We need to talk about the cultural appropriation of sign language
(Picture: Getty)

As a hearing person, sign language isn’t something I’ve given much thought to. 

I learned to sign my name in primary school, but that was pretty much the extent of things. At least it was until I found myself caught in an online debate about the cultural appropriation of sign language.

METRO GRAPHICSWhy isn’t a major fetish site allowing people to share photos of period blood?

That’s a big sentence, so let’s break it down.

American singer Banks posted a video of herself signing as part of a performance. Apparently she had felt inspired by the Deaf community and wanted to add sign into her performance.

Model and American’s Next Top Model winner Nyle Di Marco then retweeted the video with the following caption:

‘I’m sorry but I’m Deaf and fluent in sign language and I can’t understand her at all.’

He then went on to add:

‘Artists has been known to be profiting off our sign language. Our language is our culture and this is cultural appropriation. The best way to do it would be doing it with a Deaf person or hiring a Deaf person to sign only. We rise by lifting others.’

Cultural appropriation is a relatively new concept. It hinges on the idea of a person taking a cultural touch stone and using it for their own benefit, without giving due credit or respect to the source.

We see if when white women wear a bindi or Native American inspired headress to festivals without thinking about what they mean, or when mainstream designers steal ideas from artists who have used their cultural backgrounds as inspiration.

I spoke to Mary Harman, who is Deaf and fluent in sign language and asked her to explain to me why the cultural appropriation of sign language is a problem.

She told Metro.co.uk:

‘Banks’ use of ASL is not a problem; her broadcasted incorrect use of ASL is a problem. We, Deaf people, have no problem with hearing people using ASL. In fact, we are very happy to see ASL being used and embraced by the society on an increasingly larger scale!

‘We love seeing more and more hearing people learning how to sign and we welcome more to learn. However, Banks’ incorrect use of ASL is a major problem because it perpetuates misrepresentation, trivialization, and cultural appropriation in the name of art— it okays incorrectly broadcasting an entire language, history, culture, and people.’

‘This trivializes everything ASL encompasses. I saw a lot of offended people on Twitter, claiming that Banks is just learning ASL and was trying her best, and because of these reasons, committed no cultural wrong.

‘I want to point out that the Deaf community was not attacking Banks but simply trying to point out that there is a big difference between learning ASL and making linguistic mistakes while learning it and broadcasting incorrect ASL as a real language.’

We need to talk about the cultural appropriation of sign language
Singer Banks on stage (Picture: Getty)

Banks’ defenders online have claimed that anyone who is learning a language is going to mistakes, which makes the criticism of her signing extremely unfair. But as Mary explains, there’s a little more to this issue than that.

‘When you are learning ASL, or any language, you are expected to make mistakes— we Deaf people know and expect this — but we don’t expect our language and culture to be incorrectly broadcasted.

‘If a well-celebrated non-Spanish artist used extremely incorrect Spanish in a music video, Spanish-speaking people are going to rightfully point out the artist’s mistakes. Why are Deaf people not entitled to the same right?’

‘Hearing artists can use ASL in their work as long as ASL is used correctly AND representatively. The best way they can do this sensitively and without appropriating is to have a Deaf person sign with them in their work, have a Deaf person sign the signed parts, and/or at least consulting with Deaf individuals who use ASL fluently and give credit where credit is due.

‘This will not only correctly add on the rich beauty of ASL to an artistic platform, but also do so in a socioculturally sustainable way. If you want to use ASL on an artistic platform, you have a responsibility to do so in a correct way.’

What Mary hits on here is an interesting parallel.

When Justin Bieber joined Pitbull, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee on Despacito, he encountered similar accusations. There was nothing wrong with JB joining the song, and let’s face it, it’s a great track. But the fact that he couldn’t speak a word of Spanish and ended up singing ‘bla bla bla’ at a performance?

We need to talk about the cultural appropriation of sign language
Justin was accused of being insensitive when he couldn’t sing in Spanish. (Picture: Getty)

Disrespectful.

Mary goes on to explain: ‘As a Deaf person who is fluent in ASL, I was not able to understand Banks. I understood a few individual signs but they did not formulate any coherent sentences or lyrics.

‘But it is important to me to point out that Banks exhibited a willingness to be a part of a solution when she acknowledged her incorrect use of ASL and invited Nyle, a Deaf person, to work with her in correcting her linguistic mistakes. Banks set a great precedent by doing this and as a Deaf person, I appreciate this.’

That’s the thing about cultural appropriation. Sometimes it’s motivated by greed and nastiness, but just as often it’s an accident. We’re all capable of being ignorant, and it’s not the mistakes that we make, but how we respond when that ignorance is pointed out that is an indicator of our character.

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