WHAT MATTERS

with Janee Woods

Lessons I Learned About Privilege From Watching Too Much Television

You may have read that recent nonsense on Deadline.com about there being “too much diversity” on television now that some roles that were written for white actors are being cast with ethnic actors. Too much diversity on television? That’s like saying there are too many stars in the night sky. It also misses the point entirely.

The average person my age watches around 35 hours of per television per week. I’ve always been an overachiever, so I watch 40 hours per week. I watch TV while cooking dinner, folding the laundry, brushing my teeth—pretty much any time I’m doing whatever I need to do and can do it in front of a screen. I sometimes joke and say that channel surfing is my second job but, in some ways, it’s more like an education.

I once heard someone say there are four kinds of knowing. 1) You know what you know. 2) You know that you don’t know about some things. 3) You know what you think you know, but you’re wrong. 4) You don’t know what you don’t know. My excessive television consumption has revealed that I have been mistaken about what I believed I knew, and the reason is because I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Last week I was binge-watching Switched at Birth, a show about two teenage girls from very different class and racial backgrounds, who discover that they were mixed up at the hospital and sent home with the wrong families. One girl is deaf, so the series highlights deaf culture and involves deaf characters (played by deaf actors; not hearing actors pretending to be deaf, which is amazing). A recent plotline revolves around a deaf athlete named Travis, who was never a strong student at his deaf high school, and who now struggles to maintain decent grades at a hearing university. In one episode, when it looks as though Travis might fail an English paper because his writing skills are deficient, he blows up in frustration at a tutor’s suggestion that he work harder. Travis explains that his writing skills are not up to par because he usually communicates with sign language.

Now here’s the part that made me stop and rewind.

sign language groupThe issue isn’t that Travis isn’t smart. The issue isn’t even that Travis needs to work harder. The real issue is that the paper must be written in English, which is his second language. As a nonspeaking deaf person fully immersed in deaf culture, his first language is American Sign Language (ASL), so of course he faces challenges when trying to write a college level paper in a language he does not speak fluently. English does not translatedirectly into ASL- verb tenses and the sentence structure is quite different. ASL has a physicality that is not present in English. They are two distinct languages.

ASL and English are not the same! I had no idea.

This seems like a basic piece of information, but I had been utterly clueless. It’s not specific knowledge, like knowing how to sign some words or even just the alphabet. Rather, it’s a simple fact—like English is different from Mandarin, which is different from Swahili. I don’t know Mandarin or Swahili, but I know that they are not the same as English. I know that I know that, even though I know that I don’t know those languages.

Why does this matter?

Not knowing that ASL and English are different languages matters because I was oblivious to this fact, even though I had a deaf friend at the church I attended as a young child, and have a partially deaf friend now. Even though I live in a community with a celebrated school for the deaf. Even though the sign language interpreter for Wu-Tang Clan is the coolest job ever, and even though I’ve been watching this show about deaf people for a few seasons.

My cluelessness matters because it perfectly illustrates why we need more diversity on television and in films. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that ASL and English are different, and it’s likely that without this TV show I would never have had the opportunity to learn this important information, which has opened my eyes and my heart to the language barriers that must impact the deaf community as they live, work and attend school with hearing people in a world designed for hearing people.

I am a hearing person with the privilege of never needing to think about all the everyday things that pose no problem for me but are obstacles for deaf people, even though deaf people are present in my life and in my community. Recognizing my privilege hit me like a ton of bricks and took my breath away. Even though I’m not completely unknowledgeable about deafness, I just didn’t get how much the world favors me as a hearing person until I saw that episode.

This is why representation on television matters, why there will never be “too much diversity” on TV. The stories that can be told on television are endless, and we should demand room for all of them. Stories are important, not only for entertainment value, but also as opportunities to learn more about the life experiences of others.

 

This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor to The Scenario, a blog where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2015 by and tagged .
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