Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power

December 1, 2015

When sign language interpreters avoid addressing issues to minimize conflict, we are exercising hearing privilege by adhering to majority cultural norms. Acting in true allyship requires courage, professional discipline, and transparency.

 

As sign language interpreters, we constantly make judgment calls on appropriate language choices and cultural behaviors in addition to determining how/where to act in allyship1.  In recent years, the concept of social justice2 and community accountability have become central to the discussion about how we practice the work of interpreting.

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What is Polite Indifference?

Within the context of sign language interpreting, “polite indifference” refers to the American hearing cultural norm that results from the value of minimizing interpersonal conflict. When the risk of error is minimal, we drop the issue. We ignore the wrong. As people who are a part of the linguistic majority, we hold this privilege. As sign language interpreters, we use this privilege to decide if the situation is worthy of case discussion3 and/or involving the Deaf person in the conversation. These are decisions we, the interpreters, make daily. When a sign language interpreter decides an indiscretion is minor and not worthy of discussion, time or attention any kind, we are exercising our hearing privilege by practicing polite indifference.

Polite Indifference in Action

At one very public assignment, I was teamed with one hearing interpreter and one Certified Deaf Interpreter for a presentation which many Deaf community members attended. My colleagues were watching, listening, and undoubtedly, making note of my work. If I were in their seat, I would be doing the same. As I began to interpret, things were fine, but as time wore on, my team never took the microphone. As my mental process was breaking down, I could hear my own voice speaking English, but it wasn’t pretty. Sure, the concept was there – the main points were touched on (thank you Sandra Gish!4) but the extended time spent processing the source language and producing the target language without a break was clearly wearing on the interpretation.

By the time my team did take the helm, I was already spent and wondering why I had continued for so long, alone. The assignment continued in the same vein, with me taking the bulk of the ASL to English work. At the conclusion of the assignment, I fled to the restroom to gather myself. I needed to figure out how to approach my teams. While I have a good, strong relationship with this team, I was struck helpless. Worse still, we had agreed to meet with four less experienced interpreters so they could observe our debriefing session. I was not in the mental or physical state to engage in the kind of conflict I was feeling with spectators present.

As the debrief began, my hearing team confirmed my suspicions; with our colleagues in the room and the rich content of the presentation, she lost her mojo. I know that feeling well. She said she thought I was doing a fabulous job. My heart sank. Even if that were true, I wanted to scream at her for leaving me alone without switching at the agreed upon time. I wanted to ask her to prepare by knowing the terminology prior to coming to the job. I wanted to tell her I expected more from her. I wanted to tell her she let me down.

When it was my turn to debrief, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about how I was feeling or what my process was during work. With four pairs of new interpreter eyes focused on us, I wanted our process to look shiny and positive; I wanted to make the best of it. I was embarrassed to have them see us fail at working together. The assignment was rife with rich content and process dynamics. It felt petty and personal to discuss my concerns about being left to do all the work.  Plus, I was so tired; I couldn’t accurately judge the caliber of my own work. Instead of speaking up, I decided it was easier to be politely indifferent to what happened. To let it go.

After the debrief, I was left with several questions: Did this session meet the expectations of the new interpreters? Would the interpretation meet the expectations of the presenter? Will this team of interpreters be able to work together again? What have I done??!

In my community of practice, we share concepts of accountability including: calling out oppressive behaviors, recognizing micro-aggressions and audism. We discuss these concepts in the hopes of unpacking and addressing the privileges we have brought to interpreting. But in deciding to be quiet that day, I erased it all with my “polite indifference”.

Using Our Voices for Good

As I work with new sign language interpreters, our debrief allows me to see the impact of staying silent, even if there are perceived advantages. Some mistakes I have made go untouched, undiscovered, but having mentees requires me to look at the mistakes and deconstruct what is happening in my work. The difference between staying silent and this work of deconstruction is staggering. I practice case conferencing which elicits community involvement and takes into consideration the perspectives of Deaf people, my team, and the hearing constituents. I ask new practitioners who are still deeply entrenched in academic concepts to consider the impact of the work on all stakeholders.

Privilege is a fact which is central to our business. As hearing interpreters, our work is predicated on our ability to hear. Because of that privilege, because we are in the majority linguistic culture of the U.S., because we practice interpreting to provide access to information, we must always be mindful of the power privilege carries in our work and use our voices for good. This means having difficult conversations even when we feel that twinge of conflict and desire to be polite. We don’t always have to agree on each facet of the conversation. Acknowledging the temptation to respond with polite indifference will ultimately lead us to better outcomes and better relationships with Deaf people and team members.

Now what? Steps Forward

Addressing polite indifference and unpacking our privilege allows us to be more transparent. We must acknowledge that we have privileges and use them in a socially conscious way. If we do not share our thoughts, feelings, patterns and discomforts, we remain complicit in oppression and polite indifference can easily become a habit in our work. Unpacking is not comfortable. We have to remember that this action comes from a compassionate and ethical practice which is grounded in social justice values. A large majority of sign language interpreters are second language learners of ASL.Sharing our thoughts and feelings about our work is hard. Hearing the feedback of others is not easy.

In the situation described above, my decision to withhold information was an exercise of my privilege. What drove me not to share information was polite indifference. Much later, when I clearly understood my obligations, I talked to my hearing team. We hashed it out. I talked to my colleagues. They assured me the message of the presenter was given.  I hope to speak to the observing interpreters  individually and talk about the missed opportunity for discussion, and how recognition of polite indifference is a critical component in our work. Someday I will have the chance to talk to the presenter and organizer.  The ultimate lesson for me is that polite indifference is the opposite of using my voice for good.  

Questions to Consider:

  1. Recognizing privilege is critical when working with marginalized populations. How can sign language interpreters support each other in recognizing when hearing privilege is guiding decision-making in an interpreting situation?Do you feel prepared to have these difficult conversations with your team? if not, why not?
  2. How can sign language interpreters address issues of power and privilege proactively in team situations in order to protect the integrity of the work?
  3. Think about an instance when you chose polite indifference instead of confronting an issue. If you could go back in time and relive that situation, what would you do differently? Why?

Related Posts:

Missing Narratives in Interpreting and Interpreter Education by Erica West Oyedele

Self-Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression by Stacey Storme

Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right? by Darlene Zangara

References:

1 Allyship. (2011, December 10). Retrieved October 26, 2015, from https://theantioppressionnetwork.wordpress.com/allyship/

2 Coyne, D. (2014, May 20). Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters? Retrieved October 26, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2014/05/social-justice-an-obligation-for-sign-language-interpreters/

3 Keller, K. (2012, February 28). Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner. Retrieved October 26, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/02/case-discussion/

Tag: Sandra Gish. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2015, from https://theinterpretingreport.wordpress.com/tag/sandra-gish/

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48 Comments on "Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power"

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bcolonomos
Member
Thank you, MJ for this timely and insightful piece. Sharing your reflections about this and other experiences will hopefully help readers acknowledge what has been accepted practice for far too long. This article has hit home for me in many ways, personally and professionally. There is room for much optimism and I share what I have learned in an effort to elucidate one possible path to growth. My journey began with the inability and unwillingness to engage in “polite indifference” with my colleagues. Although I have many of the benefits of privilege, I grew up as a member of two… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent
Hi Betty- Thank you so much for reading and commenting on the article. Sharing your experience as a Deaf parented individual is so vital to the continued growth of our field. I have immense respect for, and continue to learn so much, from my CODA friends and colleagues. The nuance and beauty of our two cultured ASL/Deaf world is one of the best things about being an interpreter. That being said, you have captured what I feel is the next piece of my work, personally and professionally in your last full paragraph. The framework you present in Foundations has given… Read more »
Member
Suzanne Terrio
In the brief pre-conference with your team did you agree upon signals to switch at the moment of fatique when you were interpreting ASL to English? It seems as if the team interpreter’s expectation for excellence did not match the interpreter who was interpreting ASL to spoken English. Polite Indifference seems to be as much a psychological phenomenon as it is cultural, and sociological. How we are raised, our background, and personal self esteem determines how we handle confrontation, whether assertively, aggressively, or passive aggressively. Could Social Indifference be a euphemism for passive aggressiveness? I am refreshed by the mitigation… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

Hi Suzanne, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this article! My team and I had worked together before; we did some prep discussion weeks before and we did talk about how the switch would happen. I really like and agree with your thoughts on transparency and C/DI’s. My hope is that by recognizing our privileges and talking about them, we can be more open about the work.

Member
Hi! Thanks for such a great article! I agree…that is a common (daily) decision point for interpreters. The quote, “Never let an injustice go by unchallenged” has stuck with me. No one does this perfectly but we can be attentive to making the effort to address these injustices when they come up. My own experience has been mixed. Most of the time this is a healthy and very positive experience overall. Other times this has cause the MOST trauma of my professional career as standing up to something that is unethical, unjust, or unprofessional etc….has had significant backlash including political… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent
Hi Shelly- Thank you for taking time to read and comment on this article! I agree, it can be a traumatic thing to challenge someone on the injustice you see. My hope is that as we recognize these events, as a profession, we can begin to use our existing resources, and/or build new ones. I believe the personal recognition of our responsibility and privilege in these situations comes first. Knowing that feeling and trigger can help us make decisions about what to do as an ally. Acknowledgement will help us move toward developing strategies to address situations that, as you… Read more »
Member

And as far as teams not sharing the load…I sure do appreciate a team. I’ve heard every excuse there is: “my eyes hurt”, “I’m just wiped”, “I can’t concentrate today”, “I don’t know this topic, person”, “my voice is rough today/am getting sick”, “I am not good with ASL”…you name it. I think we can give each other grace but it is unfair not to actively share the load, if you are going to accept the job.

mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

Although I understand and have experienced this phenomenon, my point in this article wasn’t so much about this team’s reasons for her actions, but my own process in recognition of my privilege and power. I hope that was clear, as I do not want to speak for the hearing team’s process in any way. But yes, its a pet peeve of mine, as many of these excuses erroneously place responsibility on the Deaf person, ” they sign fast”, “they sign sloppy” etc… It isn’t fair to take work and not bring your A-game. 🙂 xo mj

Member

Oh ok I didn’t get at all from the article that by “hearing privilege” you meant that the team was putting responsibility on the Deaf client. So that helps a little, but my understanding of privilege is clearly still in the infancy stage because I don’t get at all how my privilege is detrimental to my hearing team or how this situation illustrates privilege at all. I’m sure it is well explained and I just need to do more studying. Something to think about.

mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

Thanks for the comments, Tanya! Learning about, and recognition of our privileges is a life-long process! xo mj

Member
Lianne Moccia
Thank you for sharing this experience, common to so many. I appreciate your tying the avoidance of engaging in honest dialogue about our work with privilege. I have more often associated that avoidance with fear. Fear of not knowing how to have these conversations. Fear of being uncomfortable, being found out, being criticized. Over identification of self with work. When we can look at the work, what is required, what we bring to it, how we serve the consumers—and are able to talk about all that openly, I believe we will all benefit. For this we need tools— a model,… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent
Hi Lianne- I appreciate you taking time out of your day to read and share a thought on this article! To your comment on fear; I absolutely agree with you 1005! Interpreters are tasked with being brave at moments we might not otherwise want to be brave. Even still, the fear of ramifications of our bravery is real. We have such a unique experience and as we continue to develop our debrief, such as case conferencing strategies, my hope is we can share our fears with our teams. Betty Colonomos and the Etna projects Integrated Model of Interpreting is one… Read more »
KKeller
Member
Thank you, MJ, for inspiring me to consider and reflect. Your situation rings true with similar experiences of mine. I’ll look and feel my way through the times when I’m not sure how to begin the conversation which needs to happen, my privilege of white, hearing culture and the expected politenesses which may diminish or dismiss others’ experiences, and lost recognition of the impact of our work. I’m thinking of all those who’ve actively created ways of holding these conversations which need to happen, who’ve created spaces and insisted on the need to have them: Betty, Robyn, Erica, back to… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

HI Kendra; I really appreciate you taking time to read and comment on this article. I love how many people in our field are talking about the work and our power/privilege. To your question about the ‘tittle’ of our position … I wonder if ASL/English Interpreter is more specific for hearing people and Deaf Interpreter or Certified Deaf Interpreter is to Deaf folks? Its a great question; I’ve been asking around to interpreters who are Deaf and they say the terms will arise as the field grows. I love that we are always evolving. ox mj

Member
When I read your article which was on such a personal note, my heart went out to you and all those who witnessed what seems to be a breakdown in communication and a conflict with your team interpreter. I’m having difficulty understanding the tie-in to hearing privilege, and would welcome your input. In a time of vast confusion over our discourse, my intent is only for clarification. Reflecting on your use of “polite indifference”, I wonder if we might agree to re-framing it as your simply exercising a valid conservative ethical decision for the sake of all stakeholders, during a… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent
Hi Teresa! Thank you for taking time to read and reply to the article- I realize that you may have been at the event, and that you took a great deal of care to craft your reply. I truly appreciate your interest and work in making a thoughtful comment. I have several responses to the specifics you bring up and I will reply to them following the order you layout in our response. Hearing privilege exists in our work by the nature of the fact that we do hear, while our clients do not. Being hearing gives us a vast… Read more »
Member
Teresa Sedano
Hi MJ, I truly appreciate the thoughtful response. I have a much better understanding of the article and the topic of “polite indifference”. Our profession and process is so layered and complex! As you have expertly pointed out, the CPC allows for a rationale of many various perspectives involved in our ethical decision-making. I agree that what is best for the Hearing interpreters may not be best for the Deaf consumers, however, I do believe that through careful analysis, we may discover a decision that is a “win-win” for all. Through dialogues such as these, we begin to have more… Read more »
Member
Meagan Thorp
This was a great read! As an interpreter in training polite indifference is something that we come across often. The task of dropping our need, as the hearing majority, to “save face.” Also the need to minimize conflict to the best of our ability. It is helpful to see how more experinced interpreters are able to handle this task. Working with a team can sometimes be hard. It can be difficult to not only give your team feedback but it can also be hard to get feedback. I feel this is also due to the norms of the hearing majority.… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

Hi Meagan- Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the article! Im glad you can take away something useful in your work. ox mj

Member
Gabriella Daidone
Michele, I was moved by this article. Thank you!! I believe that not standing by and using polite indifference is incredible important in interpreting, as well as life in general. I feel that this central theme of not simply letting things go for the sake of politeness or peace is incredible important, be it for the #blacklivesmatter movement, the feminist movement, terrorism both at home and over seas, and in sign language interpreting each day as we address our privilege. As the ones with hearing privilege, we must understand and own up to our privilege and work toward empowering the… Read more »
mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

HI Gabriella- I agree with so much of what you said and am thrilled that you are already thinking of these things as a student! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! ox mj

Member

This article really struck a cord with me. Being a Interpreter in training it’s important to read articles like this. It makes you aware of different situations and how important it is for us to react a certain way. I personally am a shy person so usually if I was in a situation like this I wouldn’t express my frustration, and would keep it to myself. Reading this I know that that response wouldn’t be a good one. Being politely indifferent hurts everyone in the end. I will definitely be checking myself when I am faced with these situations.

mvincent
Member
Michele Vincent

Hi Tiffany- thanks for taking time to read and comment here on SL. Im happy that you can apply this idea in your work. Im hopeful as the conversation on privilege continues in our field, we get better at identifying polite indifference and being transparent. ox mj

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