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Is Diversity a Mask for Tokenism in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting?

Is Diversity a Mask for Tokenism in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting?

True diversity is needed in the field of sign language interpreting rather than creating an “other” group of interpreters. Avoiding tokenism and approaching diversity with the goal of equality are the first steps to breaking through.

As I sit down to write this article, I am struck by the notion that while I want to bring an important theme to the fore, I am unsure of how the topic will be received. I constantly broach subjects of race and how it plays out in the field of sign language interpreting, and frequently battle the thought that I’m somehow negatively labeling myself as a running ad. But as the world’s landscape continues to shift and change, so does our professional one, and by extension, so does its discourse. This shifting tide is not unique to the interpreting sphere, rather, we see it across all disciplines. This past year I’ve experienced it to an exponential degree and my experiences are the basis for this article. To what am I referring?

[View post in ASL]

Who doesn’t enjoy being chosen for a specific job? It’s a nod to our professional prowess. It is an indication of our occupational aptitude. Basically, it makes us feel good. We trust that it means the requestor believes we are qualified and capable of handling the task, and those are the reasons for which we have been requested. But sometimes, as it goes for Interpreters of Color, there’s an additional rationale behind the special request. It can lead us to beg the internal question: are we being tokenized or is this just growth toward diversity playing out?

You Say Tokenism, I Say Diversity

Is there really a difference between the two terms? Or is it just a matter of perspective?  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly”. I know reading this definition off-hand leaves an unfavorable taste. It screams negativity and is not always indicative of every attempt to diversify. But now, let’s look at the definition of diversity, “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color,” etc. Is there a difference? Absolutely. There lies a nuanced, but clear distinction between the two. Although it would be best illustrated in visual form, in “token” situations there is an invitation for someone of a “minority” (in representation) to join a majority. This may be to suit a specific need or purpose, and in other instances, it can be a step towards creating diversity. The issue of tokenism can start to arise when that one individual becomes the sole representation of “diversity” by means of their presence. On the other hand, true diversity, by its very definition, is inclusive and is seen when there is more than one group represented at all times.  

Micro Meso Macro

How can this play out in the field of sign language interpreting? Let us consider an example. You’ve been pursued for a high-profile assignment to work with a specific client. You wonder why since there is a regular team in place and has been for quite some time. However, last minute, the team realizes that this client will be speaking to an audience comprised predominantly, if not solely, of your race. You get a call at the eleventh hour to see if you can cover this assignment. Off the top, it doesn’t sound bad at all. It looks like a genuine attempt to create a culturally responsive match. Here is where we see tokenism start to rear its ugly head, disguising itself behind the mask of diversity. The team nor the client, prior to this request, had given concerted thought to the need of diversifying the team, which led to a ‘hunt’ for a racial replica in a crunch. Ultimately it results in a ‘skin match’. This is something Ph.D. candidate, Pam Collins, addresses in her dissertation entitled, “The Social Organization of ASL-English Interpreters: An Institutional Ethnographic Exploration of Getting Scheduled.” She sheds light on “the lack of understanding demonstrated in scheduling practices and the efficacy of scheduling in providing access to clients.”  While I respect the reasons for seeking, in this case, an interpreter of color, had the team in my example (sign language interpreters, institution, client, etc.) developed a cohort of qualified, diverse interpreters at the onset, they would have had the established versatility in place to meet a variety of needs.

Another example is when sign language interpreters are solely hired and/or requested for events during a particular time of the year, i.e., the month of February. But isn’t that just cultural common sense? Unquestionably. The due diligence in making sure to use the right sign language interpreter in the right situation, when possible, is not just cultural common sense, it is professional common sense. However, the word “solely” is italicized for a reason. The tokenism comes into play when we notice we are only employing those specific interpreters of color during a specific time of year, for a specific event, for a specific audience, or for a specific speaker. If an agency has qualified Interpreters of Color on their roster but chooses only to employ them when they feel it “culturally appropriate,” they are tokenizing the individual, proverbially boxing them into a limited range of competency confined exclusively to their race. This is where we see the issue come from under the microscope and elevated to a more macro, systemic level, where there is something inherently faulty in the professional practice.

In the first example, the team did consider the race of the sign language interpreter and assumed that would create the cultural adhesive, however, this was precisely the part which was not weighed. While the sign language interpreter indeed shared a common race with the audience, that was all they shared, because they were of two different ethnicities. What had not been taken into consideration was the interpreter’s knowledge base, their skill in handling the topic of discussion, or their familiarity with this particular ethnic group. Interpreters of Color are often recruited more based on cultural expectations and less by their lived experiences.

It is easy for us to fall into the loose-fitting narrative of, “isn’t something better than nothing?”’ Unfortunately, at times, we do have to ride the symbolism of this mantra to make sure accessible services are being provided. But to comfortably sink into the cushion of that lyric in lieu of exercising reasonable care in this context would be to perpetuate a pattern that is flawed in its approach towards enhancing the professional norm.

A Losing battle?

It is not about filling every request. We know our numbers are small. The precarious fragility of the field’s disproportionate dynamic is not lost on those who frequently confront the topic. Active steps are being taken to analyze how we can change this rhetoric to grow the qualified pool of Interpreters of Color. It is more about gauging our behavior, analyzing it, and earnestly working to adjust the lens through which we have become accustomed to viewing this subject.

Although being token in any situation is never a sought-after goal of any member of a group smaller in representation, we do understand at times the necessity of wearing the cloak. There exist moments in which we feel token, in which we are token, but also recognize we are better suited for the request. It can be a dubious inner war to battle, frequently unsure if we are being asked because of our skill and professionalism, or for the tone of our skin. This uncertainty is further eternalized by the infrequency in which we are recruited for non-race related solicitations.

Checks and Balances

Most tokenization is done unintentionally but when left unchecked, becomes a cyclical norm. We have to progressively work to fight against deficient practices. It can be very easy to ride the societal reclamation wave for social justice, however, the key is in not letting that revolutionary fervor crest and crash. Tokenism does the very opposite of boost morale. It breeds mistrust, skepticism, and feelings of inequity. I can’t prescribe a panacea, but there is a treatment plan. These conversations are frequently had in small circles but rarely brought to the general masses. Often there is a desire to make moves, but our hesitancy usually stems from not knowing where to start. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Approach a trusted colleague and utilize this post as a reference to open the discussion.
  • Openly and honestly analyze your business practices.
    • Do you actively participate in discussions or events which grow your understanding of this topic and the repercussive effects it has on certain groups in our field?
    • Do you sincerely tap into the skill set of your underrepresented POC employees, whether staff or contractor?
    • Can you capitalize on the experience of seasoned Interpreters of Color to perhaps create mentorship opportunities that will directly grow the ability and faculty of less seasoned ones?
    • Are you willing to grant the same privilege of maturation and development access by way of diverse teamwork?

“Tokenism does not change stereotypes of social systems but works to preserve them, since it dulls the revolutionary impulse.” – Mary Daly. This quote eloquently summarizes the overdue need for a paradigm shift in order to challenge the status quo. There is a strong tendency to be reactive instead of proactive, however, we need to make room for growth by laying a foundation we can build upon. Once we start building, we won’t have to “hunt” and “catch,” we’ll just have to ask.

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Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

Sign language interpreters bring a variety of personal and professional experiences to the field. Sherry Smith explores the unique challenges and contributions of interpreters of color.

At times we may question whether our peers value what we bring to the sign language interpreting profession. Regardless of our confidence level about what we bring, I believe we would likely agree that it is a diversity of backgrounds that makes the tapestry of the sign language interpreting profession so beautiful.

On my road to becoming a sign language interpreter, I, like you, have had my share of unique challenges, and struggles. You see, my race and my beliefs position me in the minority. This has brought along challenges that I have had to overcome.

Where We Come From

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago with gangs, drugs, crime, and the fast pace of city life was not easy. It taught me to speak up for myself, not to be intimidated, and not to be afraid to travel alone. These lessons helped me have the courage to explain my beliefs at an early age and why I would not join certain events or activities.

As a young person, I devoted a lot of time each month to a volunteer ministry in my community. My volunteer work helped me keep a positive attitude amidst the struggles of living in a difficult environment.

Volunteering and learning from trials since childhood has helped my work as a sign language interpreter. As a result of these experiences, I am better equipped to advocate for appropriate assignment conditions for my consumers and for myself. I have also been able to help Deaf friends and consumers see the need to advocate for themselves.

Adapting to New Environments

As a person regularly in the minority, I have learned to adapt to environments very different from the ones I grew up in. For instance, working from time to time in different educational settings, I have learned that struggles may vary from city to city or town to town. One thing remains the same in that Deaf students need and deserve proper interpreting services. Whether I work in an inner city school, or a small neighborhood school, as an interpreter, I must overcome myself and deliver the services my consumers need.

We Want to Relate

Sometimes, when among other sign language interpreters, I have felt my race and background have prevented me from “fitting in.” There was a time when I preferred to accept assignments that allowed me to work around other interpreters of color. The ability to relate to their struggle gave me a similar feeling to being back in the environment I grew up in. I have learned through the years though, that even if my background is different, I can still learn and benefit from the experiences of others. Furthermore, they can benefit from my experiences as well.

A Struggle is a Struggle

I recently had the privilege of teaming with an interpreter whose race and background is quite different from mine. We were able to support each other in our work and in our ethical responsibilities. We discussed the various struggles we have each been through and even though they are different, a struggle is still a struggle. Hearing how she was able to overcome her struggles encouraged me. I realize that regardless of our skin tone, where we grew up, or our convictions, we may all have felt like we were in the minority at certain points in our sign language interpreting journey.

We should never assume that someone won’t be able to relate to us just because their skin tone is different. We likely have more in common than we realize.

Recognizing One’s Limitations

Through the years, I have had to recognize and accept my own limitations. Personal experiences, tragedies, morals, and beliefs have influenced my choice of interpreting assignments. Regardless of our skills, training, or experience, we must know and respect these personal limitations.

An example of a tragedy I have had to overcome is the murder of a childhood friend. I found myself tensing up in certain environments while on the job. During an interpreting assignment, I even had a flashback of sad memories because of a topic that reminded me of this tragedy. I have had to learn to avoid certain assignments as they sometimes prove too emotionally taxing for me.

Find Advice

The advice of others has helped me to cope with my limitations. At one point, I was living in an area where I felt isolated from other interpreters of color. I also felt misjudged because of my beliefs. In signing up to work with a local agency, one of the owners made an unprofessional comment to me because of my religion. In fact, on my initial interview, one of the owners brought up religion and wanted to know what my faith was. As a result of feeling uncomfortable working with that agency, I would drive to the closest big city to work around other interpreters of color. Clearly, this decision only held me back from working closer to my home. Not to mention that I was overextending myself.

During this difficult period, I received pointed advice from a sign language interpreter who did not know me well. We had a brief conversation in which her advice helped me to realize that I should not limit myself unnecessarily. I have since learned to overcome hurt feelings. There may be times when unprofessional comments are made. I should not allow them to hold me back from success.

Benefiting from Differences

Even though my background is different from many sign language interpreters, I have learned that my background can provide a benefit to them. As sign language interpreters, we benefit the profession when we encourage one another with candid expressions of how we have succeeded in spite of our trials and challenges.

We may at times feel uncomfortable as a result of our inability to directly relate to a person or environment. During these moments, we must have the confidence to believe our experience is worthy of contribution. After all, it is our personal trials that make us who we are.

In an eBook I have written, Diary of a Happy Black Sign Language Interpreter, I share with my readers embarrassing moments, hard times, and times of success. I hope it can be a benefit to all of you and leave you with a positive feeling inside.

An excerpt from Chapter 5 is offered for your enjoyment below:

V.  Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda….How About Now?

No one can change the past. What we do with our past experiences can be very helpful though! Consider my certification journey.  For a while, I became sullen and unmotivated about pursuing my National Interpreter Certification. I passed my NIC written exam in the winter of 2007. Before I relocated to Texas, I rushed to take the performance test. Big mistake! I was not ready and I failed.

Remember that video relay company? Less than two years after my first experience with them, I decided to reapply but not at the same center. I wanted to relocate to a warmer area of the United States for a while. I applied and flew down for an interview in Texas. I did not want to tell the director in Texas of my past experience with the company, but I realized that as soon as they looked up my social security number, they would see that I was a past employee.

I opened up and told of my past experience with the company. The director proceeded to evaluate me again. After watching me evaluate, he said that he did not know what to do with me. He expressed that he couldn’t believe I traveled there for that. I remember thinking that I hope that was a compliment! It was! He proceeded to tell me that he didn’t know if he should hire me into the special training program again, or just hire me directly as a Video Relay Interpreter. He spoke to other directors, and in a short time, I had my answer! I was officially hired as a VRI!

You can find the book and author spotlight here.