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Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power

Polite Indifference

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.

[Click to view post in ASL]

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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Missing Narratives in Interpreting and Interpreter Education

Erica West Oyedele at StreetLeverage - X

Erica West Oyedele presented Missing Narratives in Interpreting and Interpreter Education at StreetLeverage – X | RID Conference 2015.  Her presentation explores the lack of diversity within the predominantly White, female field of sign language interpreting and provides a call to action for potential allies.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English rendition of Erica’s talk from StreetLeverage – X | RID Conference 2015.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Erica’s talk directly.]

Missing Narratives in Interpreting and Interpreter Education

Thank you, StreetLeverage, for giving me the opportunity to be here with all of you. This presentation is based on the research I conducted during graduate school that looked into the experiences of African American/Black interpreters, and took into consideration African American/Black Deaf consumers and their experiences with interpreting services. However, my comments today are not just for them. Rather, they are for all of you. Additionally, it is important for me to thank all of the interpreters of color and all of the Deaf people of color who participated in my research study.

Today I want to talk with you about the narratives that I believe are missing from the field of interpreting and interpreter education. Initially, I planned to show a slide that included the demographics of the field of interpreting. Two days ago, I changed that slide because every day this week there has been a presentation that has shown us the demographics of the RID membership. Hopefully, you’ve paid attention as those numbers have been presented. If you were paying attention to the statistics, then you know that approximately 88% of the RID membership is made up of White interpreters. Therefore, the remaining 12% of RID’s membership are interpreters of color. This slide is a representation of our 12%.

ITOC forum 2015
Photo by Bill Millios

If you attended the ITOC (Interpreters and Transliterators of Color) Member Section forum, then you also would have seen as a part of the presentation a slideshow of various interpreters of color. We make up a diverse population. We are from a wide range of backgrounds. We are hearing, Deaf, straight, gay, lesbian, Codas, and so much more. For interpreters of color in our organization there is a wealth of diversity beyond race.

As I mentioned, we’ve already seen the numbers presented to us throughout the conference so that will not be the focus of this presentation. To be quite honest, for those of you who have seen those numbers presented (88% White interpreters and 12% interpreters of color) and responded with surprise, I ask, why? I can tell you that these numbers are of no surprise to the 12% of interpreters of color within RID. The numbers have been the same for many years! Of course there is some small fluctuation in these numbers from year to year, but the percentages have been consistent. So instead of talking again about the numbers, let’s talk about the impact of these numbers. The impact to interpreters of color, consumers of color, and the impact to all of you, our White allies. You notice that it is my hope that you will become our allies.

True Story

I want to begin with a story. This story comes from one interpreter who participated in my research study. I have to warn you that this story contains language that will be uncomfortable for you and that’s okay! When you start to notice your own discomfort, breathe in, and then analyze the source of your discomfort. Then we’ll discuss some more.

 

True Story - Erica West Oyedele Presentation at StreetLeverage - XOne of the reasons we are challenged to engage in these types of discussions is because of the fear we hold around this type of topic. I want to let you know that the fear I am referring to extends to me too. Again, that is normal. Right now, my fear has to do with how I will be perceived by my colleagues as a hearing interpreter of color, who has just been sworn in to the RID board. All of those thoughts I recognize right now are a part of who I am. Furthermore, this topic is not easy, yet it is easy for me to become a target when bringing forward this type of discussion. I’ve made the decision that the discussion is important enough that it needs to be addressed.

When you read this story, I want you to recognize that this is the experience of interpreters of color. Although this particular story took place after the interpreter had completed their work, we have to acknowledge that interpreters of color confront systems of oppression before, after, and during their work. What is most unfortunate is that while they are working they often face this discrimination from consumers and colleagues alike. That is the impact of the numbers we have seen but that we have failed to discuss. Perhaps if we have these candid discussions we might come to a place where we would see the number of interpreters of color rise.

When I look at this story, I also recognize the interpreter’s emotional response. Again, it is a normal emotional response, yet I am personally often aware of not wanting to be labeled as the angry (fill in the blank) person: the angry Black person, Deaf person…the angry something! But if we look at what happened, you notice that the interpreter experienced a range of emotions that included confusion and fear, in addition to anger. This is because having to confront systems of oppression becomes an additional demand for interpreters of color. When I speak of demands I am referring to the Demand-Control Schema as presented by Dean and Pollard. Taking into consideration their theory, I think it’s fair to say that interpreters of color have additional demands they have to confront when they go to work. Why isn’t this discussion taking place in interpreter education programs and in workshops in our field? If we truly want to see an increase in the number (or percentage)  of interpreters of color, we need to consider what doable actions we might take to acknowledge this reality in our field.

Why Should You Care?

My aim is not for you to read this story and then leave here today feeling sorry for interpreters of color. We don’t want your pity. We want action. Because these stories are not shared in workshops, and because these stories are not shared in interpreter education programs, interpreters of color are not being prepared for the field of interpreting that they will actually face. It also means that the 88% of White interpreters are not learning how to become allies.

Impacts of Power and Privilege

Colleagues

Are interpreters of color really being prepared for the field of interpreting? Are White interpreters prepared to work with us as allies? I don’t know. I think we would be more prepared if we figured out ways to work together. We have to acknowledge the impacts of power, privilege and oppression within this field. The number of African American/Black study participants in my research was 116. 72% shared that they experienced overt acts of discrimination and oppression while they were working. I am no longer talking about before or after work. The majority of Black interpreters experienced oppression from consumers and colleagues at some point while they were working.

Consumers

Participants in the Black Deaf focus group that I conducted also shared their concerns regarding the field of interpreting. We have long discussed in this field the relationship between language and culture. We have acknowledged that for a complete understanding of language to be present, we must first understand the underlying influences of culture. This is not a new discussion for us. Yet, most of the Black Deaf participants in my focus group felt that interpreters did not have an understanding of their culture. Let’s consider what that means for consumers of color. It means they are working overtime to assimilate to the needs of interpreters, instead of interpreters working to accommodate their needs. Interestingly, for the Black Deaf focus group in particular, they overwhelmingly shared that they felt a sense of relief when they had access to interpreters of color. They felt understood.  They perceived interpreters of color to be both linguistically and culturally competent. I of course followed up by asking how often they had access to interpreters of color. Every Black Deaf focus group participant said that it was rare for them to have access to interpreters of color.

Mentors/Educators

For those of you who are mentors or educators in this field, the majority of interpreters in my study (around 63%) felt that their mentors and educators were ineffective when it came to discussing multicultural issues or addressing issues of cultural competency. 86 of the participants who were in my study completed a formal interpreter education program. So again, 63% to 64% felt that their instructors were ineffective at addressing issues of multiculturalism or cultural competency. An additional 14% stated that they could not respond to my question because there was no discussion of multiculturalism or cultural competency in their programs at all. Frequently, research participants shared that when discussions of multiculturalism or cultural competency took place, those discussions were limited to Deaf and hearing cultures only. They addressed a Deaf-hearing binary that oversimplifies the two cultural groups, because we know that Deaf and hearing individuals come from a multitude of diverse backgrounds. People of color can be trilingual interpreters, they can be Codas, etc. They have a whole host of identities beyond being hearing or Deaf that impact who they are. That is intersectionality. So when we are not discussing culture beyond the Deaf and hearing binary, we are marginalizing the communities that we serve, we are dismissing who they are, and we are not doing good work.

What Can You Do?

So, perhaps we can’t stop situations like the one I shared with you at the beginning of this talk with the interpreter of color who was innocently walking to her car and confronted discrimination. There is no expectation that we will change the system overnight. But we can start with ourselves. We can start at home!

Allyship Skills

This message is for all of you, the 88%. Develop your allyship skills. Often we use the word ally as a badge, as though it is who we are. I mentioned briefly during the community forum a few nights back a range of different skillsets for allies. On one side, we have avoidance. That’s a skill. You can see oppression happening around you and choose to do nothing. On the other side, we have allyship, which means actively doing anti-oppression work.

Build Cultural Competence

Develop your cultural competence. I realize many people don’t know what that means. I’ve seen many different frameworks that help to describe cultural competency. I have not included that information in this presentation for the sake of time but if you contact me, I am happy to share resources with you. The point is, if you are working with interpreters of color, think about how you are going to connect those interpreters with communities of color. If you are an educator and you are working with interpreters of color, what types of resources are you utilizing in your interpreting program? There are resources out there for you. Are you utilizing the NMIP (National Multicultural Interpreter Project) curriculum to supplement your instruction and as a part of your mentoring resources?  

The NCIEC (National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers) recently released their social justice module for infusion within interpreter preparation programs. Are you incorporating those messages into your curriculum? When you require students to read articles or books, who are the authors? When you invite people of color to come to your classes and workshops to present, do you invite them to discuss race only or do you invite them to talk about the whole of their experiences and who they are? When you extend invitations to people of color, and you only ask them to talk about race, that looks like tokenism to me.

Invest in Social Capital

My closing comment is this.  Invest in social capital for interpreters of color. In short, social capital is a term used to describe the quality of relationships people have within a particular group. If you have good, strong, relationships, and you have a large network within your community to interact with, then your social capital is strong. However, if your relationship ties are weak or your network is small, then your social capital is weak. So in your interpreting programs and in the workshops you teach, when you name RID or NAD, make sure you also name NAOBI, name Mano a Mano, name NBDA, name the Asian Deaf Congress, and the many other organizations of color that are out there. Connect interpreters of color with organizations and communities of color, and while you’re at it, check these organizations out for yourself, too. That is a way for you, the 88%, to partner with us.

Thank you.