July/August News Compilation

Communities United for Immigrant Rights,” (8/19/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

Unity March Event OrganizersOn August 17, a coalition of organizations held a unity rally for immigrant rights in front of the White House, calling for Congress to act on immigration reform and put an end to deportations. Organizers of the rally included WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend), DMV LOLA (Latinas Organized for Leadership and Advocacy), and NAPAWF-DC (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum), joined by the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). Speakers at the event discussed the misrepresentation of immigrant rights as an exclusively “Latino issue,” instead demonstrating that the movement for immigrant rights is part of the movements for women’s rights, workers’ rights, and human rights. A running theme of the rally was that whether we like it or not, the hijacking of immigration reform at the national level has devastating consequences for all our families, economies, and communities

“Mayor Gray Must Understand, Our Language is Our Right,” (7/27/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

Washington, DC – On July 22, 2013 Mayor Vincent Gray, along with a handful of aides and scores of reporters, paid a visit to Petworth with the intention of cracking down on synthetic marijuana and drug paraphernalia being sold at small businesses in the neighborhood. “That’s illegal, man. Can’t do that. That’s drug paraphernalia,” warned the Mayor. This isn’t the first time that Mayor Gray has posed as a law enforcement official in order to bust local shops, in his effort with the group Advocates for Drug-free Youth.

DC Government-Issued The visit took an unexpected turn, however, when Gray encountered an Ethiopian clerk who had trouble understanding English. “You don’t understand? How do you sell anything if you don’t understand? If somebody asks you for something, do you know what they’re asking you for?” Mayor Gray chided. At one point, visibly frustrated by the language barrier, the Mayor told the clerk “I don’t even, I really don’t know how you are working here if you can’t communicate with the people who come in here.” Despite criticism from NBC4 reporter Mark Segrave, the Mayor denied that his remarks could be considered insensitive and said that the language barrier was “irrelevant.”

“A Lesson in Systemic Racism, Part II: ALEC, School Closures, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” (7/23/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

The previous post, entitled “A Lesson in Systematic Racism: Stand Your Ground, the NRA, and the American Legislative Council (ALEC),” examined the connection between the untimely death of Trayvon Martin and the powerful lobbying groups that made laws like “Stand Your Ground” possible. This post expands on the previous one by highlighting ALEC’s connection to school closures and the privatization of education.

That’s How You Win Campaigns: What DC’s Progressive Community Did Right in the Final Legislative Session of 2013,” (7/15/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

walmart-400x281Last week, the District’s most vulnerable residents organized to win two major victories in the City Council: the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would require big box stores to pay their employees a living wage, and which effectively prevented the expansion of six Walmart stores within the District; and the Driver Safety Amendment Act (DSAA), which grants the City’s 25,000 undocumented residents the ability to obtain a driver’s license without a mark indicating their undocumented status.

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On the whole Barry thing

By now if you live in the District you’ve surely heard of the latest Marion Barry scandal.  No, I don’t mean the unfortunate police sting which elicited those (in)famous last words “b**** set me up,” I’m talking about the straight-up race-baiting, anti-immigrant antics and commentary about Asian-owned businesses and Filipino nurses.  And now that I’m not writing about this topic for class, dear readers, I’m excited to share my thoughts more casually with you.

The first point is pretty obvious, but worth mentioning:  Hill (1995) found that public figures are treated differently when it comes to being publicly racist/homophobic/bigoted in general.  They are given a certain level of responsibility above ordinary individuals to maintain a certain demeanor which typically precludes them from being openly racist.  [Why? Voters are one easy reason.]  Unless that’s your shtick of course, in which case an entirely different set of rules apply.

Racists can’t/don’t often admit to being racist.  It’s the equivalent of linguistic suicide, an example of what sociolinguists might call a face-threatening act. Combine this with point #1 and increasingly aggressive journalistic practices, linguists are finding that politicians are developing and using an array of linguistic strategies for getting themselves out of messes their mouths have created. Clayman (2001) calls this “managing interactional resistance” and the subfield of CA (conversation analysis) has made significant contributions as a whole.  Check out more of his work here, many articles are available for free download.

But who has a say in determining if someone said something racist anyway?  

Not the courts, at least here: Chiang (2010) points out that the US stands apart from industrialized nations in not protecting individuals (and groups, as the case may be) from hate speech.  In those countries that do, it’s called group defamation, encompassing libel and slander.   Furthermore, Chiang finds that because free speech so commonly trumps hate speech legislatively, public discussions of whether X was racist or not get distracted by ideological debates on Constitutional provisions.

Erickson once referred to conversations as “trees that climb back.”  If that’s true, perhaps this is a large, public conversation then.   The 24 hour news cycle and sensationalizing angle of media plays a role in this, editorializing till the end.  But while the media may surely be the loudest, the level of public outcry/outrage is important as well.  Dedicated advocates do their best to push back, but the current is unbelievably strong.

In Barry’s (and most cases it seems) the white flag comes as an apology.   Then what????  Another incident, with the media drive stories, advocates adding fuel to the fire, and the saga continues.

In Barry’s case, the story continues to develop.  Who would have guessed that an unexpected hospitalization during a taxpayer-funded conference in Vegas would prompt such a change of heart?  Tune in this morning (5/24) for live Twitter coverage of the press conference where Barry addresses the public on his anti-Asian remarks.

And the fojol brothers.?  Don’t even get me started….

[UPDATE (5/25): Barry has semi-public meeting, won’t allow media in for the “apology” itself.  Also, uses the disparaging term Polack to describe Polish, prompting yet another apology request from the Polish American Association.]

Making sense of Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl ad: A “discourse identity” approach

During the Super Bowl, viewers are socialized into understanding that the spectacle is not just the game itself, but also the multi-million dollar ad spots during the commercial breaks.  This year the most notorious of these was Michigan GOP Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s racially charged political ad, what ABCNews referred to as “the slur heard ‘round the country.’”

The scene opens with the music of a gong, as an Asian woman in a conical bamboo hat rides her bicycle down a dirt path, alongside a field of rice paddies.  She stops, looking into the camera as she smiles, and says in mock broken English “Debbie spend so much American money.  You borrow more and more, from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie ‘Spend It Now!’” The scene cuts to Hoekstra, saying “I think this race is between Debbie ‘spend it now’ and Pete ‘spend it not.’  I’m Pete ‘spend it not’ and I approve this message.”

The media backlash was almost immediate, characterizing Hoekstra as a “racist,” criticizing him for capitalizing on Asian stereotypes and perpetuating xenophobic sentiments toward China.  Yet he was not the only one to receive the fury of media attention – many wondered who this young Asian actress was and why she would subject herself to such degradation.  In the end, Hoekstra took the ad off of his website and somewhat sarcastically apologized, stating that any insensitivity was intended for the “liberal left and their reckless spending, not the Asian community.”  The actress, Lisa Chang, was shamed into issuing a public apology, where she expressed regret “for any pain that the character [she] portrayed brought to [her] communities.”  The Hoekstra ad and ensuing media fiasco raise important questions, such as:

1)  What content (spoken, written, or audio-visual) is appropriate (or not) in the context of campaign or attack advertisements; if inappropriate, who receives the blame (or not), and most importantly, who gets to decide these things in the first place?

2)  Why did some viewers, including pundits, journalists, and other “experts,” find it more appalling for the Asian actress to participate in the advertisement than Hoekstra?

3)  Why were these two the only ones punished by the media for their involvement, when an entire team (including writers, producers, camera operators) was responsible for the production as a whole?

In Scollon’s 1996 article “Discourse identity,” he makes a compelling case for understanding news media through the careful breakdown and analysis of discourse identities (i.e. the various combinations of social-interactive and production-reception roles). Taking examples of Hong Kong print media as case studies, Scollon advocates the “discourse identity” approach as a method for unraveling the complexity of roles we take in discourse.  The approach is particularly useful in cases of mismatched identities, he argues, because we are perceived negatively when our discourse identity is incongruent with our expected social role.  Moving forward I will address the questions above by beginning this process of unraveling the discourse and social identities of the actors involved in the Hoekstra ad to show the negative consequences of mismatched identity.

A visual semiotic approach would certainly confirm the critiques of Hoekstra’s ad – the gong in the introduction, the conical hat, the actress’s broken English, and the discourse on jobs being sent oversees all make use of stereotypes about Asians and Chinese, in particular.  In other words, that the ad capitalized on cultural stereotypes through visual and discursive means is clear.  But who is held responsible and by whom?

Pete Hoekstra Lisa Chang Media critics
Social-interactive role Framer, player Player Framers? Players? Observers?
Production-reception role Author, animator, principal Animator Judge

Lisa Chang, despite being merely a player in the spectacle who animates a stereotyping and racist discourse, is perceived negatively.  To use Scollon’s terminology, this to me insinuates that there is a perceived mismatch in identities – visibly as an Asian(-American) woman, Chang is expected not to be a player in a racially degrading discourse.  As a consequence, media critics treat her as though she were author, animator and principal – considering criticism for negatively portraying her “community.”   Hoekstra, on the other hand, explicitly approved the ad’s message but is judged similarly to Chang.  This doesn’t take into account that he is a player and framer of the discourse, in addition to being author, animator and principal of the discourse. Furthermore, there was little to no attention paid to the many others who contributed to the production of the ad by media critics.  Detangling the discourse identities of the two faces in the ad draws attention to the many others responsible for its creation.

Lastly, the media plays several important roles in this discourse: 1) in the reception role as judges, and 2) in the social-interactive as potential framers, players and/or observers.  Further analysis might analyze the social-interactive roles media networks or organizations adopt in relation to a bit of “news.” For example, do they air the ad without participating in the discourse (players) or do they take a position on the discourse (framers)?  Does Fox editorialize certain topics more than MSNBC, and vice versa?  What about a racial-justice-oriented publication like ColorlinesWhat role can the media play in maintaining or changing racist discourses?

 

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.