The Authenticity Gap: Race, Access, and The Transactional Model of Interpreting
Kristina Miranda and Cassie Lang presented The Authenticity Gap: Race, Access, and The Transactional Model of Interpreting at StreetLeverage – Live 2018 | Cherry Hill. In their presentation, Kristina and Cassie explore questions of race, access, space, and privilege that have shaped “transactional” interpreting.
You can find the PPT deck for their presentation here.
[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is a write-up of Kristina and Cassie’s StreetLeverage – Live 2018 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Kristina and Cassie’s original presentation directly.]
The Authenticity Gap: Race, Access, and The Transactional Model of Interpreting
I recall a particular night when Brandon and I were having a discussion about a recent impactful experience I’d had regarding race. It led me to think about my parents: Deaf immigrants from the Philippine Islands (Philippines). Then I started to think about other People of Color, (POC for short): Black, Asian, Latinx. Those who are Deaf, Deafblind, Coda, and hearing L2 signers. I started then to consider white folks who are Deaf, Deafblind, Coda, and hearing L2. In fact some of you here today have interpreted for my parents.
As I prepared for this presentation I was often asked about what our chosen topic would be. I responded that I will be discussing race and racism and the impacts that it has on the interpreting and Deaf communities. My description was often met with raised eyebrows. [laughs]. It is obvious that discussing race is hard and broaching this subject isn’t something an individual can do alone. It requires partnership, and for that reason, we stand side by side today.
That’s right. This is not work we can do in isolation. Talking about race is an uncomfortable thing to do. I remember clearly the first time I was confronted with racism- something that most of my life I had never seen or experienced. It turned my world upside down. I learned that society had fed me covert messages all my life: to be White is better, to be Black means to be pushed aside, immigrants are “less than.” Eventually, those insidious messages became indelibly marked on my worldview, incapable of being erased. Regardless of whether you are Deaf, hearing, or Coda- if you are White, you share the same lens as I. This conversation is important. If you’re in your seat now thinking to yourself that you know this already, then this message is for you- because this message is for me. It isn’t just important, it’s essential.
So! This topic is not an easy one to digest. And be forewarned, you may be offended by what we have to say. But here we go. Fasten your seatbelts and join us on this roller coaster ride!
That quote was written in the 1990s by an interpreter of color. As it so happened, a group of white interpreters had asked her to write an article about her experience as an interpreter. She agreed and closed her article with several questions for the reader. Her primary question to those who had asked for her thoughts was: why now? Do you feel you need to discuss race because it’s currently making news? Are you simply wanting to check a box as doing your duty, only to move on? We chose this quote for our slide because in conversing with a colleague of mine I asked the same question asked to Elita Harvey. I said that I wanted to start a conversation on race in interpreting and he said that was wonderful, but where have you been? Why now? The topic of race seems to bubble to the surface in our community for a short time only to be soon forgotten again. Yet, the statistics remain stagnant: our field is dominated by whiteness. The cycle perpetuates. We’ve talked for years, but real action remains to be seen.
I want to open briefly with some history, specifically Black Deaf history. I recognize I am neither Black nor Deaf. I’m not White either. I’m Filipina. I want to take a moment to acknowledge and honor all the interpreters, teachers, and researchers who do identify as Black Deaf and Black hearing who, for years, have been collecting the history of the Black Deaf community. Thank you.
In that short introduction video, you just watched I ask the question “How did we get here?” How did we get to where we are at this moment in time? As I mentioned, America for long years has segregated Whites and Blacks. Unfortunately, the American Deaf community was not immune to that dynamic.
Many of us are familiar with the year 1817 in which Clerc and Gallaudet founded MSSD, the Kendall School for the Deaf. However, at that time, only White Deaf students were allowed to attend. Black Deaf students were prohibited to attend the same school as their White peers. In the early days of the NAD, the National Association of the Deaf, membership consisted of both Black and White Deaf folks. This continued until an upset in 1925 during which Black Deaf members were excluded from that time onward.
Many of us hold Deaf Clubs dear to our hearts. They are the place to relate, support one another, and foster connection. However, when Black Deaf folks attempted to integrate those spaces during the 1950s to the 1970s they were largely turned away.
This history has had a long and lasting impact on the interpreting community as well.
We’re all familiar with the statistic: our field is 88% White and only 12% Interpreters of Color. But in recent times more has been documented. Recent research has found that interpreters of color report feeling that they don’t fit within the bounds of interpreter education programs. Deaf parented interpreters report similar feelings of ill-fittedness. The survey also reported that respondents felt their mentors didn’t embody adequate cultural awareness.
I asked the same colleague as before to name the Interpreters of Color he knew working in our local area, and although I knew a few, most I had never heard of. We are separated from one another. We’re here today because of those who came before us to have the very same conversation. We saw just yesterday how all four presenters mentioned this theme in their messages. It’s clear that something is on the horizon.
We’re here because of those who are researching this topic as well. Who here remembers Erica West-Oyedele presenting here last year at StreetLeverage? So- why are we here with the same message? Because taking in this message once is clearly not enough. Fifteen times is not enough. We need to be out in the world every day with our blinders off, observing what’s happening around us, asking ourselves hard questions, and coming to difficult realizations. We need consistent application in our daily lives to gain real change. To undergo that process successfully, we need both connection and trust.
A long time ago when I was a little girl, something had happened to my mother and she was immediately brought to the hospital. I don’t recall why; I was young at the time. Waiting there was the interpreter, a White woman. We arrived, and I remember clearly where my mother was lying. She was in bed, and there were these side rails that came up from the hospital bed. The rails were so tall I could barely see over them. Now – for those of you who have known me almost my entire life, some of you might be thinking, “Kristina, you are still short, nothing has changed.” And to that, I say, “That isn’t the point!” [Laughter]. I was on her left side, the interpreter was to her right. The interpreter was working and my mother was screaming in pain. I’m looking concerned. The interpreter then offers her hand to my mother for my mother to hold. My mother responds and says, “I wouldn’t want to crush your hand and hurt you.” The interpreter offers again and very gently says, “I really do not mind, please..” and she offers her hand and my mother says “Okay” and takes her hand. The interpreter then turns to me and says, “Kristina you also hold Mommy’s hand too ok?” And I nodded yes and held out my hand too. That interpreter stayed with us for I don’t know how long, it must’ve been several hours. She stayed patiently working, and adamantly holding my mother’s hand…until my mother’s pain subsided. At the end, my mother profusely thanked the interpreter, also hoping that she didn’t crush the interpreter’s hand. The interpreter sweetly shook her head and said, “No no pain, I am so glad to see you are better.” I never forgot that conversation between my mother and her interpreter. It stayed with me.
What is the point of me telling that story? That a White woman held the hand of a Deaf woman who was an immigrant? No. No, that isn’t the point. The point is that this interpreter knew who she was, she knew her space. That’s what those circles represent on our slide. Those circles are spaces that represent your identity, who you are. That interpreter knew who she was and she saw my mother as whole, for who she is, all the intersectionalities of her identity – she saw that.
I think that is so crucial for us as interpreters to look at ourselves and know who we are, what makes us whole, our identities, and how we move through the world. And even more important is that we look at the Deaf person that way. Look at them and the entirety of who they are and their identities and the space in which they stand. I think that is unbelievably important.
We are all whole individuals who possess a multitude of identities. We not only need to know each of those identities intimately, but more importantly, we need to accept each one. If we choose to deny or minimize an identity for whatever reason, the power of that unexamined part of us will rear its ugly head. What we resist, persists. And wouldn’t it be wise to know and examine all facets of who we are prior to our interpreting work? Then we could deliver service to the best of our ability instead of making assumptions about our team(s) and the consumer. Ideally, we would take the time to fully see those we are about to interact with and build a common understanding first. That’s exactly what open process calls us to do, as we heard about yesterday, and only with that shared space can we move forward.
Interpreting is not a 9 to 5 gig. But over the years there has been a shift in ideology. We’re starting to see the bulk of investment in our field happen in the early years of the career. We invest when we buy ASL textbooks, pay tuition for our college education and sit for our national certification exam: expenses at the end of which we are pronounced prepared to enter the field of interpreting. But Deaf people invest in interpreters continually. What do we have to offer them in return? It seems the underlying message our field has been communicating has been one valuing monetary investment rather than investment in people.
I want to take a moment to consider how we as interpreters book our work. For those of you familiar with Pamela Collins’ dissertation work on interpreter scheduling this is particularly relevant and I’m excited to read her work when it’s published in the near future.
As interpreters, we’re trained to accept work for which we are a “good match.” Being a good match may mean we identify and connect with the consumer in some way, be it our language or background, for example. Those who we don’t readily connect with become requests that we may begin to perpetually avoid. Someone like me may have the privilege of first dibs if I so chose that job, but if I pass then it turns to others to accept it or not. What’s in a good match? And if most interpreters look like me, what kind of consumer am I a good match for? These phenomena in scheduling result in consumers more similar to me consistently getting more access to interpreter services while leaving others to merely make do.
When I interpret for a Deaf POC, it’s incredible how I connect with them so comfortably. It is really a tremendous feeling. Let me ask you, how often do you think that Deaf POC feels comfortable with their interpreters? Cassie just mentioned that there are only 12% of us. We all deserve to feel we can connect comfortably. All interpreters, every single one of us, need to open our minds and our hearts in learning new things about who the Deaf person is as a whole.
We have to learn, “Oh, that’s Deaf Mexican culture? That’s great, what can I learn there? Oh, that’s Deaf Nicaraguan culture? That’s wonderful; what don’t I know yet about that culture? Deaf Korean Culture? Awesome let me learn more about that community, Deaf Filipino culture”, etc, etc. Now, walking in and learning about these cultures will undoubtedly be uncomfortable. There will be moments of: “This is awkward.” “Am I doing this right?” Definitely, you will have those moments, and that is more than okay. It’s okay.
Many of you have interpreted for my father. One side note: just so you all know, I already asked my father for permission to tell this story! Now some of you have interpreted for my father, who is Deaf and an immigrant. You may have looked at him signing trying to break down and understand what he is saying. This is not a criticism, but the truth is some interpreters find it worth their time to invest in making sure they understand my father and some don’t, and that shows.
That girl in the comic with the long hair? That used to be me, I used to have long hair, yep, and now I’ve cut it all off and I look a little different now. [Laughter]. There was a day where that experience actually happened to me. I was sitting with my team, we were chatting and I said, “Hey, so this thing happened to me last week… something awful happened where my team had made some outrageous comments that I was completely offended by. Can you believe that?” That interpreter responded and said, “Huh…really? That happened? Well, it’s never happened to me. Did that really happen?” I was taken aback by that and I wasn’t sure how to take their response. I later met with a group of interpreters and I shared the same story: that there was an interpreter last week who said something really offensive. I asked this group of interpreters if something similar had ever happened to them. They answered with resounding agreement. Now I was confused. So I proceeded to ask my Deaf mentor. I told them the same story, that something happened to me the past week and I felt belittled and insulted, and I asked their advice. They replied, “Oh, just ignore them. They didn’t mean anything by it. Ignore them.” I was left wondering if this was something I should really ignore. I wasn’t sure. I started to doubt my instincts. Then I realized something. The interpreter who said the egregious comment to me was White. The interpreter I told my story to who doubted me was White. My Deaf mentor was also White. That group of interpreters that I approached who all told me they experienced the same level of oppression as I do? They were all Interpreters of Color and Coda Interpreters of Color.
I realized that I have also noticed a very common phrase among many People of Color, and that is: “I’m tired.” Not the kind of tired where you have worked all day. No. People of Color are tired of being oppressed by the White Deaf person, their White team, their White boss — all of whom are behaving in oppressive manners. And People of Color refuse to tolerate any more of that behavior.
Does that story sound familiar?
I remember a while ago talking with a Deaf friend of mine who had gone through a horrendous experience with an interpreter; I remember supporting her in the moment and at the same time doubting the full truth of her story. I thought to myself that because she was upset that would probably lead her to embellish on the details of what she was sharing. In my doubt was oppression and audism…and those both live in me.
I couldn’t take in the truth of her story because my worldview wouldn’t allow for it. I couldn’t integrate what I couldn’t process and understand. I had not had her experience of being Deaf in the world. We need to learn how to open our lenses on the world to fully integrate the truths in the stories around us, for only then will we see the story as complete.
Why can’t we integrate stories that challenge our worldview? Part of the reason is fear-based: if we identify more with the person being criticized, we may fear that the person recounting sees us as a similar evil. We are easily distracted by wondering if we then have committed such an unjust act against someone else unknowingly. In our dizzying fear of being cast as a perpetrator, our brains shut down and disengage from the interaction before us. That disconnection means that audism- and racism- live on.
This process is not easy to navigate. It takes time, and honestly, it hurts. It just hurts. If you take this on, you’ll make an effort to change knowing every day you’re going to fail. You’ll fall, you’ll hurt someone, you’ll apologize- sincerely- and you’ll get up the next day and try again. It’s ok, we’re all still learning. But it’s time. We owe it to ourselves and to each other. We need to take the time to invest in seeing the whole picture around us. We need to see one another and connect. We know what that means, we’re here at StreetLeverage! We know how it feels to authentically connect with someone as we’re doing here at the conference. Why don’t we do that in our everyday work?
Kristina and I prepared for months to give this presentation and let me tell you, that didn’t come easily either! We had our moments of disbelief, shock, and necessary clarifications. At one point she said to me “You know, you just said that to me because you’re White.” I was floored. She called me White!
I know, it’s true, can you believe it? [Laughter].
It’s true. And even after years of self-analysis, learning, and reflection on this topic, at that moment I plunged into the very cycle of shame, defensiveness and doubt I just spoke about. I still make mistakes after everything that has passed. And…it was ok. We came back together, talked it through, and ultimately sorted it out. We reconnected stronger and better than before because we were building a relationship with trust.
So, we know that after listening to this for 20 minutes we don’t leave ready to conquer all racism in the world. Nothing is magically solved. But what we can do is start noticing and confronting what we see. Which means we need all of you.
Would you mind bringing up that quote again? (see image above)
I love, absolutely love this quote. This quote is what I live, breathe, and am completely rooted in. What pushes you to get out of bed every day? What ignites the fire within that allows you to interpret at your best? Why do you interpret? You know, my parents are famous for asking any new interpreter that they meet: I’m curious- why did you become an interpreter? Notice they didn’t ask: how did you become an interpreter, or when did you become an interpreter. They don’t ask whether or not the interpreter is certified. My parents have never asked such questions. People ask me, “So Kristina, did you become an interpreter because you have Deaf parents?” I answer and say, “No, in fact, I became an interpreter because I love the Deaf community and I love to serve.”
If you are like me, you too appreciate, care, and love to serve the diverse members of the Deaf community, Deafblind members, People of Color, White, etc. What is your “why?” Because that is what is most important.
What you see right here, the two of us up here? That took a lot of work. This trust and support toward one another have not been easy. Many People of Color, myself included, have our guard up whenever we encounter a White team. My guard was up until I actually saw Cassie discuss her White experiences and privileges. She was so open in sharing that listening to her share was, to me, incredibly brave. She was curious, always asking great questions about what I think and about my experiences. From there it flowed into having discussions about some really hard things that eventually allowed for a connection to be formed. I let my guard down once I realized we both could invest in each other, and that is beyond crucial. This discussion is important. Interpreters need to talk about it. Deaf people need this discussion. Codas need it. Deafblind folks need it too.