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Erosion of Trust: Sign Language Interpreters and Hearing Privilege

The lack of trust between the Deaf community and hearing interpreters is rooted in privilege. Examination of our own privilege is difficult but necessary work if we hope to address the impacts of that privilege on the community we exist to serve.

Recent events have shone the spotlight on the deep rift and lack of trust between the Deaf community and hearing sign language interpreters. This lack of trust is not new and the actions of the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf are not the sole source of this mistrust. Hearing interpreters must look at ourselves and our own behaviors to recognize that we are perpetrating our own peculiar brand of hearing privilege in our daily interactions with the Deaf community we exist to serve. Aside from obvious and egregious ethical breaches, we are often oblivious to our own hearing interpreter privilege.  

[View post in ASL]

Confronting Our Own Privilege

A common reaction when confronting our own privilege is to deny that we have it or that we have ever behaved in a way that capitalizes on or perpetuates this privilege. We may acknowledge the existence of privilege while denying our participation in it or that we benefit from it. Michael Eric Dyson has written a book called, Tears We Cannot Stop (Dyson, 2017) as a sermon to white people on white privilege. In a section of the book called, “The Plague of White Innocence,” he writes, “…in my insistence on holding you accountable for privilege, for tiny but terrifying aggressions, for condescension, for any of the everyday racial slights that reinforce white supremacy, I have invoked again your sense of guilt.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 102-103) Now, let’s think about this in terms of Deaf people and hearing interpreters and the “tiny but terrifying aggressions” we may perpetrate against Deaf people. When Deaf people raise issues of hearing privilege, do we exempt ourselves? Can we acknowledge the unique form of our hearing interpreter privilege?

I have been asked by Deaf consumers, “Why don’t interpreters hold each other accountable?” When we engage in polite indifference and look the other way at behavior damaging to the Deaf community, we are perpetuating interpreter privilege. We, as part of the collective community of interpreters, all too often close ranks against the Deaf community as an act of self-preservation based on privilege. So I ask you, my colleagues, why don’t we hold each other accountable?

Recognizing Power Dynamics

I’ve been told by hearing interpreters that Deaf consumers need to speak out when they experience inadequate skills or ethical abuses by interpreters. In a perfect world, this is exactly what should happen, however, it ignores the power dynamics involved. Deaf people risk a great deal in speaking out about hearing interpreters who fail to provide adequate services. They risk being labeled as ‘difficult’ by the interpreting community, making it harder to find interpreters to work with them. In spite of ethical prohibitions against divulging assignment related knowledge, it happens widely in the interpreting community under the guise of ‘information sharing.’ We justify this kind of sharing as a way to support other interpreters in making better decisions about what jobs to accept, but at what cost to the consumers who have been deemed less desirable to work with? Again, we close ranks on the community we purport to serve and employ our privileged status to do so.

Consider these additional words from Dyson, through the frame of power dynamics between interpreters and Deaf people, “We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 96). How many of us, working, paid, professional interpreters, expect a big dose of gratitude from the Deaf consumers we work with? How many of us demand positive feedback, claiming openness and the desire to improve, and then feel aggrieved should the consumer dare to share honest feedback with us? Consider the position we put Deaf people in when we ask them for feedback. Now, in addition to trying to glean the meaning of the message through the imperfect filter we are, the consumer is also expected to be observing and noting patterns in our work, errors in sign formation, sloppy fingerspelling and erratic use of space. Is it fair to make such a request of someone who is trying to benefit from a class or a conference or a meeting at work or a medical appointment? Suppose the consumer is willing to go along with the interpreter’s request to subjugate meaning in order to observe interpreting patterns, what does s/he risk in offering honest feedback?

Look again at Dyson’s words, “We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 96). Denying we have power does not lessen the power we have. Interpreter privilege allows us to put Deaf people in these risky positions.

The Practice of Allyship

We hearing interpreters don’t get to decide for ourselves that Deaf people can and should trust us. Trust must be earned in each encounter and we must be meticulously trustworthy in order to earn it. Over the years, I have worked with a number of hearing sign language interpreters who expect a personal relationship with the Deaf consumer from the first moment they meet. They insist on an emotional connection with someone who, in any other context would be a total stranger. In effect, they expect and demand that the Deaf person trust them on sight because they have deemed themselves as trustworthy or a friend of the Deaf community or an ‘ally.’  In her article “No More Allies,” Mia McKenzie writes,

’Ally’ cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you—or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day(McKenzie, 2013).

The assumptions and expectations that Deaf consumers must trust us and befriend us immediately because we see ourselves as trustworthy and demonstrating ‘Deaf heart’  reflect unearned privilege on the part of the interpreter.

We must re-earn and reaffirm that trust every day in every encounter with each Deaf consumer. It requires a lot of effort, but as Mia McKenzie says later in her article, “Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Sounds exhausting. Well, yeah, it ought to be. Because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their ‘allies’ be?” (McKenzie, 2013). Add “audism” to that list and it applies directly to our work.

How Do We Start?

Addressing the deep lack of trust between hearing interpreters and the Deaf community requires us to listen deeply to the marginalized community we are privileged to enter on a daily basis. Learning about privilege in other contexts and training that lens on our interactions with the Deaf community, we can support each other in confronting hearing interpreter privilege in order to raise the level of accountability of the entire field. Listening to Deaf people without being defensive, apologizing when called for, taking responsibility for our actions, and learning from mistakes will go far to rebuild the delicate trust necessary for hearing interpreters to work effectively with the Deaf community.

Final Thoughts

Looking at privilege is an extremely uncomfortable journey. It takes us to places that can feel shameful and painful. But it is also an opportunity to look beneath the surface of how things have always been and begin to build a better, more equitable way of being in the world. Interpreters are in a unique position, as sojourners among the Deaf community, knowledgeable about the language and culture of this historically oppressed community. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to examine our privilege and alter our thinking and our actions to truly ally ourselves with the Deaf community.

Questions for Consideration

  1. By virtue of being interpreters, sojourners in an oppressed language community, how are we perpetuating our own peculiar brand of interpreter privilege?  
  2. What kinds of “tiny but terrifying aggressions” towards Deaf consumers have you witnessed/engaged in while working as an interpreter?
  3. How can hearing interpreters best support each other in coming to terms with the fact of our privilege in the context of our daily work?

References

Dyson, M.E. (2017) Tears We Cannot Stop. New York City: St Martin’s Press.

McKenzie, Mia (2006). No More ‘Allies’. Black Girl Dangerous. Retrieved from http://www.blackgirldangerous.com/2013/09/no-more-allies/

 

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StreetLeverage: The 2015 Posts that Moved Us

Best of StreetLeverage 2015

 

As a way to welcome 2016, we handpicked 10 posts that inspired reflection, demonstrated courageous thinking, or generated spirited conversation. It is our guess that you were moved by some of these 2015 gems as well. If you missed one, take a moment to enjoy the goodness. * Posts not listed in any particular order.

1.  Sign Language Interpreters and the “F” Word

Sign Language Interpreters and the 'F' Word

One Headline We Wish We had Created Ourselves

Provocative headline aside, Jackie Emmart brings forward the art of asking for and receiving feedback. While the jury is still out on whether “feedback” is a four-letter word or not, it’s a topic that isn’t going away.

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2. Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power

 Polite Indifference

A Personal Story that Resonated

Michele Vincent’s willingness to open up about a work experience gone sideways in order to share her own journey of self-discovery and shine a light on an important issue had staying power for many.

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3. Missing Narratives in Interpreter Education

Erica West Oyedele at StreetLeverage - X

A Post We Thought Worthy of Even More Attention

Looking back in our history and comparing the statistics shared in Erica West Oyedele’s StreetLeverage – X presentation, not much has changed in the demographics of the profession. Hopefully, as we extend our vision and open our hearts to truly understand, we can invite and support interpreters from underrepresented groups which, in turn, supports the Deaf community in all its diversity.

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4.  Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

A Positive Outlook on VRS Interpreting

While not as uncommon as one might think, it was refreshing to read a post about VRS that displayed some of the positive aspects of interpreting in video relay. Judi Webb’s long-term experience as a video interpreter shows that longevity in VRS is possible with the right attitude and practice.

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5. Do Sign Language Interpreter “Accents” Compromise Comprehension?

Carol Padden

A Post that Made Me Conscious of My “Accent” In a Good Way

Carol Padden’s StreetLeverage – Live presentation on sign language interpreter accent will likely resonate for many readers, particularly non-native second language learners. Rather than perpetuating signing errors and disfluent language use, this is an opportunity for interpreters to reflect on their own accent and how they might remedy some of the issues with a little concentrated effort.

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6.  Self-Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression

Stacey Storme - StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Talk

I Wanted to Call the Presenter So We Could Have Coffee and Talk

Powerfully, Stacey Storme reminds sign language interpreters that while the situations we enter into as interpreters have nothing to do with us, “Our work has everything to do with us.” The interpreter is the third context in an interpreted communication and it behooves us never to forget that fact.

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7.  Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

The Most Popular Post This Year

Clearly, many sign language interpreters have had negative experiences with colleagues which could fall into categories like bullying, harassment or intimidation. Kate Block explores how reflective practice might positively impact the interpreting field. It appears that people agree.

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8.  Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Eileen Forestal - StreetLeverage - Live 2014

A New Paradigm Emerging for Hearing Interpreters

Eileen Forestal’s StreetLeverage – Live presentation explores the dissonance many hearing interpreters feel about working with Deaf Interpreters and encourages practitioners to come to the table open to the possibility that both groups have something to offer as professionals.

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9.  10 Lessons from my First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

10 Lessons From My First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

There is Encouragement and Positivity in the Field of Interpreting Today

Brittany Quickel’s 10 lessons illustrate the power of self-determination and positivity. Sign language interpreters everywhere can benefit from these simple, but sage, tips.

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10.  National Treasure

Patrick Graybill - StreetLeverage National Treasure 2015

Those Who Inspire

While this wasn’t a post, our 2015 list of goodness would not be complete without one important addition. StreetLeverage was proud to honor Patrick Graybill at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 as the first StreetLeverage – National Treasure honoree.

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Our Hope

Join us for another year of discovery, vulnerability, and meaningful conversation. We look forward to the magic of the journey that will be 2016.

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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/