Tomorrow millions of people will tune in to watch Super Bowl 51 when the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons for the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy. And if they stay glued to their television sets during the Halftime Show, they will be treated to a performance by Lady Gaga…accompanied by a sign language interpreter.
As a Deaf person who does enjoy music, I’m happy to learn of this effort to provide access to deaf and hard of hearing football viewers.
However, I am not so happy about the choice of an interpreter.
Don’t get me wrong – Amber Galloway Gallego is a skilled interpreter, who specializes in interpreting music. I’ve enjoyed watching videos of her translations of various songs.
Why is this a big deal?
Because in accepting this job, Amber G has effectively “stolen the limelight” from those skilled Deaf performers who are equally talented, and just as capable of performing on this international stage.
But rather than trying to explain this myself, I’m going to share words of wisdom written by a Deaf colleague – Raychelle Harris. I think she says it all, and far better than I could.
I’d like to share a passage I wrote from pages 250-252 in Exploring Deaf Culture: Deaf Communities in the United States (Leigh, Andrews & Harris, 2018). This book was written specifically for adults new to ASL and Deaf Culture.
Admittedly, it was easier to write about this in a book, but so, very, much harder to post on Facebook! I actually had this in draft form on my Facebook page since June 2016. Here goes! 🙂
“A common practice that is of concern to the Deaf community is when hearing people sign songs in what they think is ASL, achieving some popularity online, for monetary gain. The practice of gaining fame and/or making money from sign language that is rendered incorrectly is not ethical and is often considered to be cultural and language appropriation (Maler, 2013; Torrance, 2014; Whitworth, 2014; Zola, 2015). Cultural and language appropriation happens when elements of a language or culture are taken from a minority culture, and used by members of the majority culture, often associated with portraying themselves as seeming charitable and sweet by helping disabled people or minority groups, possibly used to gain fame, earn revenue, find job opportunities, or increase their social media presence by having more followers (Hill, 2008).
Hearing people learning sign language often think it is fun to translate songs written in English to ASL, often with good intentions, but they do not realize that this practice is offensive to the Deaf community. Although they mean well, hearing amateurs signing songs are found on YouTube, and their links often have more viewers than actual Deaf signing professionals and their professionally translated ASL songs (Zola, 2015). Often the hearing signers or interpreters, signing songs, are more there for hearing people’s enjoyment and awe, rather than to provide actual, authentic access for Deaf audiences.
This is a good example of what is termed inspiration porn, where people with disabilities or instruments needed for their access (e.g., walking cane or sign language) are objectified and made into something that makes hearing audiences feel good about themselves (Grushkin, 2014; 2015). Westfall (2015) adds that opportunities, paid or not, to translate songs from English to ASL are often given to hearing people who sign, while numerous expert Deaf actors and performers are frequently and inadvertently overlooked. A recent example of language and cultural appropriation was when Jimmy Kimmel hosted a “rap battle,” where people on stage translated Wiz Khalifa’s song as he performed “Black and Yellow”. Of the three white women on stage, two were hearing (Okrent, 2014; Zola, 2015). Why weren’t professional Black Deaf rappers, who spent years studying and performing their craft, invited?
Another example of unintentional language and cultural appropriation is when Brian Guendling, an ASL student at Texas State University, decided to “put on the First Sign Language Concert Ever” by performing “Uptown Funk” at a bar (Patterson, 2015). He posted the video footage of his performance on YouTube and within 3 days, there were over 65,000 views (a few months later, his video had over 228,000 views), and he woke up to over 200 messages, as well as many media and interview requests, and had many articles about him published in prominent news outlets such as CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated (Rodriguez, 2015).
After a few weeks, Guendling revised his YouTube video description, eliminating the line, “First Sign Language Concert Ever” and replacing that line with:
I know this is not the first ASL “concert” as I do want to acknowledge those that work very hard and do a fantastic job at what they do, The Wild Zappers, Sean P Forbes, WaWa (Warren Snipe), and the San Antonio Deaf Dance company” (Guendling, 2015, p.1).
Contrast this with a popular Deaf ASL song translator in the Deaf community, Rosa Lee Timm, a professional Deaf performance artist honing her craft for over two decades. Her very popular live solo performances for the Deaf community all over the United States are always sold out. She has approximately 7,000 subscribers for her YouTube page, and none of her professionally produced ASL translations have reached the numbers ASL student Brian Guendling reached in 3 days. Below is a video of Rosa Lee signing a translation of “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” by Tina Turner.
Sign language came from Deaf people, who share their language with hearing people freely and in abundance. How might they feel when hearing people take credit in using sign language that belongs to Deaf people and Deaf communities? Many Deaf community members feel this way: Hearing people who learn sign language can certainly embrace the role of an ally. However, it is strongly recommended that they keep their often sadly butchered, signed songs to the confines of their shower stall and work to ensure that the spotlight is kept on Deaf artists and performers when it comes to expressing ASL translated songs in their culture and language (Efron, 2014). Although this may seem a harsh criticism, it is not, because this issue points to how the Deaf community is uncomfortable with hearing person’s misuse of their language and lack of linguistic respect for ASL.
[Text Box: Explore the meaning of an ally. Norma Morán, a Deaf Latina, noted that there is no such thing as an ally, but instead, acts of allyship. What are examples of acts of allyship that you have done with marginalized communities?]”
PLEASE NOTE: The National Anthem performed at the Super Bowl will be interpreted by a Deaf person – Kriston Lee Pumphrey, a Deaf performing artist who works as a news anchor at the Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN) in Detroit, Michigan.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Raychelle Harris for writing this article and originally posting it on Facebook to call attention to this issue; and granting permission for it to be shared here.