Two weeks ago, an article from The Limping Chicken— a Deaf news and blog site– got a lot of attention within my Facebook feed. It was about how a Deaf woman ended up sitting with a hearing Asian man on a plane and he encouraged her to get a Cochlear Implant. The woman retorted by making a racist comment. People applauded her for her quick wit and brilliant comeback. This made my stomach churn, but I wasn’t in a place where I could process it thoroughly at the time.
Today, I’m ready to talk about why this exchange was not okay. First, here’s the story, copied and pasted from the article:
“I’m here at Minneapolis Airport, a 3-hours layover.
I’ve a story to share.
On the flight from Dulles, a guy was sitting next to me. A casual wearing guy. He’s an Asian. We minded our business as I was engrossed into a “Yes Please” book by Amy Phoeler.
An excellent book, by the way.
When a stewardess came by for drinks, I mouthed ‘Sprite, no ice, please.’
The casual wearing guy ordered orange juice.
Then, he wrote something on a napkin. The note was then placed on my lap (it was strange, nevertheless).
The dialogue began:
Him: Hi, why aren’t you speaking? Use your voice.
Me: I’m deaf.
Him: Get a chochlear implant. Sad not able to hear.
Me: I’m fine with it. I’m good, thank you. (I was annoyed)
Him: You are deaf. Need cholear implant. Important. My deaf cousin have Colchester implant.
Okay. I was extremely annoyed.
Me: Do you work at a nail salon?
Him: (puzzled look) No, why do you say that?
Me: Well, not all deaf people have or get CI. So, not all Asians work at nail salons.
*silence* Then, he closed his eyes for the rest of flight.”
I saw that most of the people on my newsfeed read this through the lens of the Deaf woman. I saw only a couple of people who observed this through the lens of the Asian man. As a Deaf and Asian woman, I had the lens of both individuals involved and the ball of contempt that formed inside of me bounced both ways. That’s how I know when something isn’t right– when it makes me feel hate instead of love.
First of all, there is nothing clever about the Deaf woman using a racial stereotype as a rebuke. It’s called a stereotype for a reason; everyone knows said image of the stereotype and is quick to associate that image with a group of people. It’s a knee-jerk reaction and it requires very little thought.
It also didn’t do anything more than just make that Asian man feel as uncomfortable as that Deaf woman felt. When you fight a stereotype with another stereotype, nobody wins. I felt the pain of both stereotypes. I was reminded that there will always be people who will think it’s unfortunate that I don’t have a cochlear implant and that there will always be people who look at me and think: “I wonder if she works at a nail salon.”
Yes, that Asian man was so clearly coming from a place of utter ignorance and while I completely understand how that can be frustrating and dehumanizing, his audist behavior still didn’t give the Deaf woman a pass to be racist.
He hurt her, so she hurt him back. And what was gained from that experience? Did either of them spend the time on their flights trying to understand where the other came from? I highly doubt that. It’s likely that they both sat in their seats next to each other, fuming about how their own identity was perceived by outsiders of a superior status (hearing people for the Deaf woman and white people for the Asian man).
That must have been one miserable flight for both of them, but it didn’t have to be. It’s a tragedy that the Deaf woman had a life full of firsthand experiences as a Deaf person that the Asian man knew nothing about and he walked off that plane still knowing nothing about them.
If she had told him that she had a community of Deaf people where she belonged, where she could use her natural language freely, where she was surrounded by people who shared her identity and culture… do you think it would have made a difference in how that exchange went? I do.
If she had asked him about his Deaf cousin with the cochlear implant, asked him if the cousin was really able to participate in group discussions, asked him if he felt he could communicate with the cousin equally as much as he could with other family members… do you think it would have made him think harder? I do.
If she had encouraged him to learn more about the Deaf community, encouraged him to learn sign language, encouraged him to talk with his cousin about what it’s like being Deaf… do you think it would have made a positive impact on him? I do.
Yes, it takes time and energy to come up with a thoughtful approach.
No, it’s not easy biting our tongue when someone makes a painful assumption about our culture and who we are.
Yes, it’s okay to not feel up for educating ignorant people.
No, it’s not okay to fight an -ism with another -ism.
We did not grow up in a culture that promotes the type of thoughtful approach that really focuses on the issue at hand instead of just sinking to the other person’s level and hurting them back. But we can start now. And I think we should.
Edit: One thing I didn’t originally mention in this blog post that I think is worth addressing is the type of response that would be appropriate when we don’t feel like having a conversation to educate someone. What I would suggest is simply to say, “Please educate yourself about Deaf culture before making that kind of comment again.”
It’s okay to be snarky, but it’s not okay to be racist.
Writing Prompt 10/30: Talk about a controversial situation.