To "mainstream" or not to "mainstream"? That is the question that energizes the student and faculty protests at Gallaudet University.
The return of campus protests to America's only liberal arts university for the deaf and hearing-impaired has been obscured by other big stories in Washington these days. But, in many ways, the complicated and emotion-charged politics of Gallaudet reveal a much larger story than this city's partisan politics do. It is a saga about identity, the many ways we humans see ourselves as individuals or as groups, and how far we will go to keep our groups intact.
"Mainstreaming" is the integration of a minority group, like the disabled, into the social mainstream. But, to many deaf activists, that's a condescending view, a form of "audism" by us hearing supremacists. They see themselves not as "disabled," but only "differently abled." In the new deaf culture, Gallaudet is more than a school. It is a Mecca of deaf identity, a sense of selfhood that often feels under siege from outside and from inside their own non-hearing community.
Some alumni have flown in from as far as Australia to join the protests. More than 709 "tent city" protests have been held across the country, according to Deafeye.com.
As one Gallaudet official explained, imagine America with only one school for blacks or Catholics or Jews and you can get a small idea of what a big deal the college's protest is in the world of the non-hearing.
Deaf culture rose up angrily in 1988 when an earlier generation of Gallaudet students brought about the appointment of I. King Jordan, the school's first deaf president since its founding in 1864.
Now Jordan is leaving and the appointment of his replacement has ignited a new round of protests that have kicked the debate up a notch. A big notch. The incoming president, Jane Fernandes, has been deaf since birth, but read lips until she learned sign language at age 23. To those who have been signing before they learned English, her fluency is a little off, some say. In a community of people who grow up getting left out of many conversations, the way you communicate takes on added importance. It serves to define your identity.
Out of the Gallaudet conundrum a political vocabulary has emerged with a familiar-sounding ring: "How deaf" is she? Is she "deaf enough"? Is she "playing the deaf card" against her critics-or vice versa? These phrases sound familiar. As a black American, male from the Midwest, I understand the power of identity. Black Americans of my generation care a lot about identity because we engaged in so many struggles, public and personal, to have one that we could call our own-with pride.
Identity is how we see ourselves. You can identify with conditions of birth over which you had no control. Your race, you ethnic group, your hometown. Or you can identify with conditions of choice: your occupation, your religion, your neighborhood.
For those who identify themselves as deaf, modern science has given some a way out. An operation called a "cochlear implant" can help some of the deaf to hear, which means they would leave the community of the deaf.
Heather Whitestone McCallum, the first deaf Miss America, has had the devices implanted in both ears. But not all of the deaf greet this scientific development happily. Those who struggle fiercely for cultural purity see the cochlear implant as "cultural genocide," a threat to their numbers. In the culture of the deaf, modern medical technology poses a special dilemma.
Such is the double-edged nature of identity. In a vast, complex and uncertain world, our familiar culture gives us a comfort zone, one that has its own gravitational pull. It can be liberating or it can be as treacherous as the pull of Michael Corleone's family business, which is organized crime, in "The Godfather" trilogy. Every time he tries to get out, he laments, it pulls him back in.
I advise young African-American college students to leave their comfort zones once in a while and familiarize themselves with the larger world in which they can play a valuable part. I advise the same for those who feel a bit too comfortable sometimes in the world of deaf culture.
As one authority quoted by the Web site DeafCulture.com notes, the culture "encompasses communication, social protocol, art, entertainment, recreation (e.g., sports, travel, and Deaf clubs), and worship. It's also an attitude, and, as such, can be a weapon of prejudice"You're not one of us; you don't belong ." That's the danger of identity movements.
When you divide the world between "us" and "them," even in reaction to prejudices, you run the risk of developing dangerous prejudices of your own. There's a larger world out there, kids. Get to know it. Give it a chance to know you.