We gather here to consider Brendan Stern's recent Deaf Politics article on Engaging Governor Daugaard. His is the first public defense of NAD's decision to go forth with their decision to give Daugaard a platform at the 2012 conference as one of the plenary speakers. Before getting into the dialogue, all three of us would like to take a moment to thank Mr. Stern for contributing his perspective to the discussion surrounding the NAD’s decision to invite Gov. Daugaard. This is a complex issue that has excited the passions of the deaf community, and we acknowledge that it takes courage to present an unpopular view in the face of community uproar.
Here, we dialogue on Stern's article and share our thoughts:
Stern opens his article with: “As a white, deaf, heterosexual male majoring in political science with a special focus on civil rights and minority movements…”
ER: This is a disclaimer that I did initially appreciate. It is crucial that we identify the systems of privileges/oppressions that we come from in order to make our words even more conspicuous. However, the disclaimer that one specializes in studies of ‘civil rights and minority movements’ does not remove the complicity that one would have with systems of privilege that act as deterrents to social justice if an intensive ally-building process has not been sought out.
AA: Yes. There does seem to be an insertion of the suggestion that “I’m white… but I can speak to those issues because I learned about them in school.”
ER: Exactly. That’s why the disclaimer failed—or rather, prepared me for white male rhetoric.
OR: We do have to be cautious about accepting at face value when a person professes their privileges as an example that they understand their privileged positions–we need to examine what is actually said. The heart of the matter in this discussion, for me, is urging the NAD and the deaf community to examine those lived experiences and the systems of privilege and/or oppression within which those experiences occurred. To understand this is to better understand how our participation and the leadership within the organization is informed. To be transparent about how our lived experience shapes our responses is important to our dialogue. I can tell you from lived experience that academic training, while illuminating, is not enough.
AA: I don't know about you two, but the overall tone of the article felt condescending. And maybe that ties in with some of those privileges. There was an underlying message of, "C'mon, what's the big deal, folks? It's just a speech. And besides, us powerless deaf people gotta take what we can get." That struck me as very ironic, because if you think about "engaging" people—that's not the way to go, at all.
"There was an underlying message of, 'C'mon, what's the big deal, folks? It's just a speech. And besides, us powerless deaf people gotta take what we can get.' That struck me as very ironic, because if you think about 'engaging' people—that's not the way to go, at all."
OR: This does remind me of many examples within history where the disenfranchised have accepted money, political power, and what not from those in power, believing that they were advancing the sociopolitical ladder. They said the very same thing, “We gotta take what we can. We just don’t have that much power.” But that was really a means of control by those in power–it’s just a reminder we must be critical with whom we form alliances. If we accept Daugaard, what doors does that open for us that might backfire on us down the road?
ER: Yes. Stern wrapped up his article by stating that “… the real challenge for the diverse members of the Deaf Community and the NAD is probably not to exclude people of influence but to work together in finding creative ways to engage them on a variety of issues, not in spite of but precisely because of their intolerant positions.”
With this line, we see the most problematic aspect of the piece: “a white, deaf, heterosexual male,” the very sort of person NAD caters to, tells us deaf people who are not white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, middle/upper-class, well-educated just what we should do. Never mind the fact that many of us will not even be given much access to be able to engage in this discussion! Come on. As a deaf Woman of Color, I cannot allow a white man who is in good favor with NAD try to lecture us in what we should do. This goes back to the great need to take a critical lens and authentic action towards unpacking and ceasing the inequities that occur within our own community. Telling us that we should roll on our backs and allow Daugaard to speak at NAD is basically telling us that the power system within the deaf community not only reduplicates what we see in general, ‘hearing’ society, but that this system is completely reinforced. We cannot accept this.
AA: Plus there’s a sense of that separation between “we” (white, male, heterosexual as central) and “the diverse” (people of color, LGBT, women as those who are “different.”). This is something many white people are oblivious and/or insensitive to, I think. We often don’t see ourselves as diverse, too—rather, we’re the norm, everyone else is diverse (read: “different.”).
ER: The marginalized within the marginalized remain marginalized.
"The marginalized within the marginalized remain marginalized."
OR: Yes. One does wonder what he meant by phrasing it as “diverse members of the Deaf Community, rather than diverse members within the NAD.” But it does place “diverse folk” on the periphery. I disagree with asking someone (Daugaard) who has actively narrowed individual rights to come speak to a group of people who are advocating for their rights while he does not stand for their rights as multifaceted people, again speaking to those who feel they’re placed on the periphery. There’s a major difference between working with politicians of all backgrounds behind the scenes on specific issues to advance the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people and providing a platform to that person to speak.
AA: And even, why is it up to diverse members alone to challenge some of that oppression, to engage with folks like Daugaard?
OR: The point of this discourse we’re trying to have with the NAD and with the larger Deaf Community–that this is joint work and we all share the burden in this effort toward creating an organization that is truly representative of the diversity of the deaf community.
ER: Exactly. If we’re gonna throw out the buzzwords of “diversity” and “diverse” to describe our community, we damn well better be ready to do the actual work.
AA: Yes, absolutely. And you know what, if we’re going to be “schooled” on the political arena, we need to be able to think beyond simple explanations and excuses like the ones we’re getting about why Daugaard is deserving of a platform at the NAD convention.
OR: Alison, precisely–and Elena, I agree and add we need to not just do the work, but to understand what those words mean in the first place. I think—correct me if I’m wrong—that people have a really superficial understanding of diversity. A couple of posters with “diverse” folk and the occasional Miss Deaf America of color does not diversity make.
"I think—correct me if I'm wrong—that people have a really superficial understanding of diversity. A couple of posters with 'diverse' folk and the occasional Miss Deaf America of color does not diversity make."
AA: Tavian, it’s more than understanding diversity and all those buzzwords. It’s also about understanding your own identity and privileges therein. I can’t understand diversity if I don’t take the time to explore my whiteness, my complicity with the system.
OR: Alison, I think that the refusal to explore one’s own whiteness/maleness/cisgenderness/heterosexuality or complicity with the system does constitute as acts of oppression however unconscious. Intangible, yet real. Because then that translates into actions and situations where there are more acts, intangible and tangible, that are perpetuated.
AA: Okay, I can’t stop here. Is it unconscious anymore when you have a community in an uproar letting you know you’re oppressing?
OR: I started this discussion last week in the hopes that we would become conscious as a community. For example, providing Daugaard a platform was a failure on the part of the leadership to examine their positions of privilege. To that end, providing a platform is an acknowledgement, acceptance, and affirmation of what he stands for and a statement that the NAD leadership is willing to overlook his civil rights records and their own complicity. I do think there is a difference between a University and a Civil Rights organization providing a platform. The former has a supposed function as a neutral, apolitical site for the free exchange of ideas but the latter is political in purpose and serves a different function.
ER: I would go on to counter the idea of the university being a “neutral” space—universities, like most of the institutions we know and see in society, are determined by specific power structures. If we analyze how the university is structured, we see that it is a space steeped in the Western, male tradition—just as our political system is. Thus, there is no real “neutral” space, and I think it’s essential that we identify how any given space is still determined by those in power. A level playing field is more mythical than it is reality.
OR: Thank you, Elena, for pointing out something I hadn’t considered. Although not directly related to the discussion, or perhaps it is, this does illustrate my privileges as a white American male and a reminder that we all, even those who are already conscious, need to continue to always critically interrogate our own privileges. Without delving too far and deep into the idea of Universities being neutral sites–can we see if there is, at least, a difference in the function of the sites of an academic institution and a political advocacy organization?
AA: And then connecting that back to Stern’s comments—the bottom line is that whether Universities or Civil Rights Organizations, giving platform to oppressive views simply empowers those views. And worse yet, “teaching to” the very group whose marginalizations are a direct result of some of the governor’s choices and decisions. That’s simply offensive.
OR: May I make one last point? Daugaard isn’t simply presenting a difference in opinions or diversity of views. He legislated against disenfranchised groups. Groups that were already not in possession of political and economic power, and shoved them even further down into the pits. I mean, really, ever heard of the bully pulpit? We’re giving a pulpit to a bully.
AA: Absolutely. Big difference. And going back to some of what Elena started to touch on earlier, regarding engagement and inclusion of marginalized groups: I think we need to dissect the word, "engagement" and what that looks like in transformation work.
ER: You mentioned that we are enabling a “bully,” Tavian—this takes us to the needed critique of who is really in charge of this conference. Stern threw out that we could engage in a “free exchange of ideas” with Daugaard. “Free exchange of ideas” for whom? And how? And with that?
A “free exchange of ideas” requires an even, level playing field—where the “players” can be equal contributors in order to ensure actual equity. Is such a thing even possible at the NAD conference? Who is NAD? By default, who will get the front, second, third row seats for this “free exchange”? NAD remains a largely white organization that caters to deaf people of specific socioeconomic statuses.
So, if we imagine this “free exchange of ideas”: a group of mainly white, well-educated deaf men and some women, all of whom are complicit with having Daugaard present at the plenary. How would those of us who are not white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, and able-bodied have our space in this playing field without continuing to be seated many rows behind? How will this “free exchange of ideas” take place? Will it only be for the educated, white deaf men and women, whom we may or may not be able to trust in representing us? The structuring of this exchange is inseparable from who will be involved, therefore exposing the existent, thinly veiled barriers.
When we identify who gets to be at this exchange, and how things will be structured, we’re left with a very uneven playing field that reinforces the power structures within our own community.
AA: Absolutely. There’s a lack of authentic equality present. And to shift the discussion a bit, Stern writes: “the NAD should not only commit itself to the free exchange of ideas for the sake of achieving this democratic ideal, but also because it does not have a choice from a practical standpoint. As a civil rights organization representing a low-power, low-incidence group in the U.S. political system. . .”
One might infer from this statement that we are “stuck,” and that we “need” people like Daugaard. This is exactly the type of framework that our community is actively working to transform: we are not powerless.
OR: That reminds me of what we spoke about earlier, engagements and alliances where Stern argues that by engaging with Daugaard, we’re creating an important alliance. I think we should be careful about alliances, what I was trying to say earlier, my thought is we are trading in potentially powerful blocs of allies, particularly outside of the disability bloc of coalitions, for a weak ally. We are politically savvy enough to understand Daugaard would not bring us the GOP. If the NAD reframed its lens and started to look at things differently, by applying authentic, intersectional lens, the NAD can create a powerful coalition with organizations such as, say, the NAACP and other groups with massive political and economic power and the clout to promote our cause where Daugaard cannot and, more importantly, has not.
"If the NAD reframed its lens and started to look at things differently, by applying authentic, intersectional lens, the NAD can create a powerful coalition with organizations such as, say, the NAACP and other groups with massive political and economic power and the clout to promote our cause where Daugaard cannot and, more importantly, has not."
AA: Definitely, Tavian. Stern also states, “For the NAD to support and expand civil rights . . . it has to recognize the U.S.’s majoritarian political system and, in turn, embrace the necessity of imaginative coalition building in which blatant forms of inequality are eradicated through collaboration and accommodation.”
In examining the above statement with a critical lens, several things are noted: First, the “majoritarian political system” is an illusion. Our current political system favors the few powerful, not the majority.
OR: Interjecting here, but yes! 99%/OWS, anyone? Back to you, Alison.
AA: The 1% yup. Second, Stern is essentially asserting his dominance as a privileged white male by stating that “blatant forms of inequality must be eradicated only through collaboration”—and, interestingly enough, “accommodation.” Elena and Tavian, I’m not sure what to think about that word choice. What would that look like, if we were to eradicate through accommodation?
ER: We can interpret Stern’s word choice of “accommodation” as him assuming a vertical rather than horizontal posture. He speaks to us as a stakeholder in elite deaf organizations, and as you said, asserts his and NAD’s dominance. The more we critique this frame, the more our social positions—if we are not deaf, white, straight, cis-gendered, middle-class/educated men—become more stark.
OR: Alison, the word accommodation, historians have argued that accommodation was an ineffective model for advancing civil rights. I won’t bore anyone with historical details but various groups have tried that approach and history has shown the accommodation approach was ineffective. Yes, the more we pull this apart, the more we see privilege and lens become apparent. Speaking of which, Stern is suggesting that we copy the past, but as a historian I suggest we learn from history. We must evolve and cannot rely upon outdated models of activism.
AA: I also question NAD’s commitment to coalition building and actively seeking political alliances. It almost feels lazy, that connection with Daugaard. He’s convenient because he’s accessible on some level. Are we throwing disenfranchised groups under the bus because NAD doesn’t want to work hard to build those relationships?
ER: Alison, I got the same sentiment. I have had a tenuous relationship with NAD for this very reason—I have not seen any authentic action on NAD’s part for disenfranchised groups within our community, and like many other deaf People of Color, this continues the legacy of mistrust between us and NAD. This Daugaard debacle only serves to exacerbate this mistrust.
OR: I concede that it is rare to have a high-ranking public executive with that personal connection to the deaf community. If he genuinely cares, he would work behind the scenes without our catering to his ego and having him as a featured speaker. But that’s beside the point. We should ask what criterion the NAD relies upon for inviting speakers and how broadly they define what their options are, e.g. do they look beyond deaf connections? One issue that bothers many people within this larger discussion is the insistence that we must accept each other and coalesce as a community around one shared facet of our identity, being deaf, without truly understanding each other as multifaceted people, each with different experiences that intersect with being deaf. Elena, you speak of authentic action on part of the NAD, and this sort of thing, addressing this issue of identity is one way of addressing that, authentically, action speaking?
ER: Yes, we need to stop approaching the deaf community as a monolithic community, wherein us being deaf ASL-users is all-encompassing, an automatic bond. When I see members of our own community tell us to stop tearing down NAD, to focus on the “real” issue at hand—hearing oppression of the deaf community—I am instantly brought back to Audre Lorde’s line “there is no hierarchy of oppressions.” We cannot let those who assert and maintain their dominance in our community preach to us what we should think/feel/do. NAD needs to take authentic action in stating that our community is indeed a diverse one that struggles with multiple systems of oppression, and that NAD, as a civil rights organization, should not and cannot be complicit with said systems of oppression.
"NAD needs to take authentic action in stating that our community is indeed a diverse one that struggles with multiple systems of oppression, and that NAD, as a civil rights organization, should not and cannot be complicit with said systems of oppression."
OR: Speaking of authentic action, Elena, I do want to speak to the NAD’s statement on their website about inviting Daugaard on the basis of his political expertise. If the objective was merely to gain insights on the political process from an expert, there are thousands of options ranging from former and current politicians to political scientists, lobbyists, and successful civil/human rights leaders who could accomplish the same while affirming the organization’s authentic commitment to inclusion. Inviting a prominent politician or leader well known for their work in other arenas would also have been the opportunity to expose the membership in attendance to the ideas of "cross-civil rights" work while sharing the same expertise on the processes and educating the membership on intersectionality, inclusion, and marginalization of the various aspects of the deaf community. This is the inauthenticity that I and many others refer to. I hope that it is coming from a place of not being sufficiently informed and that our dialogue has paved the way toward evolving the NAD into an organization that is truly representative of all of us.
ER: Indeed. It is my hope that others continue such crucial dialogue in the name of transformative justice. Thank you for having us take this step.
AA: Agreed, absolutely. Elena and Tavian, it has been an honor to engage in dialogue with both of you. I learned so much, even in our short journey together. Thank you.
OR: Elena and Alison, we’ve had an amazing conversation. I have learned from both of you and hope that this type of dialogue will continue throughout the community.
ER: Fist up!
AA: Fist up!
OR: Fist up!
View an American Sign Language version of this article.
ABOUT ALISON AUBRECHT
Alison Aubrecht is a child of the world, though she has often felt safer experiencing it through books. Aubrecht currently works full time with Facundo Element, a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice activism: www.facundoelement.com.
ABOUT OCTAVIAN ROBINSON
Octavian Robinson is a PhD candidate working on the final stages of his dissertation about the deaf community's campaigns for citizenship during the early 20th century. His field of expertise is the expansion of citizenship in the United States and the advancement of civil rights for women, African-Americans, people with disabilities, and the American Deaf Community. When not writing, he basks under the Southern California sun with his four-legged sidekick and a pile of books.
ABOUT ELENA RUIZ
Elena Ruiz is a quintessential over-politicized graduate student in Gallaudet University’s Deaf Cultural Studies program, slated to graduate in spring 2013. Born and raised in Sacramento, CA, she identifies as a political radical Xicana-Latina deaf queer woman, as her pen name sordaradical depicts. Though political activism + cultural critiquing is her game, she enjoys quiet reading time, cooking, and practicing non-culturally appropriated yoga.