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.