I’m wrapping up the sociology

I’m wrapping up the sociology course on ethnicity and diversity I’ve taught online about a dozen times; this will be the last time I teach it for the foreseeable future while I pursue my own studies. One of my students suggested that it would be interesting to read my “self-reflections on what it means to be a sociological being” (the topic of their final paper) and it seems timely, so here I am.
I’ve spent time the past few days considering my ascribed status as a non-deaf, “hearing” person and my interactions with people who are Deaf. There are some interwoven strands of experience and perception that seem more and more challenging for me to disentangle. Obviously there is my audist privilege – access to communication essentially anywhere, anytime; and all the information I learn from the ambient environment (other people’s conversations, song lyrics, and radio news, most blatantly). These are huge advantages that have enabled me to complete three degrees and be positioned now in a doctoral program doing research into intercultural dynamics and the power/potential of language use. In sociology, language is understood as one of many cultural aspects of social life; the perspective I am developing now, however, makes language absolutely central – the singular vehicle for consciousness and hence, for manipulating (for good or ill) the social construction of reality.
My social identity development (endnote #1) is complicated by the fact that it is no longer so easy for me to demarcate which ascribed status is operative at which moment, because the way the identities are juxtaposed within me has much more to do with my character, personality, and thus the choices I make, than any one aspect of status. For instance, socioeconomic class status has been salient all my life, and feels somewhat accentuated now in graduate school and in the current rash of insecurity and loneliness I’ve been feeling. I grew up middle-class, but my parents were so invested in the trappings and actions of “middle-class-ness” that they were not emotionally or relationally present, so I essentially raised myself. Perhaps I am unfair or incorrect to assume it was the class status that had so much to do with it, but – while my grandparents on both sides were successful businesspeople in their own small towns (Port Angeles, WA, and Mt. Carmel, IL), my folks had larger ambitions – the city (Boston) and classical music. My mother majored in music (she played the organ and still sings) and my father became the manager (business end) of several large symphony orchestras. The pressures and enticements of high class social life consumed their energy and they were not equipped to handle the tensions it brought to their relationship.
They didn’t divorce until I was away at college, so the truth is I grew up in an unhappy, troubled family. To this day I am always on the verge of feeling unwanted and unloved; I know this experience crosses all lines of ascribed status, but I would not be surprised to learn that this experience is representative of a pattern within families with similar socioeconomic histories. Of course, my situation was compounded by being a lesbian. I always knew I was different, having my first attractions to women in elementary school. I did have a few crushes on boys, and dated boys (no sex) in high school, but my heart and mind was always on the girls. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I even knew there were others like me. My folks both confessed years later, after I had come out, that they had known (or at least suspected) all along. Their silence on this matter of core relevance to me has shaped my desire for open communication almost to the point of compulsion. My tendency is to assume that a desire not to talk about something is a personal rejection of my entire being. Paradoxically, this often has the effect of distancing those with whom I feel most close, as they aren’t interested in examining our interactions at the microscopic level, and I have a hard time accepting that this doesn’t mean they don’t care.
So when I’m considered a threat to Deaf people, it cuts me to the quick. My introduction to the Deaf community remains one of the happiest, most fulfilling, and satisfying periods of my life. I chose to move away from that “home base” to pursue my Master’s in Social Justice Education because it was so obviously right for me to do – my spirituality falls along phenomenological lines, I think things (opportunities) “appear” and it is up to us to choose to receive or reject them as gifts of the universe. So the Master’s opportunity “appeared,” and I embraced it, feeling secure (for the first time in my life!) that I had a place and a group where I would always belong.
People assume, I think, that I *should* have such a community among lesbians. I was politically active for several years, helping to organize, in the late ’80s, Kansas City’s first gay pride parade in over a decade, and trying to institute a national lesbian movement. I remember these experiences fondly, and wouldn’t trade them for the world, but I found a degree of insularity (only hanging out with our own kind) that bothered me. I was (and still am) especially disgusted with lesbians’ own brand of ideological superiority. That perspective is too narrow for me, and too limiting in terms of all the different kinds of people whose fellowship I enjoy. I do have a sense of pride in what I consider to be feminist (or womanist, to use Alice Walker’s phrase) accomplishments, knowing that many of these were shaped and modeled by lesbians, but I feel that my coming out and social identity development process has taken on these issues to the point of having internalized a new identity of which my sexual orientation is simply a part of a larger whole. I can perceive, dimly, the possibilities of continued redefinition and internalization in an on-going cycle of liberation (endnote #2), but my energy is not directed here at this time.
When I arrived here (in the East, I grew up in Colorado), getting a job at the residential school in Vermont and commuting to UMass in Amherst, I was feeling better about myself than I ever had. The graduate program was a tempest of competing claims of victimization and privilege that pushed me hard in ways I hadn’t yet experienced. Previously, in my lesbian activism, I had been confronted about my white and class privilege and come to the realization that the only reason I had made it “this far” was because of these privileges. I was not “in my body” for the first 25 years of my life; my survival strategy in my family was simply to check out, to disassociate. If I had faced, as a child and young person, any of the kinds of daily discrimination and prejudice encountered by oppressed groups I can’t see how I could have made it. I wasn’t popular (I had few social skills to speak of), but I performed adequately in school and didn’t make waves. On all counts then, I was in the first stage of acceptance of the status quo (vacillating between passive and active in terms of my sexual orientation) until my twenties.
At any rate, not being one to go along with the crowd, during my Master’s studies (in my early 30’s) I wasn’t much interested in focusing on my target identities (woman, lesbian) but on my agent identities, particularly being non-disabled. This agent status is tricky, as it is infused with the possibility of becoming an achieved status – anyone can become disabled at any time. This extra layer adds a fear component that must be faced if issues of access and integration are going to be seriously addressed.
My big mistake was to assume that my acceptance into the local Deaf community (endnote #3) where I had learned ASL and been considered an ally (in Indiana), would transfer automatically to this new setting. My assumption of belonging has been read by much of the Deaf community here as oppressive. Additionally, a very close friendship with one Deaf person from Indiana disintegrated when I got involved in my relationship with [the FP], and the ripple effect from that complemented the ambivalence folks here were already feeling about me. Un-doing the actions that led to both of these developments is, of course, impossible. There is only living with their consequences every day and trying to improve.
Today, this moment, life feels hard and unfair. The crisis of community (endnote #4) weighs upon me. My intentions in doing the research into discourses about interpreting (endnote #5) are not about studying Deaf people as targets of oppression, but about studying hearing (non-deaf) people as oppressors. It is both ironic, and perfectly fitting (in a paradoxical way, perhaps), that my actions are perceived as oppressive. Do I give up what feels like my life’s calling because a segment of the community is displeased with me? Do I reject the most obvious opportunity for some happiness in my life because of the lens through which others see me? Do I act on the basis of others’ perceptions solely of my assumed privileges based on my ascribed statuses, as if my life doesn’t include its own share of pain?
This journey is tricky to navigate. One of the hardest aspects of being an active ally is being close enough to the community of oppressed folk to receive their active resistance and rejection of oppression. Sometimes the messages are directed personally when they are really general; sometimes the messages ARE personal, and thus not reflective of the dynamics of oppression. Sometimes they are both. Teasing out which is which, and choosing actions that support everyone’s humanity, is the motivating theme that gives my life meaning.
1. Jackson, Bailey & R. Hardiman. (1982).
2. Yeskel, F. and Gonzalez. (1995). Course notes.
3. I make a distinction between people who are culturally Deaf (members of a distinct linguistic and cultural group) and people who are late-deafened or hard-of-hearing such that their primary relationships are not with culturally Deaf people. The oppression of audism is therefore distinct from ableism, the oppression of people with disabilities. See Padden, C. & T. Humphries (Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture) and Lane, H. (The Mask of Benevolence).
4. Love, Barbara. (1997). Course notes.
5. Kent, Stephanie Jo. (2002). April, May, and June issues of Views: A publication of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

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