Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege

August 1, 2012

While most sign language interpreters come from non-Deaf families, one can develop an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression by interacting with the Deaf community, recognizing the unique life experiences of Coda interpreters and working to dismantle systems of oppression.

Are sign language interpreters intrinsically connected to the fight for humanity, as suggested by Brandon Arthur in his post, The Goo Inside a Sign Language Interpreter? What is our role working within a marginalized and oppressed community? What is our connection to solidarity? Do we have a broader sense of responsibility to the community that gives us the opportunity and privilege to access and learn language and then to make a living using it?

These are important questions for new and experienced sign language interpreters to consider.

(Note: In this article, the term Codas refers to Children of Deaf Adults who are native American Sign Language users who share language and culture with the Deaf community and their Deaf parents/guardians.)

Codas: Distinct Experiences

Dennis Cokely points to the importance of Codas in establishing Sign Language interpreting as a profession in his article, Vanquished Native Voices-A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?. He describes the importance of Codas not only in the development of our profession, but he identifies the importance of their historical knowledge and distinct lived experience with communication oppression. Many Codas have experienced unique and complex roles, having hearing privilege in a Deaf family, straddling two cultures, and dutifully providing communication access without pay. Perhaps a deeper understanding of privilege contributes to their intrinsic connection to the fight for humanity and communication access.

In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.) This leaves “the vast majority of us” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4) working to recognize and comprehend the impact of language oppression and the inherent privilege of non-Deaf people.

Institutional Construct: Dehumanization

Let’s consider the institutional construct and social belief system, referred to as the “slant” in Brandon Arthur’s article, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head? He references thefreedictionary.com’s definition of slant as, “To present so as to conform to a particular bias or appeal to a certain audience” (2012, para. 1).  He emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and warns that the slant can lead to “impaired self-awareness” (para. 5) not only in our professional narrative when analyzing our production of an interpretation but in other arenas as well.

The slant is a systematic lens formed by our upbringing, culture, social status, etc. It embodies our particular biases related to deafness, race, class, education level, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etcetera that creates “Othering” as described by social theorist Michel Foucault in the study of social science. “Other” is defined by Wikipedia.org as, “The processes by which societies and groups exclude “Others” whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society” (2012, para. 2). Distinguishing the “Other” allows us to establish roles for ourselves, which serves as an important function in society. However, it also “involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups” (“Other,” 2012, para. 2), specifically those unlike our own.

“For the vast majority of us [non-Codas], our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are ‘disabled’ and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4). This institutionalized slant impacts our work and our worldview, and for non-Codas, distinguishes Deaf people as “Other.”

Systematic Marginalization: “Other”

Many Codas are familiar with the impact of being seen as “Other” and are intimately connected to the systematic marginalization and oppression of the Deaf community. Codas are often simultaneously utilizing their hearing status and privilege to provide communication access battling language oppression at young ages. Their intimate understanding of privilege and power, and the realization of their social status from birth, may be the intrinsic connection to marginalization and oppression that some non-Codas are missing. Their unique lived experience of witnessing communication oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization is a part of the historical knowledge they possess and are able to share with non-Coda interpreters. Perhaps this is what motivated the fight for humanity, inspiring Codas to establish the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in the 1960’s (Cokely, 2012).

Perception: Managing the Slant

My response to Brandon’s question, “Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?” (2012, para. 18) is to begin by analyzing our own privilege as interpreters. Whether we are White, non-Deaf, able-bodied, straight, employed, male, educated, cisgender, or a combination of these and other identities it can be challenging to recognize our own privilege. Without having experienced the impact of being perceived as “Other” it is hard to intimately connect with the realities faced by those experiencing systematic marginalization and oppression on a daily basis.

Personal Experience: Building Solidarity

My intimate connection to the Deaf community stems from my personal experience of oppression and marginalization, as a Transgender person. I have a visceral reaction to discrimination and injustice because I live within a historical context of inequality and have been personally impacted by marginalization and oppression. As a non-Deaf person, I have never walked into a room in the United States and been denied communication access. I am not personally impacted by daily language oppression. I have been fired from a job and not hired for others because of my gender identity. I have been intimately, professionally, and socially impacted by systematic oppression because of the perceived “condition” or “mental health diagnosis” that has been applied to my identity. I use my life experiences and understanding of how it feels to be seen as “Other” to intimately relate to the discrimination and oppression that Deaf people experience daily. I use my power and privilege, as a White, non-Deaf, educated, economically stable, able-bodied, non-immigrant, English speaking person to interrupt oppression, to build solidarity with other marginalized communities, and to fight for equality.

RID statistics illustrate that 8,414 of the 9,604 members, or 87%, of interpreters reporting to RID identified as Euro-American/White (The RID, 2011). With only 13% of RID members identifying as people of color, how do White interpreters, who do not experience life as “Other,” whether able-bodied, economically stable, well educated, gender normative or a combination of these, intimately connect to systematic marginalization and oppression that the Deaf community experiences?

 Connections: Dismantling Systems

One approach is to spend time in the Deaf community. Cokely believes that “to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community” (Cokely, 2012, para. 7). If we cannot intimately connect to the experience of “Others,” how will we intrinsically relate to the importance of the fight for humanity and the necessity of fighting language oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization? How will we recognize and analyze our own power and privilege, avoiding micro-aggressions against the very community we are passionate to work with? (F. Fleischer, keynote address, June 13, 2012). How do we stand in solidarity, harnessing the passion we have for our interpreting work, to build on our dedication to the Deaf community while contributing to communication access and striving to dismantle systems of oppression?

Experiences: Recognizing and Acknowledging Privilege

One can study the impact and effect of marginalization, oppression and inequality. From my experience, the impact of studying something is drastically different than personally experiencing it, or watching your friends and/or loved ones experience it daily. My privilege and the systematic lens in which it was formed limit my ability to see oppression and marginalization around me. As a White person, I don’t see the clerk not following me when I go to the grocery store in an all-White neighborhood. Therefore, it is challenging to recognize my White privilege. I don’t realize my privilege to stroll around the store uninterrupted until my African American friend joins me. It’s then that I see the clerk following him. I stare in disbelief…“How could this be happening? I love this store,” I tell him. He shrugs and says, “It happens all the time.”

Without experiences like this it is challenging for me to recognize and acknowledge my White privilege. Without personal experiences and conversations, about the impact with my Deaf friends and colleagues, it is challenging to recognize my hearing privilege. As a non-Deaf person it is easy for me to ‘do my day’ forgetting to recognize and appreciate my privileges, to acknowledge them, to analyze the power they bring with no effort but simply because of the systematic and social hierarchy that distinguishes some as “Other.”

Solidarity: Connecting with the Deaf Community

I believe the shared history that many Codas possess comes from a place of solidarity with the Deaf community. Their familiarity with the impact of being seen as “Other” intimately connects them to the impacts of systematic marginalization and oppression. Interpreters have the ability to gain intimate connections to marginalization and oppression through analyzing, understanding and acknowledging our own privilege. We can gain access to the importance of creating a profession that values and prioritizes the recruitment and advancement of marginalized communities in the interpreting field: people of color, the economically disadvantaged, Deaf people, the under educated, persons with disabilities, those who are gender-nonconforming, etc.

Diversity: Enhanced Competence

Increasing access to the interpreting profession and promoting diversity will enhance culturally competent interpreting services for Deaf and non-Deaf consumers. Through conversation and experience with “Others,” we raise our self-awareness and intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression. Using our privilege and power we can dismantle systematic discrimination faced by so many, creating change in solidarity with a community that has given us so much linguistic and financial opportunity.

 

Special Thanks

I would like to thank Tamar Jackson Nelson for her work to edit this post.

Tamar Jackson-NelsonTamar is a student in Gallaudet University’s Ph.D. in Interpretation program (pedagogy/research) as well as an adjunct professor for the Department of Interpretation. Tamar enjoys and values presenting and writing about interpreting to promote growth, development, and respect of the interpreting profession. Tamar has worked as a certified community interpreter, mentor, ER on-call manager & interpreter, VRI & VRS interpreter. She enjoys time with her family, state fairs and sunshine.


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24 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege"

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Windy Kellems
Thank you so much for bringing this topic to mainstream discussion. I know these articles reach so many interpreters and I was thrilled to see this article here today. I have been bringing this topic to my classroom and now I can refer my students to this article that ties the topic in so succinctly to the work we are doing. My passion as an educator is focused on making the field (and education in the field) more accessible to and inclusive of interpreters of diverse backgrounds. Part of that process is helping those interpreters whose life experiences do not… Read more »
ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Thanks for the kind words and feedback on the article Windy. Thanks too for making an impact on the profession as an educator, and for being committed to bringing this topic to your classroom. Helping folks “illuminate their own power and privilege” while in a safe learning environment is essential and I believe it’s also effective. Keep up the good work!

Member
Laurie Meyer

I have neither questions nor comments. Just a profound thank you for writing this and a commitment to get this into the hands of as many interpreters as I can.

ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Laurie,

Thank you. I appreciate your commitment and do not take it lightly.

Member
Maria Holloway
YES. I could not agree more, Alex, and was very excited to see this piece. For what it’s worth, I’ve been thinking about this issue for a few years…ever since reading White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. When first reading McIntosh’s piece about privilege, I felt overwhelmed by the idea. It was difficult to think about all of the privileges afforded to me…not only as a white individual, but also as an individual who regularly benefits from my ability to hear. I very much appreciate the fact that you suggest the need for interpreters do develop a… Read more »
ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Thank you Maria for mentioning McIntosh’s piece. Sharing this resource and subsequent conversations with colleagues supports the interpreting profession by helping us analyze our privilege and role(s) within the D/deaf community. Keep the conversations going!

Member
Cynthia Weitzel

Yet another piece that should be required reading for all ITPs; beautifully done Alex (and Tamara)!

Member
Jenny Miller
I was really touched by this article. I learned two new words: “Cisgender” and “Microaggression”. Also I was pleased to see your discussion about Foucault…I had heard a little about his philosophies but had never seen them spelled out in a way I could apply until this article. I also have to say that I feel privileged in having Street Leverage have people motivated to write articles like these. THIS is what I believe the RID Views should be publishing…but at the same time I’m happy it’s published here so I can comment immediately on the article:). Thank you!
ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Thank you Jenny for sharing what you learned from the article. I support information sharing that helps the interpreting profession grow through critical thinking and appreciate Street Leverage and contributing authors for that as well!

Member
Laurie Meyer

Actually I do have a question. Is it possible to get a version of this in ASL?

ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Laurie- Good question. I will see if we can make that happen and I will get back to you.

Member
Thank you for writing this powerful article. As a deaf consumer who struggle with getting the interpreters to understand why they have so much power in the interpreting process that often deaf people do feel at disadvantage. One of the privileges that most interpreters have is when they make mistake, or voice an okay English response, such as “me and him went to the store.” when proper English is “He and I went to the store.” the hearing person does not judge the interpreter for the bad English. Most often the judgement will be slammed on the deaf person and… Read more »
ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Thank you for your comment Thomas. You make a good point about language use and the interpreting process. Teamwork is essential in the interpreting process and I believe that analyzing our privilege as non-Deaf interpreters helps us build trust and competency when working with consumers.

lwickless
Member
Love this article! This I something I think many interpreters fail to acknowledge as impacting our work and at times even actively and vehemently deny. Cultural lens and level of competence impacts everything we do as interpreters even in how we apply the language of the CPC. We could benefit from more discussion on how the CPC itself, being especially in practice, governed by hearing cultural norms, imposes structural biases on our work as interpreters. I believe we cannot be truly neutral without cultural competence, balance, and flexibility, yet we as a profession have superimposed “hearing world” norms onto our… Read more »
ajacksonnelson
Member
Alex Jackson Nelson

Well said Laura! A discussion acknowledging and analyzing our “hearing world” norms might be a good place to start. I thought I fully understood my privilege as a non-Deaf person until I became a student at Gallaudet University. I learn something almost every day about my hearing privilege while on campus…things my own cultural lens prevented me from recognizing previously. Thank you for your thoughts!

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[…] to the client Some Thoughts On What Is Referred To As Declining Rates Being Paid to Translators Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing Our Power & Privilege The Real Barrier To Entry Into The Translation Profession Is Extremely High Olympic Lingo: Obscure […]

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Laura Garrett
Very thought-provoking article. Thank you for posting it. In response to your question about what interpreters (who are not CODAs) can do to become more aware of the oppression many –to adapt a phrase here for expediency– “un-privileged” people experience is to acknowledge that everyone experiences exclusion from some group, whether socially, economically, politically, whatever. To tap into one’s own experience of exclusion, (as you as a transgender person do) and the loss of power that results from it, or loss of self esteem, loss of financial gain, loss of job opportunity–you name it–would help in sensitizing and relating to… Read more »
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[…] described by Alex Jackson Nelson in, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing our Power and Privilege, this experience is rich and results in a deep understanding of hearing […]

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Connie Abbott

Not surprised to see that this thought-provoking and timely article was written by you, Alex. It is excellent in the context you wrote it in (ASL Interpreters) but in so many other arenas as well. I look forward to more in the future! May I quote you personally and in training descriptions?

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[…] described by Alex Jackson Nelson in, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing our Power and Privilege, this experience is rich and results in a deep understanding of hearing […]

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[…] of Hearing interpreters in greater numbers than ever before. Alex Jackson Nelson’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, offers some great insight on the need for practitioners to be aware of their privilege. In my […]

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[…] and position within the dominant culture. As Alex Jackson Nelson shared in his previous article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, having self-awareness and an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression is […]

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[…] stereotypes or question our way of being in homogenous groups. Alex Jackson-Nelson, in his article “Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing our Power and Privilege,” suggests that dismantling systems of power depends on making connections to those historically […]

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