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to white Deaf people: going beyond “Deaf elitism”

disclaimers and intentions: 

I share from a place of being white, class-privileged, language access-privileged, able-/sighted-privileged, and hearing access-privileged (having speaking and residual hearing access), and I am largely addressing others who have these privileges, too- be them Deaf of hearing, solo-/mainstreamed, Deaf of Deaf, Deaf school alumni, and all within a U.S. context. But if you don’t have all these identities but see/feel yourself in what I discuss, you are absolutely welcome in this discussion.

I’m not claiming to be the authority on this or the persun with the answers or the persun who is “right” about all of this. I share what I share out of concern and a desire to get into the complexities- and have complex conversations with each other- and I think there should be many conversations happening all around. 

Despite a pattern I subscribed to before, I do not do call-outs towards individuals anymore. I am invested in repairing relationships in our community. I also feel the need to name patterns that I consider harmful- so we all can be more conscious in ending harm. It’s my hope with more awareness about these patterns, and with specific tools, we can transform the conditions in which harm has been happening.  

A follow-up vlog was produced a couple days after the release of this blog, and is found at the end of this post.


“Deaf elite/s/elitism” has had a persistent ebb and flow on social media, with discussions of who are they? How do we define them? What have they done and continue to do? At this point, it’s become clear that when we discuss “Deaf elite/s/elitism” we were discussing white Deaf people who have several other forms of privilege. What’s also clear to me is how these discussions have begun collapsing lots of important contexts and nuances into something often very over-simplified. The discussions also veered towards accusatory and punitive approaches, even from people who had the same privileges as the people they were calling out.

Understanding power, privilege, oppression, and dominance is essential in these conversations- knowing how to define systemic systems of oppression, the institutions and people that keep these structures intact with their power and privilege, and how many of us internalize thoughts and behaviors of dominance. This makes analyzing it all harder- as it should be! Once again, there are so many contexts at play, and these conversations cannot be neatly categorized. 

My reactions to the conversations that took place through the summer and to this day are outlined below in several parts: the “hidden” elites, the reality of internalized dominance and our forgotten roots, white people’s manipulation, and where we probably need to go next. 

 

the “hidden” elites

During the summer, I was really unsure of how to take how “elitism” was being framed- I strongly felt that something was missing the mark. So I tweeted about how I think people of my background are arguably “the elites” of the community, based on my own internal concept of “elites,” given my hearing-world background.  To use the format of understanding power/privilege/oppression/dominance: these social patterns and structures has us normalize what is in power, and informs us what is “normal” and “expected” and what to aspire to is not explicitly said but explicitly felt and known regardless. For many of us in the community, it’s hearingness that is normalized/expected/centered- and many of us go on to internalize it, embody it, and to seek out proximity or intimacy with it. (We try to make it our own- even while being victimized by it continuously.) In this way, hearingness is the wealthiest form of social “currency” among all of us: meaning, having this privilege – much like having “currency,” or money, gives us access to many things, spaces, and opportunities. This gives us an incredible edge in accessing spaces that among the most marginalized (sighted and abled Deaf) in our community do not- those who do not speak and hear, those who maybe struggle with literacy or not having much or any literacy access. 

What primarily sparked my series of tweets was how I saw conversations about “Deaf elitism” increasingly and unfairly peg anyone from a Deaf family who went to one of the several “big” Deaf schools and went to Gallaudet. All the while, many weren’t pausing and realizing that those of us who have this “hearingness currency” will also have it over those who don’t speak or hear and who are also are white, middle-class, Deaf of Deaf, and from a big Deaf school- those often classified as “elite” in our community. But we don’t name the “elite” nature of those of us who come from families with considerable wealth/assets/networks, who have speaking and hearing access, and therefore have access to a wide spectrum of hearing spaces, beating out most people in the community in terms of variety in employment and potential to earn more money. Having the social currency of hearingness- be it embodied, proximal, etc.- grants them the most access and therefore social mobility. Their families’ wealth come in time and time again, as do the networks. But they/we are not named as “elites” because they/we are afforded “invisibility” that comes with normalized models of power/privilege/dominance. 

While it’s important to get into inner-community definitions of “elite”- and I will, soon- one concrete example of the high value of “hearingness currency” is how many of us beat out people considered “elite” in the community in many jobs. Contrary to what many people believe about Deaf schools in entirety, the fact is that hearing people still predominantly make up the teaching body and administrative count. With the exception of a handful of Deaf schools that prioritize hiring Deaf people (AS WE SHOULD), Deaf people with astonishing proximity and embodiment of hearingness are often picked over Deaf who don’t speak and hear, who often are Deaf school alumni. This doesn’t necessarily only happen at a majority of Deaf schools, but rather in mainstreamed Deaf education, universities, disability rights organizations, and more. So I say once again: hearingness is an incredibly wealthy currency. We have not been naming it for what it is, and its harmful impact has been wreaking havoc for generations. We need to pinpoint this aspect as we talk about various community privileges, especially because anything hearing is the center, the norm, the expected. It cannot stay “hidden” any longer. 

 

remembering how we forgot

Despite what I thought of as the “hidden elites,” I also felt that a whole lot of context was missing from the inner-community definitions of “elites/elitism.” The current usage of the term, “Deaf elite” seems to define a group of people in the U.S. Deaf community who are white, sighted and abled, from class-privileged Deaf of Deaf families (especially whose parents have high-ranking positions in certain factions of the community), oftentimes with generational wealth at play (though “wealth” leaves a lot of room for interpretation), ASL-fluent, literate, educationally successful (later going on to earn advanced degrees), from “big”/renowned/thriving Deaf schools, often coming from large, insular Deaf communities which are often pejoratively called “Deaf bubbles, and who are attending at the very least, Gallaudet University (2nd+ generation students), oftentimes Kappa Gamma/Phi Kappa Zeta members (and Delta Epsilon and Alpha Sigma Pi, let’s not have them be off the hook, please, greek organizations are greek organizations), and are apt to go on to assume leadership positions within the Deaf community: likely at Deaf schools, Gallaudet (maybe even NTID? And at certain departments/branches at CSUN?), VRS companies, and/or advocacy organizations. Whew. What a list. 

Over time, I have come to believe in the practice of identifying nuance in many situations, and “Deaf elitism” is among those. I share the following, not out of defense or in hopes of dismissing people’s perspectives or experiences, but rather to see how popularized narratives can become more complex and expansive. I think a starting point is examining how Deaf people came together and built communities together. What’s often -again, pejoratively- called “Deaf bubbles” are often communities that come to rise around a thriving Deaf school- and there are a handful of Deaf schools that, within the past 1-2 generations, have been able to transform themselves out of hearing-run pits of audism and other forms of systemic violence into largely Deaf-staffed institutions, attracting a number of Deaf families. And it makes complete sense that this happened, given the degree of how we struggle with and suffer from systemic oppression and isolation, that Deaf people want to find each other and live among each other. 

I then think about what we name as “Deaf collectivism,” or how the Deaf community historically (and in some ways, currently) has had to rely on collectivist, interconnected behaviors in order to ensure group survival and the transmission of language and values. Information sharing is crucial. Telling each other where we could get gainful employment was a way to let each other know how to feed ourselves and our families. Which landlords are ok with renting to Deaf people. How to fix such and such around the house, or on the car, or where to get bus passes. When the next Deaf club or Deaf school event was so that we could convene and find joy in the daily struggle of surviving audism/oralism/ableism. This was the original “Deaf network,” or something I actually prefer to call the Deaf nexus, which emphasizes interconnectedness and how we had to be interdependent for our survival. The Deaf nexus is the reason why we have sign language(s), a set of cultural traditions/practices/stories, sites of cultural transmission, and much more. And back then, there were Deaf people who never knew that their lives could be dramatically changed if they had access to such community relationships and spaces. And of course, all these experiences became intensified with other marginalized identities a persun may have: be it being Black, Indigenous, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Queer, Trans, an Immigrant/of Color to the US, and so on. 

But there were a series of “cleaves” that threatened the ability to convene with each other- the advent of mainstreamed Deaf education (and fallacious “least restrictive environment” legislation), the rise of access (closed-captioning) and technology with the subsequent the decline and shuttering of Deaf clubs, the closure of many Deaf schools… and the Deaf nexus started becoming more scattered, in concrete terms and in terms of shared values. Again, this community disconnect caused us to be disconnected from ourselves and each other, and this applies to the Deaf nexus and collectivist values. We’ve disassociated from what compelled us to survive as Deaf individuals- we have survived because of each other. But we are forgetting. 

In some highly specific areas in the U.S., Deaf communities arose, but the Deaf nexus was not as present. Why is that? While I believe it is natural, and necessary even, for us to flock to each other, this flocking has become synonymous with different forms of internalized dominance. In our culture that is obsessed with power and dominance, as bell hooks has written about, the opportunity to gain power and dominance feels luxurious. Taking it even further, internalized dominance feels hella good when you battle at least one form of oppression daily. We often believe that the way to a better life includes things that will give us more power over others, often in the name of access; and access politics among the lines of language fluency, literacy, class privilege/wealth, employment networks, community visibility, become very apparent in the characteristics attached with “Deaf elitism.” Our internalized dominance led us astray; how, instead of remaining interdependent and interconnected, we adopted linear and hierarchical models of organizing, especially around notoriety, education, employment within communities we built with each other

For instance, when advances came in our social rights such as the ADA and Deaf President Now- the latter of which finally allowed more Deaf people to assume leadership positions after generations of being blocked by hearing people in being able to do so- more socioeconomic gains were attained through increased employment opportunities. This, combined with several Deaf schools taking the leap in drastically reducing the number of hearing administrators and staff and hiring Deaf people, meant that generational “wealth” slowly became a potential and a reality for several Deaf families. And again – not at all in defense of capitalism- the ability to accumulate wealth has been a near-impossibility for the vast majority of Deaf people through time and history, which really reveals the extent of economic disadvantages and barriers that we have had. However, most of the wealthiest white Deaf people in the community are wealthy because they are from white hearing families who have “old money,” or many generations of inherited wealth- and that is a wholly different ballgame than the few Deaf families who will be able to pass on some level of monetary and material assets to their children. 

We do need to remember that hearing people thinking we are completely inept and incapable has defined much of our historical and current experiences- Deaf schools, Gallaudet, and other spaces we consider “Deaf spaces” were and often are still hearing-dominant spaces. Only recently have some of these spaces become evened out with a Deaf/hearing ratio, and few are Deaf-dominant. In the case of Gallaudet following DPN, more Deaf people were finally able to start holding administrative positions at the university, and these patterns predictably followed structures of racial dominance and privileges, with white Deaf men and racially-privileged (e.g. light-skinned, having proximity to whiteness in their appearance) Deaf men of color, and white Deaf women assuming the ranks. The practice of hiring more Deaf people at some Deaf schools came with the big gain of decreasing toxic hearing presence on school grounds but also came with insularity (e.g. friends hiring friends) that barred others from having access to working at the school. So with gains, came gains in internalizing and propagating different forms of dominance at the expense of multiply-marginalized people in our community. This was the most drastic “cleave” of all, and I imagine that it is difficult to accept and know that we did that to each other- not hearing people. 

Our roots are a collectivist nature, but we followed, internalized, and practiced patterns of power and dominance, including white culture’s tenet of individualism. Individual successes became complex because it signified that the gap between those who were able to have or do x is widely inaccessible to the rest. We also as a community were very desperate and insistent on proving our humanity through our capability of doing things “just like hearing people can!” And in that, I have no doubt that we swallowed up the white-dominance agenda, the (now upper-) middle-class dream of a college education, salaried job, homeownership, academically successful and college-bound kids, and all that. This ideology is inherently exclusive. And right now, we’re being faced in how to dismantle it from the structures we exist in, and also within ourselves. And we must. We must return to and expand on our Deaf nexus values and practices, we must return home to each other. 

Tracking the context of access politics and privileges in our community helps me identify the specific components at play and what needs to be addressed outright and transformed. In having done this, I started to feel more and more how much I did not want to use the term “elite/elitism.” I say this because I also see the terms being a kneejerk label to define many different things, making it a very loose term. I have seen the term freely being applied to anyone who’s Deaf of Deaf, or just straight up associated with the Deaf of Deaf experience. I found this to be wholly irresponsible and erases so much nuance when it comes to racial identities (multi-generational BIPOC Deaf families), socioeconomic experiences (grassroot Deaf people), DeafBlind and DeafDisabled Deaf school alumni, educational levels, textual language access, sign language deprivation (many of us know a couple oral Deaf families- and not all of these family members had hearing access). I also want to venture to say that I sense a dire lack of recognition and gratitude for those who are Deaf of Deaf and who have been among the stakeholders of Deaf schools – because of them, we have the language and community that we have today. There are a lot of things that have to be addressed, taken down, amended, redistributed, and made better- absolutely- but we also have to recognize that altogether shooting down Deaf of Deaf and Deaf schools that effectively fought back and won against hearing dominance is not going to lead us anywhere. And I wonder, among white Deaf people from my background, if we over-apply these frameworks of “elitism” in such ways out of serious envy and misplaced rage towards our hearing families, and our missed-out experiences- not realizing that we are dragging our own community members instead of directing our feelings to the original source of hearing people and systems.

The fact is, many of us white Deaf people have astounding levels of privilege, be them from multigenerational, class-privileged families who steer a Deaf school or aspects of Gallaudet, or folks like me, from well-off hearing families with vast professional networks. Both types fit the definition of “elite” but there are some serious differences here. So does the term really serve us well? No, not really. 

 

white people. 

In time, hella white Deaf people were starting to come out in droves about [other white] “Deaf elites”- their experiences with them and their eager usage of the term to define behaviors and situations of social exclusion in classroom, cafeterias, student organizations, dorm rooms, and other community spaces. The behaviors of the “elites” were defined within a range of exclusive snobbery to cruel “bullying.”  

[To clarify my use of quotations: we exist in a culture that normalizes different forms of abuse, and among the most common is what we call “bullying” but really is a form of abuse that we more or less take as something that just happens in childhood and carries over to adulthood in different spaces- the normalized abuse that it actually is is a symptom of our disconnectedness from ourselves and each other, a distancing that causes us to minimize the very real negative impact we can have on each other, often in the context of a behavioral and/or generational cycle.]

First, we white people are always awful to each other and even worse so to others. Because white people. (Our ancestors and predecessors set the stage and most of us just follow along until we begin to gain authentic consciousness.) Many white Deaf and hearing people are directly responsible for upholding white supremacist cultural practices in many of our community spaces, traumatizing scores of people. This is real and we need to get into it, like a serious restructuring of all of our community spaces. 

And can we name some nuances of the human experience here? Again, not to dismiss or invalidate, but bring in perspectives that have long been unrecognized or even outright refused. Many white Deaf who grew up in the community spotlight, deemed “elite,” have often been targeted in ways that are damaging, hurtful, and (re)traumatizing. And this behavior isn’t just propagated by peers- oftentimes Deaf adults- yes, whole, grown adults- liberally participate. Some examples are:

 

  • community members sharing (mis)information freely about children, resulting in a sheer lack of privacy 

 

  • slut-shaming, or weaponizing girls’ or young queer children’s sexuality against them

 

  • extensive gossiping, fictitious and damaging rumors, often preventing those targeted from seeking out and receiving community support

 

  • repeating and recycling the above narratives from childhood/young adulthood, inhibiting people’s ability to show their personal growth

 

How would you feel if you as an individual, or perhaps your whole family, had to endure all of that your whole life? Naturally, you may have developed a very understandable wariness and guarded nature out of needed self-protection. This has often been translated as “snobbery” or “bad vibes,” completely without context of what many often had to withstand within their communities. (And some of this wariness can also be rooted in cautiousness about newcomers to the community, who have not recognized their internalized audism and destructive behaviors- I am especially thinking of those who are children or grandchildren of survivors of oralism, who hold intergenerational trauma in their own psyches and bodies, too.) 

And many community members have a weird relationship with the term and concept of “elites,” putting them on a very public pedestal: they are admired and envied for having language access, many more opportunities for confidence-building and leadership, and for having a solid circle of longtime friends. On this pedestal, many other community members believe they are afforded full access to them at any time- often causing situations where boundaries are dishonored, and also misinterpretations of people who maybe weren’t having a good day- and then they get slammed for being “elites” who are “exclusive” and “unfriendly,” which people believe is a good basis for propagating harm towards them! Most people will defend their doing this kind of violent, targeted behavior by saying “well, they’re elite!” And? Do you want to continue normalizing this behavior? If so, do you want to end up on the receiving end of such treatment? That’s apt to happen if we continue normalizing it. This is what unhealthy cycles are made of. And on a community level, we already are: the kids are watching and learning from what we’re doing, and we already have a younger generation that thinks that this is perfectly normal and acceptable to do, despite the fact that it will traumatize each one of us if we have to endure it. 

There seems to be a constant call to “own up to being elite” from other white Deaf people who have their own set of privileges. What does this mean? Do you know? What do you want them/us to do specifically? Do you want us/them to “stop being elite”? Do you want having Deaf parents and grandparents to be something to apologize for? For a handful of Deaf schools to be scorned? (What will we say if each shuts down one after the other in the future and we did nothing except have these tired conversations?) What exactly is being called upon to stop? Do you want scores of public apology videos about being “elite”? Are you gonna do some too, based on your own privileges and internalized dominance? Or do you really, on some level, really want past conflicts to be resolved, once you move out of painful but comfortable victimhood? 

[I say the following not in the context of long-term, ongoing abuse.] When we experience harm and/or trauma, these are real experiences. Many of us are hurting- yes because of hearing people, audism, ableism, and also because of each other. What does this mean for our overall community health? For sure we are stuck in a number of destructive cycles. I very much feel a sense of “stuckness” among many of us. And that “stuckness” is often victimhood. In my own personal experience, victimhood can convince us to constantly demand validation from others- replacing personal and collaborative efforts for healing. Victimhood also tells us it’s okay to lash out on others, in fear of being hurt once again. So imagine, all of us being really hurt people who slip into some serious asshole modes. Assholes are in every group and every community. Assholes cause harm. Remember- we live in an overall culture that encourages asshole behavior, and even asshole identities. Most of us have had asshole moments. Some of us have been outright assholes. Some of us are still assholes. Lots of us want to stop being assholes- because we don’t want to receive shit from other assholes. The lines between harmed and harmer are very blurred among many of us, with how much we’re having to endure, and the cycles we’re stuck in.

There is a way to confront past situations where harm happened to us directly and collectively without dragging people publicly, fueling a spectator culture – usually weaponizing social media in the process-  exacerbating conflict without any repair. Do you feel the call for a movement toward resolution, recovery, repair, for our community health? 

 

what now? 

Toward the tail end of the summer, I started to think that the use of “elitism” among white Deaf people likened something like a desperate will to keep using an old, falling-apart bag to cram everything into. A bag that is nearing the end of its life, seams unthreading, holes here and there, little grip and hold left. But because we’ve had it for SO LONG and it’s carried SO MANY THINGS, we MUST STILL USE IT. I’ve seen everything crammed all up in there, from racism, toxic masculinity, fatphobia, the role of CODAs in the community, mainstreamed/Deaf schools,  How can one “bag” encompass all of that? It can’t! 

I understand that there are also many people who genuinely believe that their use of the term “elite/elitism” is an effort to name power dynamics in the community, and to make progress in dismantling that. But the more we examine the use of “elite/elitism,” it becomes obvious that we still need to address all forms of systemic oppression present in our community, be it white supremacy, audism and internalized “hearingness,” toxic masculinity, class privilege, ableism – vidism – vidaudism, cissexism, and so much more. Many things are thrown into this bag, and then the bag, leaking and falling apart, is swung around in retaliation, with all the important details falling out on the way to impact- making it a weaponized tool for white Deaf people’s personal pain. The word “elite/elitism” ends up being largely performative. It prevents us from naming, identifying, and tackling specific things in our community, and I do not believe that this term is supporting our efforts toward healing. 

All of this is why I won’t be using the terms “elite” or “elitism” myself as a white Deaf persun with a staggering amount of privileges. I will not be putting people on that strange, harmful “Deaf elite” pedestal when it is divisive, reflective of personal pain, and neglects the actual dynamics of power/ privilege /oppression /dominance at play. I, like always, will continue to name, analyze, change behavior around, and be receptive to being called in/out about my many privileges. Naming and acting on specific acts of power/dominance/privilege is crucial– and the process of naming can happen through us sharing information, resources, and tools with each other. Perhaps some will think that not using the term will mean that many things won’t be effectively named and confronted, and I would understand that reaction. I do believe that our ability to create new languages to explain our pain and struggle is infinite, not finite, and our potential to find each other again by prioritizing direct communication and building relationships remain untapped. 

We’re all connected to each other in this community, even if we’re finding our way back to each other. (And I am beyond grateful that we still have a community to return to – with all that threatens our existence. My gratitude extends to those who have kept Deaf culture and community alive all these generations.) We are still disconnected. This is impacting our overall community health, which has long been suffering. Why else are we not talking to each other? What if you let yourself imagine that in this world, resolution efforts are possible? What if you knew you could organize something small scale with the people you know – and the degrees of familiarity and proximity are always small numbers, never large, for us in the community- to reach out and talk things through with the people you believe harmed you years before? What if we started believing that people, most of the time, are capable of transformation? What if we turned to each other more often, saying “hey, I didn’t feel good when you did/said that, can you please tell me why things happened like that?” What if we checked in and clarified exchanges and allowed more room and opportunities for repairing situations? Are we ready to do personal and collective processing together? Do we want facilitated Zoom sessions, facing some real shit head on? Maybe if we habitually did this, we could shift from scathing “call-out culture” and towards “learning in public”* together?

In the spirit of Emergent Strategy, we are all interconnected, even if we forget that, or un/consciously distance ourselves from this reality. In distancing ourselves from our inherent interconnectedness, we fill up the gaps with critiques and disdain that widen the gulfs we construct. I cannot help but feel this is exactly what we are doing here- we are getting stuck in certain emotional mindsets of our (real) pain and going on to project it onto others, using said pain to justify our words and actions. But what if we became more responsible in this process? What if we remember our interconnectedness? The Deaf nexus? Would that inspire us to seek out repairing connections rather than intensifying disruptions? What if we started moving with and around each other in the way of, “if you are harmed, we all are harmed. We help you repair and recover so we all repair and recover.”

Right now, we are at “elite/elitism.” And what is beyond this point? I think there are directions, spaces, opportunities that hold much more. In those, could we create and commit to new intentions? Could we name and confront all forms of injustice, and the ways we get hurt and hurt each other? Could we dedicate ourselves to restoring community health? Could we trust the complex process of transformation through individual and collective healing?

What will it take for you? I am here. Are you? Are we?

 


*  I saw  “learning in public” from adrienne maree brown in this piece

 

 

ASL Summary:

[Captioned in English; access information found in YouTube link description.]

 

Follow-up:

This vlog was created two days after the release of this blog. [Captioned in English; access information found in YouTube link description.]

6 Comments

  1. Ali Hamar Ali Hamar

    Thank you for this great vlog/research. I would like to suggest having a webinar with Q/A available or live discussion. It’s a need for deaf/hoh community to have healthy open dialogue of course with guidelines with rules in regards respecting one’s perspective.

    • I agree! I am seeing others suggesting the same thing- this should definitely happen soon.

  2. Ying Ying

    I really enjoyed this read. Spot on about the call-out culture which I think is toxic especially over social media. I think a lot of people would benefit from being more aware of how their words can make a difference between reconciling or exacerbating the divisions within our community, and between communities in general.

    • I agree… more intentionality *and* mindfulness with our use of social media would make a huge difference.

  3. Michele Westfall Michele Westfall

    YES! I’m soooo thrilled to see this reframing, and I think you’re on the right track.

  4. Tony Nicholas Tony Nicholas

    This is frigging brilliant A Lot to unpack but very articulate.

    I’m an Aussie Deaf, grew up Oral, mainstream school. I recognised so much of this, and am still working through it, because it goes around in never ending cycles.

    Simply, Thank you.

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