Cultural appropriation / Deaf people's culture and signed languages

Cultural appropriation is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as: "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture."

Especially, when members of a dominant group take (sacred or traditional) bits of another culture or exploit the culture of an oppressed or less privileged group, such as Deaf, First Nations or Native Americans.

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as follows:

“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.

"It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

For example, a Caucasian person wearing a Native American headdress on Halloween Day is inappropriate because the headdress is a sacred artifact of the indigenous people. It's viewed by Native Americans as offensive.

There are certain areas of cultural appropriation that are disrespectful and not acceptable to Deaf people. Sign language is our Deaf people's core of cultural identity and pride. It's our sacred.

"Nico Lang, a guest blogger for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out in a post that cultural appropriation highlights the power imbalance that remains between those in power and those who’ve been historically marginalized." -- Nadra Kareem Nittle.

Not all cultural borrowing is bad or inconsiderate, but it's important to understand the difference between "cultural appropriation" and "cultural appreciation". Sharing is welcome. Unauthorized taking or adopting a cultural bit into your dominant culture is not.

Our language is our sacred core of our cultural-lingustic identity.

There are some areas of cultural appropriation that is unacceptable and disrespectful such as 'baby sign language', hearing people using our language ASL in songs, vlogs, teaching sign language, and/or using our language for money, fame, privilege, or position. Other way around this such as tokenism is not acceptable.

Scenario: Baby sign language is no more illusion than the non-existence of "Baby Speech Language". The concept of 'baby sign language' is an unfortunate appropriation from the authentic, human language of the American Deaf community - American Sign Language. The ASL signs are still ASL words (which are not baby words). Many linguistic and neuroscience studies confirm that ASL is not easier to learn, nor it come earlier, nor more iconic than a spoken language. Many in-depth posts on this topic are available on this site.

Do appreciate our language by learning our language (ASL) and (definitely not without) culture including history. Use it with Deaf people, families and friends for communication. Don't use our language (when you're a hearing person) for other purposes.

Do learn and appreciate Deaf talents' language arts from ASL poetry and storytelling to ASL music. Don't appropriate our language into music lyrics and showcase on the Internet. Don't assume we enjoy your hearing lyrics by translating them into ASL. You may try to be benevolent but it would be offensive or unimpressive to us.


okay to be pretended but not okay to be authentic

"Just like how it is OK for hearing babies to learn ASL, and NOT OK for Deaf babies to learn ASL and BE naturally Deaf." -- Robyn Mackie (2017) in reference to the image above she posted on her FB.

Scenario: "I remember sitting at an audition for a TV show years ago and one hearing woman asked another Deaf actor to teach her a few signs from the sides that we all were auditioning for as a Deaf character. It was awkward." -- Deanne Bray, Deaf actor, in her FB comment, Nov. 11, 2017.

Scenario: A hearing artist makes profits from a signed language into their works of art whether they are murals, sculptures, or paintings, while there is an oppressed minority of talented Deaf artists with their MFA degrees, losing their opportunities. ASL is the identify of our culture and language. Hearing artists do NOT represent us nor speak for us, period!

Scenario: A hearing actor plays a deaf role. It's equivalent to a white actor painting his/her face black. Or, a "hearing" actor with some hearing loss and little understanding of culture and language. It's called "hear-washing" (if you understand "whitewashing").

Scenario: A celebrity performs sign language in vlogs or on stage. E.g. U.K. football legend and celebrity David Beckman's 8-year-old daugther wishing everyone Merry Christmas in ASL in December 2019 that got into celebrity headlines.

And a lot of stories.

Related posts

Related topics: signing songs by hearing signers (cultural appropriation), tokenism, hearing privilege.