Wednesday, July 11, 2007

If You're Gonna Read this Blog, You'd Better Learn to Speak My Language...

The debate over whether to disenfranchise voters of color has recently manifested itself in the issue of ballot translation. The hesitation to provide full Chinese translation in areas of high Chinese American populations has been fueled by concerns over the mixed connotations of character sounds. A recent article in USA Today covered the issue.

Let's go ahead and sidestep the offensive Chinese menu analogy that sets up the article and get right to the heart of the matter: the offensive nature of the argument itself. The conflict is this: make the full translations in order to give Chinese American voters who are not fluent in English the autonomy to vote independently, OR fail to make these translations because some character sounds have negative connotations. Somehow, I don't think this is the real issue.

As I see it, the debate hinges on issues of intelligence and superiority, as they are linked to white supremacy and imperialism. The assumptions reify the concept that white is right.

1) English is better. If you come to this country, learn the dominant language (the ignorance of many U.S. citizens to other dominant U.S. languages (like Spanish and, oh yeah! Cantonese.), to other world languages, or even English illiteracy in the U.S. are all non-issues).

2) English fluency is a sign of intelligence; the reverse is true as well. People who don't speak English (like, oh, I don't know...say, the Chinese Americans who would be helped by ballot translation) must inherently be less intelligent. Such individuals cannot possibly decipher candidate names from arbitrary connotations. They must have no news source, eyes, or ears with which to familiarize themselves with candidates, stances, and ballot issues prior to voting. Never mind their varied educational backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, and personalities; never mind the poly lingual exposure they've had; never mind their ability to navigate multiple cultures at once.

I'm reminded of those trips to the store I used to make with my grandmother when I was younger. Store employees would ignore her, in her sari, as she asked for something simple like salt. When they did give her their attention, they'd respond to her accent by bending down, shouting, and speaking slowly so she could read their lips. My grandmother's an author. She's translated books from Sanskrit, Kannada, and Hindi to English. She gave me my first lessons in Spanish, yoga, and painting. Yet, her accent was a marker of being unintelligent--and it triggered the stereotypes of age, race, and ability that go with it.

So even though she is fluent in the English of India under British colonial rule, my grandmother's foreign appearance elicits questions of her intelligence and her ability to navigate the nuances of U.S. culture. It's no wonder that this kind of reasoning is being used in order to disenfranchise U.S. voters of color. This is the logic that founded our nation--through motivated constructions of difference. Dark is ugly. evil. suited for labor. less human. less intelligent. White is right.

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