Cultural appropriation / Deaf people's culture and signed languages

If you're a hearing person who is learning sign language for the purpose of communication with deaf persons, it's perfectly wonderful! If you're learning it for your exploration, curiosity, or continuing education, it's perfectly fine.

But, if you're making profits from sign language, teaching others, making arts or receiving grants, appropriating sign language into music, gaining attention or fame from sign language or such, then read on.

What is cultural appropriation?

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."

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."

"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.

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

The difference between appropriation and appreciation

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.

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, exploiting resources of Deaf people, and/or using our language for money, fame, privilege, position or capitalism. A way around this such as tokenism is not acceptable.

Go ahead and learn our language (ASL) and (definitely not without) Deaf culture including history, for the purpose of communication with Deaf people, families and friends.

Go ahead and appreciate Deaf talents' language arts from ASL poetry and storytelling to ASL music. But, 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 some of us.


Coolism (for the lack of a better term) as part of cultural appropriation: Many hearing people made videos of singing in signed languages, making online videos to teach signed languages, etc. for attention and gain. Or, they think it's a cool, fun thing to do. They think they are doing benevolent. It's quite the opposite.

Real-life scenarios out in the wild

Scenario: Baby sign language is no more illusion than non-existent "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 linguistics and neuroscience studies as well as real-world experiences 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.


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.

The greatest irony by Maureen Klusza
"The greatest irony." Illustrated by artist Maureen Klusza, 2007(?)

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 peddler pretends to be deaf when peddling. Occasionally, Deaf people find this out when they talk to peddlers in sign language.

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

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's 8-year-old daugther wishing everyone Merry Christmas in ASL in December 2019 that got into celebrity headlines, "cute.. adorable". Apparently, the message did not target toward BSL-speaking Deaf people in the U.K.

Scenario: A large number of hearing researchers receive grants or funds for their AI research on sign language. First, they capitalize on as many deaf children/adults as possible with cochlear implants in the form of eugenics. Now, they capitalize on sign language.

And so on and on. Cultural appropriation is a painful reminder for many Deaf people as well as Native Americans/First Nations, Black people, and other oppressed groups.


On a positive note, often hearing people do respect when they become aware. Education and awareness are the key. Not all hearing people do.

Learn history, culture and language of the Deaf people for linguistic and cultural appreciation. Watch or read their works (books, arts, etc.). Talk with deaf people who tend to be very happy to be able to chat with you.

Work with leading Deaf people, not the way around, in projects. Collaborate with Deaf people.

Use sign language products and services provided by Deaf people. Support Deaf-owned, Deaf-run businesses, services, and products related to sign language and Deaf culture.

Invite, interview, hire Deaf professionals and experts on sign language, Deaf culture, history, accessibility, etc. instead of non-allying hearing "professionals". Invite Deaf professinals and talents to your classes, shows, lectures, etc. If hearing allies are invited, it may be done or suggested by Deaf themselves.

Share information, resources, and what you learn with your hearing friends and families, but not with authority. Sometimes ASL students misperceive or misinterpret information in ASL classes or with limited knowledge or understanding.

Related posts

Tokenism / hearing privilege / Audism, a form of discrimination and oppression / Allyship / hearing signers signing songs (cultural appropriation) and teaching sign language (ethics) / Debunk the myths of baby sign language, another form of cultural appropriation.

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