Cultural appropriation -- Deaf people's culture and signed languages

For a long time in history, Deafs, Blacks, Native Americans and First Nations, and other oppressed groups have suffered every level of oppression from systemic and institutional to individual discrimination along with eugenics, and so on. As a result, these groups have lost some of their cultures, languages, customs, etc. In addition, they've experienced social injustice.

When a group's language, culture, history, and such are taken, used, or appropriated by the power structure or the privileged group for their profits or other advantages, cultural appropriation is a painful reminder of the collective oppression.

What is cultural appropriation?

In a short version, cultural appropriation is defined by 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."

In a long version, 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.

Now, look at the contexts of sign language and Deaf people.

Contexts of linguicism, audism, ethnocentrism

Sign language is the natural modality of language created by Deaf people. "As long as we have deaf people on earth we will have signs." -- George Veditz (1913).

For the thousands of years, deaf people have suffered oppression from audism and linguicism to phonocentrism and discrimination such as:

As we Deaf people are a linguistic-cultural minority, sign language is our Deaf people's core of cultural-linguistic identity and pride. It's our sacred.

Appropriation vs appreciation

Not all cultural borrowing is bad or inconsiderate, but it's important to understand the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

Sharing and appreciation are welcome. Unauthorized taking or adopting a cultural bit of the oppressed group into one's dominant culture is not.

These days, a growing number of hearing people have taken some sign language courses and learned ASL or other signed languages. Deaf people are very happy with this change of attitude, as long as learning sign language is for the purpose of communication with deaf individuals. Many hearing people learn signed languages for their exploration, curiosity, or continuing education, which it's perfectly fine, too.

However, there are certain areas beyond learning sign language that may cross the line into cultural appropriation that are not acceptable, such as using our language for profit, fame, privilege, position, or capitalism, which are the off-limits.

Below highlights some examples and scenarios of cultural appropriation and how allyship can be boosted.


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. Whether they think it's a cool, fun thing to do, it's for attention and gain, or they may try to be benevolent, it can be harmful or unimpressive to some of us.

Allyship: Share the links to Deaf creatives' works, refer to Deaf ASL teachers or instructors and Deaf-owned websites, show Deaf talents' works.

Baby Sign Language

Baby sign language is a red-sore thumb of cultural appropriation. The concept of 'baby sign language' is an unfortunate appropriation from the authentic, human language of the Deaf community. The ASL signs are still words (which are not baby words). "Baby sign language" is no more illusion than non-existent "Baby Speech Language".

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.

Non-Native Americans wearing a Native headdress is also another example of cultural appropriation. It's absolutely unacceptable, for a Native headdress is one of Native Americans' sacred customs.

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

For the past decades, uncountable deaf babies around the world have been deprived of language by eye in name of language by ear (speech), forbidding them from speaking their (signed) languages.

Marginalized Deaf talents

"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 (who played Sue Thomas in F.B.Eye TV series from 2002 to 2005), in her FB comment, Nov. 11, 2017.

Occasionally, a Hollywood or a movie agency casts a hearing actor to plays a deaf role. It's an equivalent to a white actor painting his/her face black. Or, casting a "hearing-abled" actor with some hearing loss and little understanding of Deaf culture and sign language for the Deaf role to save interpreting costs can be said as "hear-washing" (an equivalent to "whitewashing"). Though, this practice has generally stopped with better access for Deaf actors lately.

Interpreting music lyrics into ASL and showcasing them on the Internet reflect a hearing interest. A Deaf ASL instructor once told me that occasionally her hearing student sent her a few links to signed musics. She didn't appreciate; instead, she replied with explanation and a few links to Deaf creatives' works from ASL poetry to storytelling as well as ASL music made by Deaf.

Profits and resources

In Idaho Falls, for example, a hearing artist received a grant to make a public mural of sign language which sparked an outrage of Deaf community in 2018 and the ASL signs in the mural were illustrated incorrectly. In addition, many talented Deaf artists were marginalized that their artworks would reflect sign language and culture more authentically.

A 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.

Tokenism is used when a hearing person as an owner runs a sign language-related website, book, or company, hiring Deaf signers to do work.

Sign language teaching

Learning our language (ASL) and definitely not without our Deaf culture including history is appreciated for the purpose of communication with Deaf people, families and friends. Or, for your curiosity or personal exploration.

Hearing learners may be excited to show or share what they have learned with friends and family members or share their experiences or learning journey on their blogs; although, it is not appropriate for them to make vlogs or such and broadcast them online or offline to teach ASL or other signed languages.

Learners can share information, resources, and what they learn with their hearing friends and families, but not with authority. Sometimes, ASL students misperceive or misinterpret information in ASL classes or with limited knowledge or understanding.

As for sign language teaching, leave that to Deaf teachers or instructors. It's not uncommon that hearing signers teach with incorrect pronunciation and grammar without them realizing errors. Instead, refer to Deaf ASL teachers or instructors; share the links to Deaf-owned websites that teach ASL. Ask questions.

The gray areas

Sometimes, there is a gray area between appreciation and appropriation.

For example, a homeschool mother contacted me with her concern about herself learning ASL from this website and teaching her son ASL. Not to discourage her and son from learning ASL, I suggested her that she reframed the word from 'teach*' to 'learn*' that she and his son are the learners together with the awareness that she may make a number of errors. And, she can seek a Deaf tutor for both of them whenever possible.

Another thing, when can two similar scenarios be different? Look at two examples and compare.

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

In contrast, a little girl (a coda), whose parents are Deaf, asked the soccer player for his autograph and also asked him to sign "ILY" when he scored the next day.

Pro soccer signing ILY
Source: unknown
Pro soccer signing ILY when scored
Source: unknown

The soccer player did fulfill the coda's request. He didn't forget it. This gesture is a form of support.

Allyship Takeaways

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 professionals and talents to your classes, shows, lectures, etc. If hearing allies are invited, it may be done or suggested by qualified Deaf themselves on a case-by-case basis.

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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