“I love you”

It’s “ketapanen” in the Menominee language.  “Hello” is “posoh.”  Seventh grader Miranda Washinawatok taught those two phrases to a friend at Sacred Heart Catholic Academy in Shawano, Wisconsin.

A teacher was apparently angered by this. She asked Washinawatok the following:

How do I know you are not saying something bad?

As a result, Washinawatok was benched during a basketball game for her “bad attitude.”


There is of course a long history in the United States of other-language speakers being forbidden to speak their non-English languages.  Children in boarding schools were often severely punished for doing so.  (Ironically, the Code Talkers were some of those children.)

Hearing a non-English language engenders a great deal of hostility and fear in many white people, and their perception of the “right” to berate or to punish speakers or to demand a translation is rooted in privilege.  I believe that the inability to understand a language threatens deeply-held feelings of white supremacy.  One of the most common fears seems to be that we are talking about them.

Unfortunately, this pervasive racist viewpoint is only too common in post-racial America.

My ninety-something-year-old neighbor was talking to another neighbor in their first language out on the front steps one day.  They had only recently discovered that they shared the same language.  A young woman passed by and yelled, “You’re in America!  Speak English!”  Mrs. B. yelled back, “I speak THREE languages!  If you didn’t speak English, you’d have to get down on all fours and bark like a dog!”

Being told to speak English is only too common.  And it comes from complete strangers.  Strangers who feel it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt a private conversation with an idiotic demand.

It is maybe only slightly more bewildering to find this attitude among shopkeepers.  We already knew white businesses don’t necessarily want our business.  But I’m still occasionally surprised by just how clear they make it.

Two friends are berated by an angry salesclerk when they discuss the relative merits of a potential expensive purchase in their first language.  One friend speaks English fluently, the other does not.  I mention this to the salesclerk, who yells that they should be speaking English and “how do I know what they’re saying?”

And institutional racism is pervasive in the workplace.  (For the record, the following two accounts are from two different companies.)

White employees complain when other employees speak Spanish in the workplace.  They say that even while on lunch, Spanish-speaking personnel should switch to English if a non-Spanish-speaking person is present.  They additionally complain that they “know” their co-workers are not working if we are speaking Spanish.  This despite the fact that we are sometimes asked to translate documents from English to Spanish.  Management brings up this issue but backs down when we protest and present counter-arguments.  It becomes clear to me that only Mexican employees are being targeted because nobody says a word to me.

Later, a friend and I are talking and laughing when an English-only co-worker (higher-ranking but not our direct supervisor) comes by and asks what we are saying.  My friend responds, “If you want to know, learn the language!”  He says that he speaks French and she responds, “We are not speaking French right now, we are speaking Spanish.”  Only she says it in French.

I occasionally write notes in characters.  One day a note I wrote disappears from my desk.  Later, I’m called into the human resources office, where my note is shown to me and I am asked to disclose its meaning.  I refuse repeatedly.  (My grocery list is top secret.)  I am asked not to do it again.  Which I ignore.  (Can anyone translate “Fuck you”?)

I often think that racism stole my mother’s tongue from me.  My parents grew up in the assimilation generation; they believed it would be safer if  we spoke only English in the home.  I don’t fault them for their choice.  I think the responses I have given to people in my lifetime sometimes put me at risk.  The risk for my parents was undoubtedly much greater.

But when my grandmother is dying and I am holding her hand and the words don’t come, I feel tremendous loss.

I love you, I tell her.  I want to say more.  But there is nothing.

11 thoughts on ““I love you”

  1. Very Sad. Was the teacher every disciplined or is this considered OK? I thought that things had progressed in the schools to where such things would not be allowed at least “officially” although I know plenty of racism flies just below the surface.

  2. I think racism stole my opportunity to learn Tagalog. My mother did not want to teach me even though I repeatedly asked her while growing up. I know how much easier it would have been then versus trying to learn with my hectic life and adult brain now.

  3. @Melanie, I feel you. My mother never learned her parents’ language, because they didn’t want their children to grow up with an accent. So I don’t speak it either, and can’t pass it on to my own kids (not for lack of trying, but it’s way easier to find kids’ books that teach Tagalog – my family speaks Visayan).

  4. I believe this to be completely true in todays world i agree with the fact of having to learn the language if you do not understand it other than just being ignorant and thinking everyone should know YOUR language. If you do not understand what someone is saying and they are speaking in a language you do not understand most likely its not about you so go about your business instead of being rude and making them speak a certain way. if the dialect is towards you then the other people are cowards for not making it understandable to you and that is that.

  5. I speak multiple languages (including swahili). I was on a train in Boston talking to a friend of mine in swahili. An older white man on the train shouted at us to ‘speak English’ and complained about immigrants ‘coming to this country and not learning the language’ .
    Funny thing is, English is my first language (my country has 2 national languages, English and Swahili).
    I stopped my conversation, turned to him and told him loudly ‘I know enough English to tell you to go f%ck yourself!’ Not exactly how I normally react, but I was pissed that someone would first of all infringe on an A and B conversation and second make racist assumptions.

    That shut him up, and I could hear titters of laughter from other passengers. But seriously, when did speaking more than one language become a crime? I’ve had similar reactions before, but this was the most egregious example.

    There is actually a precedence for this. My parents grew up in Colonialism. In school, they were forbidden to speak anything other than English, it was the British’s way of assaulting and breaking down their culture. Speaking your native tongue would get you caned and sent home and you risked being expelled for multiple incidents. This sounds eerily similar to what was done to Native Americans.

    I think it is a mark of privilege not to bother learning a new language when you live overseas for a long time. I’m always leery of people who traveled somewhere for a long time and never bothered to learn even a smidgen of the native language. I mean, it’s simple courtesy, learn the basics (hello, goodbye, thank you etc).

  6. This attitude is something I will never understand: why is it so threatening to Americans when people are speaking languages other than English? I personally think it’s lovely to see and hear different cultures and languages (and because I live in NYC, I’m happily surrounded by people from all over the world). Besides, it’s a person’s right to speak whatever language she/he wants to.

    Even now, on Facebook, I see rightwingers promoting pages on which they complain about telephone answering systems (and ATMs etc.) that offer a Spanish translation. Again, that’s a nice service that aids the many Spanish-speaking people who live in this country–WHY on earth would anyone get upset about this?!

    Finally, I remember an instance of this ‘speak English!’ business in an office where I worked. Some coworkers–two women, who were close friends and worked in the same department as each other–were in the lunchroom, speaking Tagalog. After they left, one woman disdainfully muttered something like, “This is America, they should be speaking English!” (Note: the utterer of this comment spoke English as her first and only language–and her speech was riddled with grammatical errors.) I immediately defended the two Tagalog-speakers; however, I don’t think I got through to that stupid person.

    Great post.

  7. One time, some neighbors were across the street speaking in their native language, and my stepfather stood in the driveway with arms crossed and muttered, “Speak English, for Christ’s sake!”

    Later, when I told a friend about this, she started making all kinds of excuses. “Well, maybe he was angry about something else,” as if that took away any possible prejudice from his words. It doesn’t matter whether his anger was generated by something else or not. He chose to take it out on the existence of other languages within his range of hearing. He considered the existence of different languages an acceptable target for his rage. That’s prejudice no matter how you slice it. But my friend claimed I was the one being all intolerant and closed-minded for calling out racist bullshit.

  8. Your post brought to mind an incident from my childhood that I learned about many years after the fact. I was taking to one of my parents on the phone in their native language. One of my classmates was angry that they could not understand what I was saying. They cut me off in mid-sentence by snatching the receiver and hanging up the phone. I shut this incident from my memory but my mother says it was years before I spoke to them in their language in public. I have spent the last few years regaining quite a bit of it but it still upsets me when I see stories like this that demonstrate the racism and ethnocentric approaches of North American English-based cultures. Language contains the stories of people and it is a link to our traditions and ancestors even if we live in places far from where we originated. Forgetting them means losing a piece of who you are.

  9. I also never learned my mother’s tongue because (among other things), she thought it would be difficult for me to fit in. One of my cousins (who did learn) had a difficult time speaking English when he was young. In fact, his school thought he was mentally delayed (it probably didn’t help they were brown, ’cause we all know how eager schools are to shove colored kids into special ed. But I digress…). My dad’s (American) grandma kept encouraging my mom to teach me her language, but after what my cousin went through, my mom was too afraid it would mess me up. I really wish she had taught me. It’s not such a widespread language that you can go and buy CDs/books to learn it, either.

  10. I find it fascinating when i hear new languages. I always am curious of what the other language is it and what the speakers words mean> I never take immediate defense or opposition when i hear something new. It sounds to me like this teachers insecurities got the best of her and the result wasn’t pretty.

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