Don’t you love when totally different aspects of your life, for one shining moment, overlap and you see a connection? This happened to me recently. I wrote and published a book review of Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, an African American. The author is most famous for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was also an anthropologist studying under Franz Boas. He helped change anthropology when he and his protegees looked at cultures and didn’t rank them as superior or inferior to Western culture, nor did he believe race is biological. In order to write Tell My Horse, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to immerse herself in the culture and learn about Voodoo as an anthropologist.
In the comments of my post about Tell My Horse my readers and I volleyed back and forth, asking if it’s possible to really know or understand another culture. If culture is a “way of being,” can we understand alternate ways of being? Did Hurston truly see Voodoo culture at its purest, or did the Haitians and Jamaicans leave parts out, misinform the American, or even lie to misdirect her? Simply by examining a culture as an outsider, we change the results of our research. In fact, Hurston finds herself comparing Haitian and Jamaican culture to America.
How does this tie to ASL? Much of my interpreting homework lately has been studying Deaf culture. Not only what is the “way of being” for Deaf people, but a host of factors. Is the Deaf person African American, Asian American, Latino/Hispanic, or from an Indigenous culture? Though my textbook* has not (yet?) covered the Deaf LGBTQ community, there are many ways a person’s culture shifts.
So, connecting back to Tell My Horse, I’m wondering in what ways Deaf culture appears to me as I interact with the Deaf community vs. what the members are like when hearing people are not around. To my knowledge, the key factors are to learn about a culture before engaging with it to avoid embarrassing faux pas, be respectful and defer to the Deaf person, and always be mindful of the privileges I have that create an unfair power dynamic.
Have you studied culture? What is your culture?
*So You Want to Be An Interpreter? An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting for Deaf and Hearing Students to Become Professional Practitions, 5th edition, by Janice H. Humphrey, William F. Ross III, LeWana M. Clark, and Joseph Featherstone. 2020.