White Deaf Elitism: Origins

David A. Player | July 26, 2020

America has touted itself as a nation of immigrants who welcome any immigrant regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, creed, and culture. In the same vein, the American Deaf community has touted itself as an utopia that welcomes any Deaf individual regardless of their race, ethnicity, creed, culture, degree of hearing loss, and mode of communication. Every immigrant across the world views America as a beacon of an egalitarian society and the same goes for the Deaf community. Every deaf individual shares similar sentiments towards the Deaf community as a beacon of an egalitarian community. Unfortunately, every immigrant and Deaf individual, who were raised outside of America and the Deaf community, respectively, were not aware of its problematic histories. 

For instance, America carried out their repulsive conquest campaign to expunge indigenous people from their ancestral lands then implemented slavocracy to run this country. America continued to mask slavocracy as a democracy on the false premise of democratic ideals that inadvertently dragged America into the Civil War. After the ashes of the Civil War, America reemerged and quickly reasserted itself as a democracy. Again, America contradicted itself by implementing white Supremacy in disguise of the Jim Crow system that segregated America. Until an explosion of the Civil Rights movement constantly reminded Thomas Jefferson’s iconic egalitarian quote, “that it is self-evident that all men are created equal” to force America to reckon with itself to abandon the overt Jim Crow system in the pursuit for true democracy. Every immigrant benefited from the life-changing works of Civil Right movement but not without issues such as cultural assimilation, xenophobic sentiments, countless issues that awaited upon their arrivals. White and white-passing immigrants had an easier time to assimiliate into the white supremacist society whereas Black and brown immigrants faced a racist hostile resistance. This hostile resistance was met by the very same society who ensured that Black and brown immigrants would not be able to fully assimilate into America.

In the midst of the Black Live Matter movement, the white Deaf elitism system is currently under intense public scrutiny because of its exclusion of Black Deaf people and the rest of the mainstream Deaf people who were deemed not worthy to be accepted into the Deaf community.  I’ve been engaged in these Deaf elitism discussions with a prominent Black Deaf rapper, DEAFinitely Dope, a Deaf YouTube influencer, Kirsty Jade, and many friends through social media platforms such as texting, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We want to know why white Deaf people have perpetuated this maligned social system that accepts us on provisional terms or outright rejects us. 

American Deaf communities often pride themselves in solidarity of Deaf culture in terms of their pride, identity, language and struggle. Many Deaf people who have grown up outside of Deaf communities are at no fault of their own. Everyone who has grown up in a Deaf community is aware that more than 90% of Deaf people, regardless of racial backgrounds, are born to either a non-signing hearing family or become Deaf due to medical conditions and are raised in a non-signing environment. 

Hearing parents heed multiple different advice on how to raise their Deaf child from pathologists, audiologists, special education teachers, or Individualized Educational Plan specialists who regularly work with Deaf students in the mainstream setting. These professionals normally make two standard recommendations for parents of how to communicate with and how to educate their Deaf child. The first option is to take a series of speech therapy without learning one of these signed languages, and the second option is to blend with speech therapy and different signed languages. Pidgin Sign English, Signing Exact English, or Cued speech are usually one of these signed languages that is often taught by professionals that will allow Deaf students to become bilinguals to meet their academic requirement to succeed in speaking-dominant schools. Deaf History and Deaf Culture courses are normally excluded in American History curriculums unless these schools provide ASL courses which, nowadays, still remain rare. The Deaf person is more likely not to be aware of their cultural identity until later on in life, depending on their journey to Deafhood, and whether they get there. When a mainstream Deaf person becomes aware of Deaf communities through social, religious or education settings, it is often when they research specialized colleges that can make accommodations to their needs. 

Mainstream Deaf people are often in awe to see a spectrum of Deaf people with various social backgrounds, exposure to Deaf culture, and knowledge of sign and spoken language. They assume that the Deaf community will welcome them with open arms, but unbeknownst to them, the Deaf community has already developed a social system that determines their decision to accept a Deaf individual as one of their own or not.  Due to a lack of perceived social skills, networking, and the ability to converse in American Sign Language, mainstreamed Deaf people often find themselves cast aside from the Deaf community.  Consequently, mainstream Deaf people become stuck in-between speaking and signing communities, and either one, do not fully accept the mainstreamed Deaf person. That’s why Deaf elitism became a focal point during the Black Lives Matter movement. It is of utmost importance to analyze the origins of white Deaf elitism with a soc-historical lens.

According to American Deaf history, the American Deaf community have undergone their own historic metamorphosis. The second international conference of deaf educators took place in Milan, Italy in 1880. During the Milan Conference, white hearing educators for the Deaf agreed on the ban of sign language as a formal instruction in Deaf schools. These same white hearing educators then went on to either demote or terminate Deaf teachers from their white Deaf schools. The proceedings from the Milan Conference could be why white Deaf leaders and communities became interested in establishing their own social system?

The excerpts from Deaf Empowerment Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric, book also explains the lasting societal impact of the eugenics movement with one of their infamous leaders, Alexander Graham Bell on the Deaf community, which will be shown in the next paragraph. Alexander Graham Bell and many eugenist leaders believed that white Deaf people’s American Sign Language was not on par with the white hearing dominant society’s spoken language, which is, English. The Eugenics movement also had its underlying roots in scientific racism that dehumanized and sterilized Black people and people with either physical or mental disabilities, especially Deaf people. Junius Wilson, a Black Deaf man, was one of the first Black Deaf victims to be castrated as a result of the horrendous eugenics movement. Alexander Graham Bell and the eugenics movement had influence on white Deaf leaders, notably, N.A.D 6th President, James L. Smith along with the white Deaf community’s decision to legitimize the Deaf hierarchy in 1900 at the fourth International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Paris, France that is currently known as Deaf Elitism. 

In Deaf Empowerment Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric book, “Since society did not value sign language as a communication commodity the way Deaf people did, it would also be necessary for Deaf people to create a hierarchy that would give the highest order to sign language.” (Jankowski 1997, p. 46). The fundamental purpose of this social hierarchy was to de-stigmatize their sign language that is intrinsic to their Deaf identities in defiance of speaking-dominant society.“The position of ‘mutes’ in the constitution gave rise to the establishment of a hierarchy that gave the highest rank to signing Deaf people. As such, Deaf people who spoke were placed in the middle, and hearing people at the bottom of the hierarchy. This hierarchy exalted in the Deaf community was in direct contrast to the dominant social order.” (Jankowski 1997, p. 47) After the 4th International Congress on Education of the Deaf event, white Deaf communities adopted Deaf elitism as an integral part of their Deaf way of life across the country which became the American Deaf culture as we know it today. “As such as sign language and the reversal of a Deaf hierarchy legitimized formal institutions such as the Deaf marriage and “family,” organizations established for Deaf people, and publications that furthered the growing network of Deaf people.”(Jankowski 1997, p. 48) 

Keep in mind that white Deaf communities’ social hierarchy also has its racist resemblance to the American caste system that was formerly known as a slavocracy and overt Jim Crow system. The American caste system designated the Black people’s position to be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy whereas white people’s position were placed at the top of the racial hierarchy. This racial hierarchy still exists and is commonly known as White Supremacy. These white Deaf historical events proved to have a seismic impact on white Deaf communities’ complicated relationships with mainstream Deaf people and Black Deaf people especially who were also mainstreamed. The notion of the social and racial hierarchy and how it is intertwined with the Deaf community continues to perpetuate their late 19th century social system that doesn’t reflect our times.

From the 19th to the 20th century, America witnessed the rise and manifestation of eugenic ideologies entangled with xenophobia. This eventually led to the Immigration law of 1907 that banned immigrants with physical or mental disabilities from entering this country. Eugenic ideologies, xenophobia, and racism grew following the shocking rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its Collapse of Reconstruction, infamous racial massacres such as the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Rosewood massacre, and much more. In the 21st century, America repeated its history of marginalizing Black communities and immigrants who are coming from Latin America. Such as the caging of migrant children, school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, redlining, voter suppression, the Charleston Church massacre, Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville VA, and police brutality without impunities incidents which inadvertently led to the highly publicized lynching of George Floyd. America has been presented with a rare opportunity to re-examine itself and this racist hierarchy needs to go. For white Deaf communities, they also have a possibly once-in-lifetime opportunity to reexamine itself and acknowledge that their Deaf social hierarchy which was born out of the racist hierarchy needs to go as well.

White Deaf Elitism: Privileges and Oppression article is a continuation of this article.

Resources 

Berke, J. (n.d.). The Milan Conference of 1880: When Sign Language Was Almost Destroyed. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/deaf-history-milan-1880-1046547

Bettmann, P., Congress, P., Photograph by Paul Thompson/Interim Archives/Getty Images, Photograph by University of Louisville/Internet Archive/Ida B. Wells-Barnett, & Mollenkof, P. (2020, June 19). Remembering ‘Red Summer,’ when white mobs massacred Blacks from Tulsa to D.C. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/06/remembering-red-summer-white-mobs-massacred-blacks-tulsa-dc/

Burch, S., & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gross, T. (2019, April 03). Henry Louis Gates Jr. Points To Reconstruction As The Genesis Of White Supremacy. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/04/03/709094399/henry-louis-gates-jr-points-to-reconstruction-as-the-genesis-of-white-supremacy

Immigration1. (n.d.). Immigration Laws. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://crfimmigrationed.org/immigration-laws

Jankowski, K. (2014). Deaf Empowerment Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.amazon.com/Deaf-Empowerment-Emergence-Struggle-Rhetoric/dp/1563685884

Berke, J. (n.d.). The Milan Conference of 1880: When Sign Language Was Almost Destroyed. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/deaf-history-milan-1880-1046547

Bettmann, P., Congress, P., Photograph by Paul Thompson/Interim Archives/Getty Images, Photograph by University of Louisville/Internet Archive/Ida B. Wells-Barnett, & Mollenkof, P. (2020, June 19). Remembering ‘Red Summer,’ when white mobs massacred Blacks from Tulsa to D.C. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/06/remembering-red-summer-white-mobs-massacred-blacks-tulsa-dc/

Burch, S., & Joyner, H. (2007). Unspeakable: The story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gross, T. (2019, April 03). Henry Louis Gates Jr. Points To Reconstruction As The Genesis Of White Supremacy. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/04/03/709094399/henry-louis-gates-jr-points-to-reconstruction-as-the-genesis-of-white-supremacy

Immigration1. (n.d.). Immigration Laws. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://crfimmigrationed.org/immigration-laws

Jankowski, K. (2014). Deaf Empowerment Emergence, Struggle, and Rhetoric. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.amazon.com/Deaf-Empowerment-Emergence-Struggle-Rhetoric/dp/1563685884

Manuscripts. (1963). Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.gallaudet.edu/archives-and-deaf-collections/collections/manuscripts/mss-079

Markham, A. (2020, July 15). U.S. Universities Must Stop Honoring Racist Scientists of the Past. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://blog.ucsusa.org/adam-markham/u-s-universities-must-stop-honoring-racist-scientists-of-the-past

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