In the seven years since the phrase "Black Lives Matter" first entered the popular lexicon, competing American Sign Language (ASL) renderings have come to convey far more than three words ever could in English. Now, with the death of George Floyd and the national uprising that has followed, many black deaf Americans are once again reconsidering the phrase. It's a reminder of an ongoing struggle for equity, representation, and authenticity in ASL, a language many feel is deeply scarred by racism and exclusion.
For many deaf black Americans, watching ASL interpreters during news briefings of the protests reflects a painful reality: the interpreters they rely on for information about this crisis are often not as clear and understandable to them as federal law has long promised, leaving them feeling excluded. As with everything in ASL, nuance is conveyed visually, and many do not feel the voice of the deaf black community is adequately represented by the majority of ASL interpreters they see, many of whom are white.
"It's how they process and convey the message and how they interpret—not just the wording, but the meaning behind it, and the tone," said Storm Smith, a producer at the ad agency BBDO Los Angeles. "We need to see all the different levels of information, especially during this time.
For hearing people, the degree to which race inflects sign can be hard to grasp. Many see ASL as mimed English, with a five-fingered lexicon and syntax. (There is a distinct variety of ASL called Black American Sign Language, which is likewise mischaracterized as a gestured Black English.) Any cultural dimension is often assumed to be superficial.
"The deaf community sees themselves as one world, one body, but there are so many subcultures and intersectionalities within that," said Natasha Ofili, a deaf actress who recently worked with Smith on a video about the unique fear black deaf people feel when interacting with police. "Black deaf people have rights to be successful, rights to education, and rights to be themselves and express themselves authentically."
But success, education, and even expression must often be negotiated through white, hearing interpreters, who, according to reports by the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, make up close to 90% of the workforce. Whenever Ofili goes out on an audition, visits the doctor, or sits for an interview, she says it's nearly always a white interpreter who acts as her voice for the hearing world.
"Sometimes white interpreters are not fully confident, comfortable, or even trained enough on how to culturally mediate," wrote Rezenet Moges-Riedel, a lecturer in the ASL Linguistics and Deaf Cultures program at California State University, Long Beach and a deaf scholar of sign language. "It can be frustrating."
To hearing officials responsible to federal accessibility laws, such concerns have been all but imperceptible. Interpreters also struggle to articulate them.
"With what's happening right now, we really need to put an emphasis on black people. We're talking about this collective of black deaf people—our lives are precious," said Harold Foxx, a black deaf comedian who performs often with Deaf West Theatre and the Groundlings in Los Angeles. "When we sign 'matter,' it's holding on, both in the meaning and in the mechanics of the sign," he explained. "We're not trying to lose our people. We're here to protect them."