This morning was a rough morning. I am generally not a morning person, but today was particularly troubling. On my drive into work, it seemed like every radio station had decided to run ads instead of playing music. Pulling into the office, I finally found a music station. As the bass hit the final eight counts, the DJs started their morning jabber.
“We’re here with the newest member of our morning show. Why don’t you introduce yourself?”
“Hi. I’m Tim.”
“Tim?” asked the second DJ.
“What’s wrong with the name Tim?” asked the primary DJ.
“It’s just weird. I would have expected his name to be something else.”
“Like what? George?”
“Yeah, George or Jorge. Aren’t you guys usually named something like that?”
It was only at this point I realized that the newcomer was Latino. He had no discernible accent and his diction was Americanized. As the second DJ continued his rant on common Latino names, I felt very uncomfortable. Here was a prime example of racial stereotyping and outright ignorance.
[Photo from The Chicago School]
Flash backwards one week. My boss and I were driving back from a site visit. She had just had a baby and was pondering the pros and cons of exposing her child to multiple languages.
“One of my nephews goes to a Montessori school, and he’s already learning Spanish. It makes me feel so stupid. I mean, I took German in college, but that’s all gone now. I basically speak only English. But by the time my nephew is my age, he’ll probably be fluent in at least two languages!”
I tried to console her. “Well intelligence is not measured only by how many languages you speak.”
“Do you speak Chinese with your parents?”
“Yeah. I speak Chinese to everyone in my family. It’s just how we were brought up.”
There was a pause. “You’re going to think I’m a terrible person for saying this, but when I’m in line or at a restaurant, it really bothers me when people speak a different language. You’re in America. Learn to speak English!”
First of all, if you have to precede with “you’re going to think I’m a terrible person,” chances are, I will think you are a terrible person. Ironic processing 101. Secondly, the language I speak with my family and friends, be it in a public or private setting, is my own business. I am not imposing my language onto you, and when it is my turn I am fully capable of communicating in the national language. Third, the United States was founded by immigrants. Are we not a country that prides itself as a “melting pot?” Fourth, did you not just admit that multilingualism is directly proportional to intelligence? Should we not then, for the sake of increasing our collective intelligence, encourage lingual diversity? Even Starbucks uses foreign languages to describe their premium drinks. Furthermore, this is the Information Age–an age of globalization. Companies like Google and Twitter are making it easier for people around the world to share their ideas and experiences. And the perfection of airplanes and bullet trains is making travel easier by the minute. The world is moving towards cultural exchange, not ethnic segregation. Yet despite all the emotions I was feeling inside, I kept silent. This was my boss after all. Perhaps I could have confronted her. But at what cost?
These two experiences have shown me that while this is the 21st Century, there are many places in this world where racial diversity is just “tolerated.” Tragedies like the murder of British off-duty soldier Lee Rigby, have made it easy for us to forget that extremists are singularities. They are not representative samples of the general ethnic or religious group. And while I may speak fluent English, I shudder to think of those in this country for whom English is a second language. What acts of intolerance or discrimination have they faced? How can we advocate for them? If children can make friends regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity, why do we as adults become more discriminating? I do not know the answer to these questions, but what I do know is that complacent “tolerance” cannot continue. While I cannot control what others think, I have the power to influence others through intellectual exchange. Only then can we start a conversation and maybe even arrive at a solution. For silence is but passive acquiescence.