped liver?”  “They’re probably talking about me!  They shouldn’t act in a way that makes me think that’s even a possibility!”

            All that is understandable at a human level, but to choose such an attitude as a default is still selfish and myopic.  With thinking like this, people exercising racial-linguistic privilege put themselves at the center of their social environment, foisting responsibility for their own assumptions onto external actors, without having questioned the internal story so readily told.  The feeling of being excluded then begins to drive behaviors that act out the self-generated alienation, which then reinforces the basic assumption.  That can mean inserting oneself awkwardly into conversations that aren’t yours, relational tension, or complaints to higher-ups about “them.”  By the way, those effects actually happened in a certain school (not local to me currently) with a language program.

            What could have people so oddly thinking that others have nothing better to talk about than “me”?  Again, there’s certainly a human element here.  Being excluded might mean danger, especially if it’s on purpose.  Fear-response activate!  But set basic human instincts alongside basic human selfishness and throw those both into social structures determined by a majority, and, bazinga, privilege emerges.

            In the United States context, not only is the “it’s rude to speak a language I don’t understand when you’re near me and you could speak my language even if the conversation has nothing to do with me” comment about privilege, it also proceeds from white fragility.  First, the loss of social power as demographics shift will provoke a fearful reaction among the powerful.  Outgroups will be demonized, money will be spent to protect the fatherland, and religion will be seduced in the name of values contrary to those religions.  Fear brings fragility, in the sense of oversensitivity and reactivity.  Second, on a psychological and, I would say, spiritual, level, those who enjoy structural power gained by means of evil do not come out of such processes clean.  For example, I live on stolen land.  I didn’t steal it, but I have come into possession of stolen goods.  If I then have an identity that revolves around the nobility of my people, European settlers who tamed the “mostly-uninhabited” “wilderness” West, I am going to hurt when I realize that what I was taught about my glorious culture was a lie.  Identities forged from non-innocent history are only an honest step away from breaking down under guilt and shame.  Truth can be known but buried by deception in order to avoid pain and indulge fear.  Thus, white fragility.

            So, yes, I will continue to speak Spanish in your presence.  I will also do so with the Spanish-speaking kids, parents, and teachers at school.  Understand that I am not doing so in order to exclude you, but rather to offer you a canasta of positives.

            I demonstrate that a world of diversity exercised is a richer world.  Beatles and Bach.

            I entice you to learn about others through language so that you can be a greater soul.

            I tease you with better words for things that English can only describe, like the Tagalog “gigil” (that feeling of being overwhelmed by cuteness), or with the fact that the Navajo word for computer is “the box that is smarter than you.”

I woo you with a broader belonging than mono-lingualism.

I make an effort to atone for my privileges.

            I witness to you of a Kingdom that promises praise in every language under heaven.

            I invite you to add your own words.  You say the Bavarian word for squirrel’s tail is “Oachkatzelschwoaf”?  ¡Caval!

            Would you like to be included?  Then, by all means, come along with us.  There’s no need to put yourself out.  You’re included by the nature of what bilingual conversations by Christians actually aim at.