We need to talk about racism in the UK Deaf community
From outdated BSL signs to a fear of being ostracised, double discrimination isn’t anything new for black people and people of colour in the UK Deaf community.
24 Jun 2020
Illustration by Michelle Wong
“There are signs for words that are very offensive and when black people request changes, we’re told those insulting signs are ‘part of the culture’. A lot of toxicity needs to be addressed,” says Lydia Gratis, a self-care advocate from Ireland.
There is no doubt racism in the UK Deaf community exists, but to acknowledge the enduring prejudice Deaf people of colour face means shattering the facade that the Deaf community can’t be racist because of shared oppression from hearing people. Perhaps this is why there’s such resistance when people share their truth, few answers on what has enabled racism to continue within this minority group and no solutions to dismantle it.
While a white Deaf person might be able to remove their hearing aid, a black or Asian Deaf person cannot change their skin colour. Racism in the Deaf community mirrors that of wider society in all its problematic layers. However, in the Deaf community, discrimination is often indirect and hidden within language that Deaf people have historically been deprived of in British sign language (BSL), and by osmosis at school, home, via the news and media.
Offensive signs or straight-talking ?
Replacing older and hurtful signs for Africa, China and India as well as differentiating between signs for skin colour versus colours, are major debates happening within the Deaf community.
On YouTube, a video from MrAsamoahTV titled ‘Stop Using Racist Signs, period’ has gained more than 3,000 views. BBC’s See Hear episode debating racist sign language revealed how an older sign, still used amongst some people for both “Africa” as well as a “black person”, is closer in meaning to “boot polish” or a “miner with a soot face”. With a more aggressive facial expression or depending on the context in which it’s used, that sign can be used to express the N-word. Similarly, the old sign for India can be used in a racist way to say express the P-word. The old sign for China, which portrays a slanted eye shape, is also still used by some.
“The Deaf community is a predominantly white space and with language deprivation, education is also behind. Therefore, racism is inevitable,” says Lydia, 26. “I’ve never been to a Deaf event around Europe, or at home in Ireland, and not encountered racism or microaggressions.”
“White Deaf people who stay within the community without expanding their friendship circle have stereotypical understandings of other cultures and are very comfortable voicing those. I’ve walked into events and been greeted with, ‘hey, my name is so and so, and I like your people. I’m not racist’ numerous times, especially from elderly Deaf people. It’s all weird and excuses are made for it.”
Being straight-talking is common among Deaf people. BSL is as intricate as spoken English, but linguistically different and visual. What you see is what you sign, so you can’t be vague and unnecessary words are often removed. Bluntness being the justification for racist and offensive remarks, or worst still, those remarks dismissed as “jokes”, is exactly why Lydia believes racism amongst Deaf people isn’t masked at all.
Just as spoken language evolves so does sign language, but for those clinging onto tradition, the fear is, political correctness will lead to the erosion of their language, as highlighted by Deaf programme, See Hear. Meanwhile, people like filmmaker Rinkoo Barpaga, who have shared their views publicly, argue that continuing to use such signs, despite knowing they’re insulting, is the very definition of white privilege and demonstrates a disappointing lack of empathy towards victims of racism.
Racial gaslighting and the fear of being ostracised
Sadly, to highlight or challenge racism in the Deaf community is to risk being ostracised, labelled as sensitive or an angry black woman – or be told you’re paranoid because your white friends don’t recognise the nuances of racism.
“My first encounter with racist behaviour was being called ‘shit face’ at age 12 at my Deaf girls’ school. Last year, the same girl, who’s now 28, came to me and said: ‘I don’t understand why everyone got angry. I was a kid. It was just a joke,’” says Lydia.
Racial gaslighting and the fear of being singled out has silenced black and Asian people for whom the mental damage has already been done, like in the case of Samira, 28. She has now had enough. “I remember being with friends in Hyde Park and two white, Deaf men saw us and began making conversation. Then one of them said: ‘Wow, there are so many of you in a group like monkeys.’ I didn’t say anything back because I felt inferior, but I knew it was wrong.”
Samira was 15 then but says the men were probably in their 40s.
Her examples of racism and ignorance flow on – being told she’s not black because her nose is small. Standing up for another girl who was asked if she’s a man or a woman because of her darker complexion, and witnessing a bouncer being called a “black N-word” spelled out in sign language by a drunk man.
“I missed many indirect comments and subliminal messages when I was growing up but didn’t do anything because I thought I might be sensitive,” Samira explains. “Then when I confront them, they deny saying anything or ask why I’m so sensitive. They always say, ‘Deaf people are blunt’ and ‘we say things we don’t mean?’ – but it doesn’t excuse their behaviour. I’ve had enough of this.”
There was only one experience actor Nadeem Islam, 23, felt comfortable sharing, which happened at a nightclub when he was 18. “Two guys, who knew one of my friends, came over and shook everyone’s hands. As they turned to me, they started telling jokes about Indians liking cricket. I was confused. Was that racism? They clearly saw my skin colour and automatically linked it to something Asian people get stereotyped about all the time. Then they walked off laughing. I was gobsmacked.”
Lack of access
Without being taught how multilayered racism is, or having the opportunity to develop a strong sense of racial identity – Rubbena Aurangzeb-Tariq thinks many Deaf people are left powerless to defend themselves against discrimination.
Rubbena, who is chairperson of the Deaf Ethnic Women’s Association (DEWA), is vocal about the impact of language deprivation. “Racism isn’t obvious for Deaf people,” she says. “They don’t know what behaviours aren’t normal. There’s a lack of family education because of the language barrier – they miss out on incidental learning. No language at home equals no identity. Only once language deprivation is addressed, can they prevent being discriminated against.”
Constant lack of access to information, particularly now in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and critical debate, is frustrating for all, especially those who want to become allies – something the Deaf people interviewed say they need from all sides. Accessing cultural events without interpreters is near impossible too. All of this means that Deaf people are more likely to learn about racism too late, often once the trauma has begun, or are only ever getting half a story about the true nature of discrimination.
Double discrimination and pressures to assimilate
The pressure to culturally assimilate is also common, Rubbena explains. Those unwilling to assimilate can find themselves left out of the Deaf community, or mocked for their religious or cultural beliefs and practices. “You have a choice to make – either you’re Deaf or Asian, but not both. Or you’re Deaf or black. You can be rejected by Deaf white people if you don’t drink or have sex, for example.”
This causes many to turn away from the Deaf community, Rubbena adds. And once these tensions become internalised, it can lead to debilitating identity crises gal-dem learnt from our interviews. With Deaf people being nearly twice as likely as the general public to suffer with a mental illness, at 40% compared to 25%, this would be detrimental for someone without the appropriate support.
DEWA’s work also highlights intersectionality within the Deaf community – how race, class, gender and disability connect and lead to discrimination – but these conversations aren’t happening enough. The outcome is an absence of research into the experiences of Deaf PoC and no protection for those daring to speak out, or whose mental health has suffered already.
Filmmaker Rinkoo Barpaga’s documentary, Double Discrimination, won the 2016 Disability and Justice Award at the Superfest International film festival. It sparked hostile debate about whether racism exists in the Deaf community, despite the heart-wrenching stories featured in the film. Since then, there has been little action from Deaf organisations, Rinkoo explains.
“There’s been no improvements in support for black and Asian people to fight against racism and achieve equality. Where’s the help?” he asks. “We had people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and if I’m honest with you, I understand how they feel because if you don’t have support, it means the world can point the finger at you and say you’re the problem.”
Producing Double Discrimination saw many fingers pointed at Rinkoo who at the time, questioned whether he’d done the right thing in opening Pandora’s Box.
“Once the documentary was released, I expected more job opportunities and that people would see this as a positive, but I ended up having to go to the job centre and move back with my parents. That left me questioning if I’d made the right decision to talk about racism at that time because it affected my life massively.”
Rinkoo’s experiences have increased his concerns for younger Deaf people who are outspoken about discrimination on social media, but he encourages them to continue calling it out.
Tired of educating friends
Exhaustion is a familiar feeling amongst everyone who shared their experiences. They’re especially tired of being told racism is all in their heads while, ironically, having the burden of educating their friends.
“Why can’t I be here as your friend, not your educator?” Serena*, 23, asks. “There are amazing BAME Deaf creators online and they share fabulous resources regarding racism. Deaf schools need to start educating children about racism. Encourage them to ask questions to BAME Deaf creators and use this knowledge to educate themselves and their peers.”
As the only black person in her friendship group, this can be the very reason her friends don’t believe their comments or actions could be racist because “they have black friends like me,” she says, “I don’t think my Deaf friends see me as black because we’re experiencing the same struggles being deaf in the hearing world.
“One time my friend commented on another black woman’s hair about her wig being fake and trying to be like a white girl. As a black woman, I had to say something, but I was actually scared of being labelled as ‘playing the race card’. When I explained, she said, ‘oh, this is the same experience as me being a deaf person’. This happens a lot. I believe white Deaf people will only change when they understand the difference between racism and ableism.”
As someone who has experienced both casual racism from Deaf people and audism discrimination from hearing people – Nadeem doesn’t believe in the idea of waiting until people are ready to change. “We should be moving forward and if issues arise, we can resolve them by creating new support groups while moving forward…but the number of allies is incredible and the social media posts are non-stop in educating others to be better. I’ve had so many messages asking, ‘how can I be better?’ and it’s touched me that people want to evolve and improve their knowledge to bridge the gap between us.”
In Double Discrimination, then chairman of the British Deaf Association, the late Dr Terry Riley, said the organisation couldn’t fight racism alone and needed evidence of what was happening. Well, this is it again – six years later. Deaf PoC haven’t just begun to share the reality of being a minority within a minority and neither is the Deaf community colourblind. But as we enter a new civil rights movement, their courage is growing while their patience wears thin. They demand respect and to be listened to, better cultural education in Deaf schools, more research and real action from Deaf organisations if they’re serious about dismantling racism in the Deaf community and the bullying culture alongside it.
*Names have been changed to protect identities