Continuing the i-word debate: “illegals” vs. economic refugees

As a grad student and media worker, many nights I find myself motionless for hours at a time.  I’ll read a chapter for class, eventually get distracted by Twitter, Facebook or blogging, go back to reading, and repeat.  Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of garbage out there and you don’t always find substantive, meaningful dialogue on important social issues.  Well, not this time. This one deserves its own blog post:

Having studied migration from the perspective of anthropology and linguistics, and the language used to talk about immigrants (language ideologies, narrative, metaphor, etc) in public discourse, this reminds me of the way linguists stood behind and advocated for California students in the so-called “Ebonics” debate in the 90s.  A proponent of what the late Dr. Ron Scollon called activist sociolinguistics, I wondered what this decade’s parallel academic intervention might look like.

I think we may have found it. Below are a few helpful links to navigate this conversation:

1) For more information on the Drop the I-Word Campaign spearheaded by Colorlines Magazine and the Applied Research Center, a Bay area social justice think tank.

2) The official statement from 24 linguists who call for an end to the I-word in journalism, endorsed by the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Committee for Human Rights.

3) A great 4-part MSNBC video from Up with Chris Hayes which featured an excellent conversation about the i-word debate. Guests included John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, Maria Hinojosa, journalist, anchor and executive producer of NPR’s “Latino USA,” Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of WNYC’s “On the Media,” and Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American.

4) Great update on the i-word debate in Colleen Cotter’s op-ed to the AAA blog, “Challenging terms of reference” (10/10/2012)

5) “Illegal versus undocumented: Semantics or more?” HuffPo video on panel discussion, proposing the term economic refugee to replace illegal immigrant.

This is only a partial list — part of the ongoing public conversation being had by linguists, journalists, and others about the appropriateness of using the term “illegal” as a personal descriptor.  I’ll be following eagerly to see how this develops and hope to one day read more accurate language across news organizations, not just those with a Latino focus (ABC/Univision, Fox Latino, but not Fox News in general) as many others have noted. I also applaud all the linguists that are taking a stand for justice — you are my heroes!

Building Civic Engagement and Reframing Movements: For Youth, By Youth

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change” – Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff 

Referencing George Lakoff’s work on conceptual metaphors, East LA Nancy recently put out a call on the blogosphere for  immigrants to start reframing their own movements, messages, and struggles.  She expresses her skepticism of the seemingly pro-immigrant language heard at the DNC in Charlotte — foreign terms like “Aspiring” or “New Americans” — and points out the hypocrisy in how the cries (and arrests) of peacefully protesting DREAMERs outside were ignored.

Nancy describes 2 prominent frames in the messaging of the DREAMER movement:

  • polarities, like the “good/bad immigrant” frame (DREAMERs = good / parents, criminals = bad); commonly used in the earlier years of the movement; whose effect is divisive rather than unifying
  • values-based or humanistic frames (key works: rights, dignity, respect, equality); used more recently by DREAMERs; inclusive, unifying rather than dividing

So she asks, “Do we continue with the current framing and messaging around immigration or do we challenge ourselves as a movement to truly reflect and redefine our values and ourselves?”

I know both aims can be achieved: communities/members acting as their own spokespersons AND exercising the right to frame their own message.  The best example I can find is the work of an organization called Many Languages, One Voice (MLOV) based here in the District of Columbia.  Part of their hard-earned successes are the result of community organizing.  [If you aren’t entirely sure what I mean by organizing, think about this quote: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”]

Getting back to the point, how does ELL organizing in DC relate to the DREAMERs? MLOV’s student-led youth organizing body— S.M.A.R.T. (Student Multi-Ethnic Action Research Team)— is comprised of high school students who have one thing in common: English is not their primary language. Nevertheless, they have worked collectively to bring their voices to the deciding table when it comes to school reform, creating student groups and dialoging with key government agencies and officials. In the end, MLOV believes the students themselves are experts in the issues they face, yet disproportionately represented in the decision-making process.  Their visions for ELL-friendly schools in the future are grounded in student-led (thus, participatory action) research and methodology. 

Furthermore, MLOV and S.M.A.R.T.’s messaging includes many examples of the humanistic frame now being used by the DREAMERs. Their “ELL Student Bill of Rights,” for example, promotes the message that ” “language is a right” and that students deserve “equal opportunities” (echoing the words of the DC Language Access Act).   Click here for the PDF doc on their website.

Like the DREAMERs, these ELL organizers are learning a lesson that can’t be taught in the classroom: civic engagement and building community power.  

Plus, these youth are quite savvy media users and producers — definitely worth following. For a preview, check out a fun clay-mation video made by  S.M.A.R.T. talking about a common issue ELL students face in school and how adults can effectively act as allies.

Broader Movement Part Deux

You probably didn’t hear this story about “Hizzoner” Mayor Vincent Gray.  Heads are rolling at the Wilson Building, making for a continuous media frenzy around the investigations at the expense of most else. [No, ribbon cuttings don’t count, Mr. Gray]. But regardless of being yesterday’s news by now, this “story” is worth re-examining for a few reasons. What am I talking about? See for yourself:

There’s an old maxim in politics: When the going gets rough, it’s time to get tough on immigrant convenience store clerks. Especially those who speak limited English and sell rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars to pot smokers in a poor part of the city. (Alan Suderman, Washington City Paper)

One reader commented, “Is this even legal?”

Good question. I’ll be honest: I’m not a lawyer, and despite having read the DC Language Access Act more times than I can even recount, it’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. What I can say though, is that it’s extremely, extremely shady.

Let’s examine the evidence:

It did not seem like many of the foreign-born clerks would be able to read the letters without some assistance, as they often appeared to have no idea what the mayor was saying. Majett said it’s a common ploy for immigrant clerks to claim poor English skills whenever dealing with the DCRA. “We always get that,” he said. And Gray said they were still getting the message. “They don’t speak English well, but they understand this is an enforcement visit,” he said.

We have a few problems here:

1) DC government was interacting in an official capacity (i.e. “enforcement visit”) with constituents who are protected under the DCLAA, 2) knowing full well that “they don’t speak English well.” But here’s the clincher: 3) In saying “we always get [immigrants “pretending” not to speak English],” DCRA and other government agencies have found an excuse to unilaterally violate the Act.

I bring this issue up not to draw any more attention to Gray’s administration, but to think about the implications of this and other anti-immigrant discourse in the public sphere. How can Gray, or any Mayor for that matter, achieve “One City” with this kind of behavior and rhetoric? How can people like me hope for a “broader language access movement” (as the title suggests) when we can’t get basic things right?

Language ideologies, profiling and discrimination

As a biracial, 2nd generation American growing up in an urban setting, I was raised in a multilingual home and grew comfortable speaking Hungarian with one grandma, Spanish with another, and a mix with my own parents.  But outside of the home, I noticed some people weren’t as understanding about my lifestyle and upbringing.  I noticed people had things to say about immigrants — and not very nice ones.  I was told my parents had an accent.  Huh?  The older I got, the more hateful I understood the rhetoric to be.  Racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, ignorant, plain and simple. And it wasn’t just people I knew, it was coming from all angles — politicians, journalists, and other powerful, important figures that people listened to.   These people had the power to determine policy and impact my life and everyone around me.

Thankfully I had the opportunity to get my BA in hegemony studies.  Not really, but that’s what it felt like.  Actually I studied linguistic anthropology, and there I thrived on any reading materials I could get my hands on to get beyond the everyday ideologies about language, immigrants — and get the “real deal” from people who knew their stuff.  My roles models became people like Foucault, Duranti, and my own advisor Dr. Pagliai, who studied racist ideologies from a linguistic anthropological framework — and get this, she got paid to do it!

Here are some of the readings/articles/books that I loved then as much as I do now, my go-to reading list for anyone interested in the prevalent, yet unexamined beliefs about languages, dialects, and their speakers.  If you think other people have an accent, but you don’t or that you can “tell” someone’s race or ethnicity by the sound of their voice, then this is for you.

1)  Lippi-Green, Rosina.  1997.  English with An Accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

What I love so much about this book is that it shows that you don’t need a PhD to understand linguistic insights.  English with an Accent is a highly accessible reader that, for starters, topples down the most common myths about language.  What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?  Is Ebonics bad English?  Is there such a thing as bad English?  She provides readers with the tools to understand language and variation, and the ability to distinguish between language ideologies (beliefs about language) from data-driven, empirically-proven, insights on language from the people who’ve been doing this for a living.  Through various case studies, she also provides compelling demonstrations of how institutions capitalize on linguistic ideologies (via “language subordination”) to create and perpetuate inequalities and prejudice in various social arenas (public schools, children’s movies, employment).  A must-read for educators, parents, policy makers and the public at large, IMHO.

2)  Urciuoli, Bonnie.  1996.  Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican experiences of language, race, and class.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Despite being an older publication, the insights Urciuoli provides in this book remain relevant today and extremely helpful as a guide in understanding how immigrant communities are racialized/otherized/marked through a complex conflation of language, class, and race.  Taking an ethnographic approach, she explains how Nuyoricans are stigmatized seemingly on the basis of their linguistic makeup (unabashed codeswitching, Latino English dialect, etc), but covertly on the basis of cultural constructions of race and class — what Urciuoli calls “race-marking mapped onto language behavior.”  In this longitudinal study she shows how a stigmatized identity results in a “glass ceiling” of sorts, whereby New York Puerto Ricans are routinely and systematically denied access to positions of power in society.  A must-read for Newt Gingriches everywhere.

3)  Baugh, John.  2006.  Linguistic profiling.  Black Linguistics: Language, society and politics in Africa and the Americas, ed. by Sinfree Makoni, 155-168.

Like racial profiling (alive and well in legislation like Arizona’s SB1070 despite civil rights laws that clearly denounce the practice), linguistic profiling refers to the practice of judging speakers identity, competence, intellect (and on) based on features of their spoken language.  A ubiquitous phenomenon in the life of a public school kid in DC, “you sound White,” “stop talking Black” could be heard through the halls and packed a heavy socio-politico-ideological punch with every utterance.  John Baugh’s study, beyond being an interesting research project on a hot-button issue, has been invaluable in “real-world” applications: namely, fair housing advocacy work that works to eliminate civil rights discrimination and civil rights enforcement and compliance more generally.  While admitting (albeit reluctantly) that linguistic profiling might be a natural human inclination based on its prevalence throughout antiquity, he argues that people can and should be more mindful about their own prejudices and stereotypes, and to strive toward higher tolerance of speakers with backgrounds different than their own.