Protests at Gallaudet raise familiar questions about identity

October 27, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- To "mainstream" or not to "mainstream"? That is the question that energizes student and faculty protests at Gallaudet University.

The return of protests at America's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hearing-impaired has been obscured by other big stories in Washington these days. But in many ways, the complicated and emotion-charged politics of Gallaudet reveal a much larger story. It is a saga about identity, the many ways we humans see ourselves as individuals or as groups, and how far we will go to keep our groups intact.

Mainstreaming is the integration of a minority group, like the disabled, into the social mainstream. But to many deaf activists, that's a condescending view, a form of "audism" by hearing supremacists. Many deaf people see themselves not as "disabled" but as "differently abled." In the new deaf culture, Gallaudet is more than a school; it is a Mecca of deaf identity, a sense of selfhood that often feels under siege from outside and inside the nonhearing community.

Some alumni have flown in from as far away as Australia to join the protests. More than 709 "tent city" protests have been held across the country, according to Deafeye.com.

As one Gallaudet official explained, imagine America with only one school for blacks or Catholics or Jews, and you can get a small idea of what a big deal the college's protest is in the world of the nonhearing.

Deaf culture rose up angrily in 1988 when an earlier generation of Gallaudet students brought about the appointment of I. King Jordan, the school's first deaf president since its founding in 1864.

Now Mr. Jordan is leaving, and the appointment of his replacement has ignited a new round of protests that have kicked the debate up a notch. A big notch. The incoming president, Jane K. Fernandes, has been deaf since birth and read lips until she learned sign language at age 23. According to some who learned to sign before they learned English, Ms. Fernandes' fluency is a little off. In a community of people who grow up being left out of many conversations, the way one communicates takes on added importance. It defines your identity.

Out of this conundrum, a political vocabulary has emerged with a familiar-sounding ring: How deaf is she? Is she "deaf enough"? Is she "playing the deaf card" against her critics, or vice versa?

These phrases sound familiar. As a black American male from the Midwest, I understand the power of identity. Black Americans of my generation care a lot about identity because we engaged in so many struggles - public and personal - to have one that we could call our own.

Identity is how we see ourselves. You can identify with conditions of birth over which you have no control: your race, your ethnic group, your hometown. Or you can identify with conditions of choice: your occupation, your religion, your neighborhood.

Modern science has given some of the deaf a way out of the hearing-impaired world. An operation called cochlear implant can help some of the deaf to hear, which means they could leave the community of the deaf. Heather Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America, has had the device implanted.

But not all of the deaf greet this operation happily. Those who struggle fiercely for cultural purity see the cochlear implant as "cultural genocide," a threat to their numbers. In the culture of the deaf, modern medical technology poses a special dilemma.

Such is the double-edged nature of identity. In a vast, complex and uncertain world, our familiar culture gives us a comfort zone, one that has its own gravitational pull. It can be liberating or it can be as treacherous as the pull that Michael Corleone's family business exerts on him in The Godfather trilogy. Every time he tries to get out of the crime world, he laments, it pulls him back in.

Yet, as I advise African-American college students to leave their comfort zones once in a while and familiarize themselves with the larger world in which they can play a valuable part, I cannot help but advise the same for those who feel too comfortable in the world of the deaf.

As one authority quoted by the Web site DeafCulture.com noted, the culture "encompasses communication, social protocol, art, entertainment, recreation (e.g., sports, travel and deaf clubs), and worship. It's also an attitude, and, as such, can be a weapon of prejudice - `You're not one of us; you don't belong.'"

That's the danger of identity movements. When you divide the world between "us" and "them," even in reaction to prejudices, you run the risk of developing dangerous prejudices of your own.

There's a larger world out there. Get to know it and give it a chance to know you.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Trudy Rubin's column will return on Tuesday.

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