Something I have been extremely fortunate to be able to do is learn American Sign Language (ASL). I have been taking classes at the junior college, and while I am not fluent, I am certainly proficient. Learning ASL is more than just learning the signs and how to put them together. A key part of sign language education is learning about Deaf Culture. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to use Merriam-Webster’s definition of culture as “ the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.” Deaf culture includes adaptive behavior that enables a Deaf person’s success in life. For example, if a hearing person is late to a class made up primarily of other hearing people, the late student would be expected to come in as quietly as possible and take their seat without disturbing anyone. A class made up primarily of Deaf people, or one which follows Deaf culture like an ASL class, would be very different. The class would stop and acknowledge the late student. He or she would be expected to share what was going on, and why they were late. If there were a traffic problem, the student would detail where, how bad, the reason, you get the idea. This is because a Deaf person can’t overhear information. They won’t hear it on the radio when they get in the car to leave. Sharing information is a high priority in Deaf culture. To an outsider, it may look rude to disrupt a whole class. But to the members of that culture, it’s not only tolerated, it’s expected!
Our society has a very definite dominant culture and many minority subcultures. There are more divisions than I could possibly try to name, but the ones that seem to get discussed the most are race and sexual orientation.
It concerns me when I hear members of the dominant culture belittling members of a minority culture as a whole, or a specific trait. If someone is going the claim that every member of a subculture behaves a certain way, I want some hard evidence. When we paint a group of people with a broad brush, we’ve crossed a line. Instead of arguing directly with someone about whether a group does in fact conform to a given stereotype, I like to ask, “why do you think that is?” I know I’m very likely not going to change anyone’s mind any more that they’re going to change mine. But people behave the way they do for a reason. In my example from Deaf culture, sharing information keeps other people safe. It relays information the group wouldn’t otherwise have. But to someone who doesn’t know Deaf Culture, they might think the person was extremely rude for interrupting the class to talk about a traffic accident. The same event will look very different from two different perspectives.
The things that make up culture, customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits, are how that particular group of people get their needs met. It’s how they continue to survive, then live, then thrive. When the dominant culture deprives the subculture of these beliefs, forms, and traits, the message is that the dominant culture is not concerned with the subculture’s survival. What’s really dangerous about that is what a threat this is to our integrated society. We don’t get to enjoy the benefits of living in a melting pot, and just discard the parts we don’t like. There are going to be conflicts, that’s part of living together. But I wish we’d ask each other more questions instead of making so many assumptions and accusations. The dominant culture does not have the right to define the exs of the subculture.
So no matter how you identify yourself, you have a right to contribute to your society. A responsibility. But the people around you do too. These are wonderful opportunities to learn about yourself and your own culture too. Learning about Deaf Culture made me aware of habit I have and things I do that have become automatic. It doesn’t mean Deaf Culture has taken over, and I’m certainly not being oppressed! It means just as I look at why other people do what they do, I ask the same question of myself. Rather than feeling threatened, I feel more secure in who I am, and what I get to contribute. What will your contribution be?