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Deaf Ethnicity, Deafhood, and Their Relationship

From: Sign Language Studies
Volume 13, Number 4, Summer 2013
pp. 565-579 | 10.1353/sls.2013.0012

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Several scholars have asked what are the relations between two recently developed concepts, Deaf ethnicity and Deafhood. The emergence of these concepts, along with others such as “audism” (Humphries 1977), “dysconscious audism,” “Sign Language Peoples,” and “Deaf Gain” reflects important attempts by Deaf communities and their allies to redefine Deaf peoples, their cultures, and their languages. As part of the same process, starting in the 1990s, older concepts such as “People of the Eye,” have been presented anew, and externally generated concepts such as postcolonialism have been brought to bear.

Similar processes of redefining identity can be found among other minority groups, such as African Americans, women, gays and lesbians and disabled people, all of whom have felt the need to escape the reductionist lens of definitions created by oppressors, developing instead conceptualizations that assist with the liberation of their communities. “Deaf ethnicity” and “Deafhood” are two such conceptualizations. We start by explaining “Deaf ethnicity” and “Deafhood,” and then we address their relations.

Deaf Ethnicity

In The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry,Lane, Pillard, and Hedberg (2011) make the case that the American Deaf-World (the American Sign Language minority) is an ethnic group. An ethnic group is “a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood” (Schermerhorn 1978, 12).

The People of the Eye compares the properties of the American Deaf-World to those of ethnic groups. We enumerate those shared properties here, referring the reader to the book for discussion and literature citations. Those ethnic properties are: language, bonding to one’s own kind, culture, social institutions, the arts, history, territory, kinship, socialization, and boundary maintenance. The language of an ethnic group plays many roles: It is the vehicle for transmission of cultural patrimony through the generations; it expresses traditions, rituals, norms, and values; it is a means of social interaction among group members, a symbol of their ethnicity and frequently the “epitome of their peoplehood” (ibid). These are indeed also the roles fulfilled by the language of the American Deaf-World, American Sign Language.

A deep feeling of belonging characterizes the members of ethnic groups and that is surely a property of the Deaf-World. After all, many of its members found in the Deaf-World surrogate parents, easy communication, access to information, and a positive identity. The solidarity of Deaf-World members is expressed in many ways; among the most striking are the stress it places on collective action and on marriage partners chosen from the Deaf-World.

The culture of ethnic groups includes rules for behavior based on distinctive values. This is true of the Deaf-World, whose central values include being Deaf and allegiance to the group. There are rules for managing language, for gaining status, for managing information, for constructing discourse, and more.

Ethnic groups have social institutions, as do members of the Deaf-World, including a network of schools, Deaf clubs, churches, athletic organizations, publishing houses, and theater groups, as well as associations focused on profession, leisure, politics, and socializing.

The arts enrich the lives of ethnic groups, bind their members to one another, and express ethnic values and knowledge. The Deaf-World has a rich literary tradition including such forms as legends and humor. There are also theater arts and visual arts that express the Deaf experience.

History and ethnicity are intimately bound up in ethnic groups. The Deaf-World has a rich history that is recounted in many forms––books, films, theater, narratives, and so on. As with ethnic groups, much of that history concerns oppression, and it has a familiar rhetorical structure. In the beginning, we were dispersed and isolated, but then our people gathered and built our institutions; there was a Golden Age in which we flourished, followed by the dark ages of oppression; but we rose up victorious and recovered our lost values and prestige.

Ethnic kinship practices vary widely from one ethnic group to the next. In some, kinship is based on a belief in shared ancestry. In others, kinship includes persons who clearly have no...

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