You know the rules, right? Three lines. Five syllables, then seven, then five again. I decided to write five of ’em because they say we will never understand each other until we reduce the language to 17 syllables. And yes, because this is 5tern.com.
If you have not heard – or seen, in my case – the news, Starbucks has opened a “sign language” store near Gallaudet University, the only 4-year liberal arts university for deaf people in the world. Splashed on the entrance of the H Street NE storefront is S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S spelled out in the hand shapes of American Sign Language (ASL) where 24 employees have been hired to make coffee, take orders, and run the shop using ASL.
Corporate bigwigs at Starbucks may be patting themselves on the back for their hip, virtuous decision to open a signing store. And some Deaf people are celebrating the historical occasion for well-intentioned reasons.
But as some wise dude once said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
As a Deaf person, I see worrisome signs of fetishization and victimization that are not only problematic, if I may use this fashionable word, but also self-defeating if we consider the long-term interests of the Deaf community.
(To be clear, am I offended & outraged? No. Am I dazed & confused? Yes. Do I want boycotts & apologies? No. Do I want conversation & clarity? Yes.)
One bothersome concern is the appropriation of ASL and Deaf culture. Inside the Starbucks signing store is a loud sign boasting that the store is “dedicated to people united by sign language and Deaf culture.”
To put the fetishization in context, try to imagine white people opening an “African-American store” next to Howard University. Or English-speaking business owners writing on their store wall in Dearborn, Michigan that the store is dedicated to Arabic. Or evangelical Christians in Mississippi opening a Jewish coffee store several blocks from the only synagogue in the state.
What is rather easier to imagine, however, is a hearing family from Carson City visiting the Asian Elephants and Sumatran Tigers at the National Zoo, the paintings of the Obamas at the National Portrait Gallery – and then the signing baristas on H Street.
Look, Mommy! Here is how you fingerspell V-E-N-T-I!
How different is the signing store, I wonder, from the human zoos of the 19th and 20th centuries where the privileged few would hold public exhibitions of ‘exotic’ humans from a ‘different world’ under the guise of multicultural education? (Other than how the store on H Street pays a living wage and has loud signs on its walls saying the right kind of things.)
Now, if that hearing family wants to learn sign language after visiting the Sumatran Tigers, then cool pies. How about visiting Gallaudet University? Downloading the deaf-owned ASL App? Buying a pint at that deaf-run brewery, Streetcar 82, a stone’s throw away in Hyattsville?
But hey, at the end of the day, hearing people can hijack and gawk all they want, like it or not, because, yes, ASL is pretty cool. And it is still a free country.
What is quite confusing, however, is when Deaf people wipe away tears of joy while discussing the signing store. For ‘finally’ being able to order coffee in ASL. For ‘finally’ not being shut out of conversations and stuck in hearing spaces. That is, if we pay attention to fulsome compliments on social media and in the news media, the signing store is commended for removing barriers for Deaf people.
Yet, when we cannot order coffee at a signing store and portray it as a “barrier”, at the most basic level, we are exaggerating the severity of the offense. How time-consuming or upsetting is it, really, to write out “Grande Vanilla Latte with soy milk” on pen and paper, point it out on the menu, or type it out on our iPhone while waiting in line? Are we not diminishing the rhetorical power of “victim” for those far more deserving?
More fundamentally, this narrative of victimization is unproductive at best and detrimental at worst if we consider the crossroads at which the Deaf community is currently, and the ongoing debate between Deaf activists and proponents of hearing and spoken language (HSL).
According to reports, the American Deaf Community stands at a critical juncture today. The advent of cochlear implants and its exploding popularity, the improvements in medical care and early hearing loss detection, and the rise of mainstreaming deaf students and the decrease in enrollment at schools for the deaf suggest that the survival of ASL & Deaf culture is at stake.
If there is to be enough Deaf Americans in the year of 2050 to sustain the vibrancy of American Sign Language, and to be able to justify, say, Gallaudet University and schools, programs, and services for the deaf, then our unique task is that of persuasion because a community sparsely populated will not stand.
More specifically, we have to persuade strangers that Deaf people are not victims, in order to get more of what we claim we want. This is because being Deaf in the United States is no longer a medical condition. Nor is exposing deaf students to Deaf identity, culture, and education a sovereign decision made by and for Deaf people. Because of technological and legal advances such as the cochlear implant and the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is now a political (i.e., personal) choice made by, for all intents and purposes, ‘others’ if we consider that more than 90% of deaf children are from hearing parents.
As a low-incidence, low-power group whose future is supposedly in jeopardy, we ought to, therefore, consider the trade-0ffs of the tactics of victimhood that are shaping our public culture today. To that end, we sometimes celebrate awareness at the expense of persuasion. Project D.A.R.E. was not effective, for instance, in preventing drug use in youth, despite being successful in spreading awareness about its dangers.
Similarly, what exactly is the message we are sending with our praise of the signing Starbucks store? If you ask me, we are nudging parents of deaf children toward the very preferences, perceptions, and practices that are supposedly threatening the future of the Deaf community, and those which many of us are actively trying to discourage.
By spreading the impression that ordering caffeinated drinks via, say, pen and paper is a tiresome, lonely experience for Deaf people, it becomes rather difficult to rebut Helen Keller’s famous observation that deafness is a much worse fortune than blindness because it prevents us from participating in the world out there.
It, too, becomes harder to counter the contentious position of the Alexander Graham Bell Organization that listening and speaking is the solution for deaf children. Quite ironically, we tend to consider AG Bell Enemy #1 because of their support of cochlear implants and “oral education.” We often accuse the organization of xenophobia, phonocentrism, and audism, and denounce their long-standing practice of “eugenics.” Quite rightfully, we contend that deafness is not necessarily an affliction; that sign language is beneficial; and that parents ought not despair if their deaf children do not listen and speak.
Yet, in the next breath, we then act afflicted, despairing about commonplace experiences for people who do not listen and speak in public spaces out there.
This particular tactic is worrisome because the hearing parent with a deaf baby reading about the signing store might, quite reasonably, wonder: if an everyday task as mundane as ordering coffee is this traumatizing for Deaf people, then what must it be like for us everyday outside the “DEAF WORLD“, and without signing employees and signs advertising fealty to Deaf culture?
The irony is not only that most Deaf people I know are perfectly OK with ordering coffee, which is a straightforward process pretty much anywhere in the country, but also that it has never been a better time to be a Deaf American.
More big-screen movies are captioned than ever. ASL interpreters in most public spaces are not unusual luxuries but lawful mandates. Deaf people are opening businesses at an unprecedented rate. Nyle DiMarco is winning the hearts and minds of tweeters, tweeners, and influential people. In the past several years alone, Broadway has reimagined a play by putting deaf actors and hearing actors on the same stage and revived another that challenges common misconceptions about deaf people. The VL2 lab is discovering cognitive benefits of ASL. And so it goes.
Yet, people looking in would have not guessed if they had merely read the quotes, tweets, and posts about the signing store.
At a minimum, the time is right for activists and leaders to re-think, re-discuss, and re-frame how we talk about ‘the Deaf experience’ & what we typically celebrate as ‘progress’ in the Deaf community. To this end, we should consider some questions about the Starbucks signing store, no matter its good intentions, including but not limited to:
To what extent, if at all, is the store giving the misguided impression that ASL and Deaf culture are mere commodities that can be exported and exploited by others? That Deaf people are doomed to uncomfortable existences in the wilderness out there unless a signing Chipotle, a signing Sweet Green, a signing ride-sharing service, etc. are, too, adopted?
For the sake of persuading strangers, if nothing else, I submit that Deaf people ought to celebrate less often places like the signing Starbucks store, and more often deaf baristas and managers at our local Starbucks.
That we should advocate less often for Deaf-centric places, and more often for accessible public spaces.
That we should resist the trendy impulse to play the victim by sensationalizing less about barriers that are not quite, and by seeking honesty, self-reliance, and dignity instead.
Until then, if you want Starbucks coffee and are passing by on H Street, so be it. By all means, stop by and order a venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato in sign language or on their two-way keyboards.
At the end of the day, however, I appreciate good coffee around the corner, which is why I’ll order my espresso from Peregrine Espresso across the street from Gallaudet and their award-winning baristas.
Even if I have to take 5 seconds to write down “a quadruple shot of espresso, please.”
So, you’re looking for a team to root for in the NCAA tournament? I have seen some well-intentioned people suggest that you root for a team by choosing your alma mater, the school closest to where you grew up, or the university with the the best uniforms/mascot/fight song.
Do not feel obliged to go down that well-traveled road. Instead, you can, and should, refer to my totally subjective list of teams to root for in the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I have five, of course, and my criteria is, quite simply: Are they compelling, according to me?
Duke. Zion Williamson is to college basketball what the Washington Monument is to the U.S. capitol. A singular force inspiring apotheosis, towering above the landscape. What I love the most about him is not so much his athleticism, size, and feel for the game as it is how hard he plays and how fervently he roots for his teammates. That is, I have never seen such a celebrated recruit carry himself as if he were a walk-on; such a physically gifted and skilled player with boundless energy and enthusiasm. To those who debate whether he is the best prospect since Anthony Davis and whether he can stay healthy in the NBA, I say, with all due respect: Shh. Enjoy Zion in the moment, in all his glory now because we’ll never see anybody like him ever again. What we will see the next two weeks, however, if the regular season is any indication, will be invigorating. Because Zion Lateef Williamson is a 6’7” 285 pound extraordinaire who floats like a butterfly, jumps like a grasshopper, and works on a team like a bee.
Syracuse and Washington. So, two teams who play the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense. Fran Franschilla said it best. If man-to-man defense is a fastball and normal zones a curveball, then the Syracuse 2-3 zone is Mariano Rivera’s cutter: very difficult to hit and if you’re lucky enough to make contact, you “may break a bat” but it ain’t for a “grand slam.” A long-time assistant coach under Coach Boeheim, Mike Hopkins is now roaming the sidelines in the Pacific Northwest and playing a 2-3 zone, reaping similar benefits. If you watch Syracuse or Washington, note how on defense, they discourage the most valuable shots in basketball — uncontested 3s, lay-ups, and free throws — with keen angles, tactical coverage, disciplined rotations, and deceptive length, and make the offense feel as if they are near when they are far away and far when they are near. Boeheim and Hopkins are modern-day reincarnations of Sun Tzu.
Vermont. Fun fact #1: Head Coach John Becker has won about 70% of his games at the University of Vermont the past eight years. Fun fact #2: Coach Becker used to coach at Gallaudet for two years. Fun fact #3: In both years, he went 3-22 and won 12% of his games. Fun fact #4: Head Coach Kevin Kovacs has coached at Gallaudet for four years now and won about 60% of his games.
UC-Irvine. I graduated from University High School down the block from UC-Irvine; their mascot is the Anteaters. (Thought exercise: what would it be like if it weren’t the Gallaudet Bison but the Gallaudet Anteaters? Interestingly enough, the question would be not whether, but how many people would be offended.) But, anyway. I realize I told you not to root for the team with the best mascot or the school where you graduated. But we’re talking about the university next to my alma mater.
Gonzaga. Gonzaga has graduated 99% of their basketball players, one of the highest rates in the tournament. Yale is first, having graduated 100% of its players, but they’re also seeded #14 in the tournament. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is seeded #1. Excellence in the classroom and on the hardwood at the highest level in the country is notable and ought be rooted for.
Thirty-one years ago this week, deaf students protested and shut down Gallaudet University, asserted the right of deaf people to self-determination, captured international attention, inspired broad public support, and made successful demands that resulted in the first-ever deaf university president.
One of my earliest memories as a deaf child was attending a Deaf President Now (DPN) rally 3,000 miles from Washington, D.C. and experiencing the sweet anticipation when I. King Jordan was selected. When he declared to the world that “deaf people can do anything except hear”, it felt like the sun was about to rise after a cold winter night.
The widespread hope was not misplaced. Would current achievements of deaf people have been possible if not for the doors that the protest events opened in American public life? Nobody can know for sure.
What I do know, however, is that both of my deaf grandmothers worked in the back offices of a bank because it was one of the few available jobs to deaf women. And that my deaf father had to ask his neighbors what the TV was saying about President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Because of the protest events of 1988, though, we now have an unprecedented amount of accommodations in public life to access critical information and pursue employment centered around our passions, interests, and talents today.
We also know that two U.S. representatives who sponsored the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 – Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Stony Heyer – said the ADA would not have happened if not for the DPN protest.
While the university, community, and country have made social progress since that fateful week, we can agree there is still plenty of work yet to be done. That some people have moved forward should not obscure the fact that some others are still left behind today. That some phrases may have worked yesterday should not stop us from questioning their efficiency today.
Speaking of the latter, when we achieve something notable today as deaf people and are then asked by those looking in: But, how?! In response, our instinct is, as almost as certain as our knees snap when hit with that orange reflex hammer, to relive that fateful moment in 1988, thirty-one years later, by pointing out:
WE CAN DO ANYTHING EXCEPT HEAR!
Is this not a yawn-inducing statement? (Hippies have “Make love, not war.” Radicals have “Piss On Pity.” Is this really the best we can do?)
Furthermore, what we do not discuss enough is the naivete of the DPN motto that we persist on throwing around like a tattered baseball. For one thing, “Deaf people can do anything except hear” is circular.
(Imagine blondes announcing that they can do anything except not have blonde hair!)
For another thing, ‘Deaf people’ are complex individuals whose lived experiences are not always shared. Put differently, what about Matt Maxey of Deafinitely Dope? Is he deaf? (Yes.) Can he hear? (Well, yes.) Can he wait at coffee shops for his friends without fearing arrest? (Probably not.)
Thirty-one years later, as we revisit historical monuments and social practices, it is somewhat of a mystery why this reflexive saying hasn’t been re-imagined yet. It is 2019. We should be able to improve on outdated declarations that were once incisive wisdom.
Nonetheless, the DPN protest is a timely anecdote in this tumultuous age. 56 years ago, a charismatic minister said we have a dream. 31 years ago, four student leaders marched on the US Capitol and announced that we still have a dream. Today, many of us still share dreams.
But how do we make dreams real? We do not have to look at fairy tales for answers.
In the spring of 1988, students in Washington, D.C. were warned about rules and laws, given explanations, but, nevertheless, persisted.
At the end of that historic week, a deaf president was selected by a hearing-majority Board of Trustees. Two years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed with a Democratic controlled Congress and a Republican president.
Thirty-one years later, in this day and age of polarization, contempt, and tribalism, the path for achieving progress in a democratic society is still the same.
The local genesis of the DPN movement in 1988 may have been that “Deaf people can do anything except hear” but its universal legacy rests in illuminating the truth that people cannot do much without listening to others.
That the soundness of progress is not centered around yelling and hearing, but on confronting our minds and moralities for shared understandings with those with whom we might not identify at first glance.
May we celebrate the 31st anniversary of the DPN protest by remembering that we have it in our power to re-imagine, re-describe, and re-create our worlds. The tricky part is that it takes moral courage and human cooperation.
Thanks to those checking in. I was feeling under the weather but it is nothing fancy-sounding pharmaceuticals, Thin Mints, and rest cannot take care of. I am catching up with life this week, slowly but surely, and will resume blogging on 5tern.com next Wednesday, the 13th.
In the meantime, may you be blessed with Girl Scouts cookies and, yes, good health.
The writer and baseball statistician, Bill James, once asked, “Do people really believe there’s something different about the eyes of murderers?” Being somebody who overthinks for a living, the question stuck in my mind for a while, inching over my thoughts like a measuring worm, but I didn’t have much to say on the subject until recently.
When I was assistant coach of men’s basketball at Gallaudet, we recruited a 18-year-old from southern Virginia. He was 6’5” and athletic with a memorable gait. He ran with feet turned in, like that ungainly bird, and sinewy arms pumping to the Heavens. When he was exhausted out of his mind and told to run sprints after practice for missing study table? He would put up a vigorous but futile self-defense, mutter “Damn, Coach!”, and then heave his arms harder and higher with his neck craning back to the skies, dripping sweat and snot.
He had wobbly eyeglasses that would fall off and break about every time he played. Each time, he would nonchalantly tape them back together and keep balling. When he dove for loose balls and hustled for steals in pick-up games, notwithstanding the condition of his eyeglasses, it was clear as day how he averaged 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 blocks his senior year of high school.
But this is not really why I remember him. He had a natural intellect and relentless curiosity that made him the first-ever (and only) student in Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind history to take AP Calculus. Graduating with a 3.9 cumulative GPA, he earned a academic scholarship to attend Gallaudet and major in Accounting. His interests went beyond mere numbers, though. He would read this Kurt Vonnegut quote on my office door before coming inside to discuss it with a curious look and a crooked smile:
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
He introduced himself to his teammates on the first day of school by dunking in his Timberlands, which garnered “you can play” hoots. But little did they realize it was because he couldn’t afford basketball shoes. As they say in the South, where he grew up, he was so poor, he could barely afford to pay attention.
Showing up to class? Listening to the professor? A dollar for a soda? $5 for a foot-long at Subway? $20 for a required NCAA physical check-up? A new pair of eyeglasses, let alone basketball goggles? He couldn’t afford any of these. Looking back, though, it is rather obvious these weren’t the only things for which he did not have the financial means.
He would stay in his dorm room for weeks with the lights turned off. When he wasn’t sleeping, he showed clear signs of difficulties concentrating and remembering details. Re-reading former conversations with him, he had complained of being “down and stressed.” We told him that he was depressed, that there were mental health services on campus that could help him, and that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The coaching staff stopped by his dorm room several times to urge him to get counseling services, often to find his dorm room all dark and him sullen. He brushed us off each time, claiming that it would not help and that it would cost too much time and energy. In his farewell email before leaving school mid-semester — we never got the chance to say goodbye in person — he wrote that he wanted to be “as free from systems and policies as possible.”
After his departure from school, whenever I watched a bespectacled player dive for a loose ball, looked at that framed picture above my office computer of him smiling with his arms wrapped around his teammates, or read that Kurt Vonnegut poster on my door, I would think of him.
And I wasn’t the only one. Several times after leaving school, the coaching staff tried to contact him but never heard back with the exception of an assistant coach who received a terse response. Then, finally. But for all the wrong reasons.
In January, two years ago, the Roanoke Times reported that he was arrested for murdering his audiologist with a steak knife, that he was found near the scene with blood on his hands and in his car, and that he told the judge in his arraignment hearing that he is “tired of America” and wants to die as soon as possible, because he “never wants to see a human being again.”
After exchanging e-mail with him from prison, who has since been found guilty to first degree murder and sentenced to life, and finding out that he was off his medication that day, I still wonder. As Vonnegut would put it, “Why, why, why?”
What should we have done differently? Did we try hard enough to give him the support that he needed and surround him with role models with whom he could relate? What was he thinking when he left the university? That morning he drove to the audiologist’s office? Was he thinking at all? How do the systems and policies that he was so desperate to flee compare to those of prison?
And his eyes? His curious eyes may have been stuck behind eyeglasses stuck together by adhesive tape, but were they any different from ours? His crooked smile in that pre-game team circle? Was it a glimpse of the happiness that he woulda, coulda, shoulda had if he had received the support he needed and stayed in school?
Reading the newspaper articles and Facebook posts, and talking with those who knew him at college — all of us asking “Why, why, why?” — we have a grating tendency to throw around simple-sounding theories to explain what happened and how it could have been avoided.
But I wonder. Are our explanations more self-serving than not, simply so that we can claim that we understand, and then move on with our lives? Can the totality of his unimaginable experience — what he went through all his life — and the choices leading to that tragic day really be summed up with a neat explanation? Or does that distract us from the complexities of life and the hard work that must be undertaken if we want to make the world a better place?
We do not discuss the messiness, the inscrutableness of the strange world out there enough at colleges and universities where we have fancy looking student learning outcomes that address knowledge and inquiry, and in our popular culture where we valorize provocative questions, grand predictions, and sweeping explanations in 140 characters.
Yet, what about the timeless virtues of humility, compassion, and friendship? Do we absorb and practice these fundamental values enough? Seeking to understand and explain the world out there is imperative. But this is also a strange day and age where we are more connected than ever and yet feel more alone than ever, and where we virtue signal more often than we practice virtue. As much as we must prepare the minds of our future leaders, it is not the be all and end all.
Picturing that fateful morning the audiologist said goodbye to her family before heading to work, and that moment captured in time when he was smiling with his teammates in the pre-game dance circle, I wonder (there we go again) if we spend too much time with the lights turned off, wondering aloud about the world by that eerie blue glow, dividing life neatly between light or dark, and telling ourselves that we understand.
But do we spend enough time coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that life is infinitely complex and often without rhyme or reason? That there is the capacity of good and evil in our eyes? That the best we can do is sometimes to stop trying to explain, label, understand, and solve everything, and instead, to seek out special moments of human connection, such as when a curious student with pigeon toes, a crooked smile, and eyeglasses taped together with scotch tape enters your office to ask why, why, why?
In this day and age of polarization, gridlock, and bigotry, we can, nonetheless, revitalize our democracy with the most basic choices.
Preserving our country from boorish and malevolent forces might feel like an Herculean task requiring enormous effort and massive cooperation. But, in truth, our small choices matter. Over the span of our lifetimes, they could make the difference between an authoritarian state and a robust democracy.
After all, we move mountains by starting with a pebble. Reformed alcoholics swear by the mantra of taking it a day at a time. Marathoners cross the finish line not by counting down 26.2 miles but by putting their left foot in front of their right.
Some of the great democratic changes in recent memory originated with simple choices. The sit-ins of the early 1960s that were a vital part of the civil rights movement, for instance, were initiated by four college freshmen at North Carolina A & T who connected with each other courtesy of conversation over smuggled beer in the dorm. The rest was history when one asked his fellow bootleggers deep into the night whether they were “chicken or not?”
That is, progress in the United States is not all that different from tapas in the world of gastronomy. It is a micro dish centered around personal connection and reciprocity.
If we think of our democracy as “of the people, by the people, for the people” then to neglect colleagues, neighbors, and strangers is to miss the forest for the trees.
As in marriage, the presence of mutual responsibility and trust is central to a healthy democracy. The absence renders it unlikely. People divorced from community and commitment are those most likely to commit violence and practice fanaticism.
It was a privilege to be interviewed by a brilliant young filmmaker, Dexter Mueller, for his short documentary for a C-SPAN competition. As you can see, he makes this fundamental point about the essence of civic duty — our responsibilities as a democratic citizen — and what it could involve today.
I hope you enjoy this documentary and think about changing the world by, perhaps, inviting a new classmate to a house party, joining an organization, or having coffee with somebody you don’t know quite well.