In early September, an American Sign Language (ASL) cover of rapper Cardi B’s “WAP,” performed by a white hearing woman, became the latest viral sign language video to sweep the internet. The track itself had already raised some eyebrows due to the explicit nature of the lyrics. By the time this interpretation hit the web, hearing audiences were no longer taken aback by the graphically sexual nature of the lyrics, but by the visual means in which they were expressed. In fact, this seemed to be part of the appeal for hearing viewers, people who were apparently shocked to realize that we Deaf people can curse and discuss sex in sign language.
While memes and reposts of the hearing-made “WAP” video abound, and outlets like NME, Digg, and High Snobiety all covered the story, they made no apparent attempt to ask Deaf community members for their thoughts, did not address the issue of appropriation, and neglected to amplify the many Deaf covers of “WAP,” including Raven Sutton’s, a Black Deaf woman who posted an excerpt on Twitter a month prior. While Deaf people pointed out her translation, and questioned the motives of a hearing woman appropriating ASL for fame (over half a million subscribers) and profit (a monetized YouTube channel and merchandise sales), they were largely ignored. While the hearing creator of the video has since apologized, by the time she did, the media had moved on.
Hearing audiences love to share videos of interpreters, especially those who are interpreting music. The interpreter at a Twista rap concert last year was a particular internet favorite for months after the event. The interpreter is usually praised by the viewers for things like speed, accuracy, and expressiveness. Sign language, hearing society says, is “beautiful,” and interpreters signing songs is decidedly cool.
So why do hearing ASL interpretations go viral, while authentic deaf ones are ignored? Sutton described the phenomenon as the result of hearing people’s “savior complex ideas” surrounding hearing interpreters. “They think it’s amazing that they ‘interpret for the Deaf,’ and do not see ASL as associated with Deaf culture…. Also let’s be honest, people with privilege have power. So a white hearing person is a desired beauty standard in society.” As Sutton points out, the mainstream’s continual choice to uphold white, hearing creators over Black Deaf ones is a convergence of both ableism and racism.
While the determination that our language is “cool” or “beautiful” is just fine, it becomes problematic when hearing people give themselves the authority to decide what is good, what isn’t, and who is allowed to have access. How do hearing viewers know whether a specific interpretation of “WAP” is an effective translation if they aren’t fluent ASL speakers? Answer: they don’t.
Rather than respecting ASL for the rich and complex language it is or leveraging their interest to advocate for more ASL access for Deaf people, hearing viewers see these videos as performances to marvel at. It’s a mindset that further stigmatizes ASL as inferior, and one that has far-reaching and deleterious effects on the treatment of Deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
Misguided “appreciation” paves the way for the more insidious “appropriation.” Thousands of people worldwide have and continue to profit off of sign language and Deaf culture without including Deaf people. This takes away job opportunities, or at the very least, dollars, from Deaf community members, who are significantly more under- and unemployed than their hearing peers. For every person to whom a hearing person sold a t-shirt or taught sign language, a Deaf teacher of ASL was disenfranchised of an opportunity to teach, whether it be in an official classroom context or on their own monetized channels, and this is to say nothing of the fact that hearing people’s signing is not always correct.
The cultural normalization that ASL is merely a performance to be enjoyed undermines a legitimate form of communication. When hearing, non-signing people applaud a rapping interpreter because the language “looks cool,” they’re unintentionally dismissing the value of that interpreter’s work. Applauding the “beauty” of a hearing signer’s ASL is no different from getting a tattoo in Chinese based on aesthetics alone — and we all know how that can turn out (#noragrets).
When someone “appreciates” sign language without engaging the Deaf perspective, they diminish a complex, nuanced language that hundreds of thousands of Deaf people use daily. Prioritizing a hearing person’s limited perspective as to what is cool, beautiful, or newsworthy about Deaf culture or ASL deprives Deaf people of their agency. This enables hearing people to continue peddling faulty sign language lessons and makes it culturally acceptable to behave in ways that few other second-language speakers would act toward native-language speakers.
Imagine a French student selling inaccurate French lessons online, and being praised by media outlets for doing it. Would this student even dare to ignore fluent French speakers who are offering corrections, feedback, and expressing concern? Unlikely. The student would probably never have the bravado to call themselves an expert in the first place.
Infantilizing Deaf people and downplaying or outright ignoring the linguistic integrity of ASL often renders us powerless to push back against these appropriators. “Deaf creators barely get the recognition and respect that we deserve,” said Sutton. “We put in a lot of work and time to show our talents and educate the hearing community all the while still fighting for our rights to accessibility and to be treated equally.” Mainstream culture says we should take a seat and be grateful for any representation of our language at all. But because society fails to see us as equals, they fail to understand that “representation” of ASL by hearing people isn’t actually representation at all; it’s theft — of our culture, our language, our wages, and our jobs as educators and leaders in the fields that are meant to be about us.
Fetishizing ASL down to a performance art and sanitizing discussions about signed language of actual Deaf people doesn’t only hurt potential Deaf workers — it also harms children. While the idea that ASL is linguistically inferior to a spoken language like English was scientifically disproven nearly 80 years ago, the idea has permeated hearing society so completely that it continues to run through the fields of medicine and education. Parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children are told to prevent their child from signing in order to encourage the “superior” modality of speech.
Hearing people fawn over sign language when it is sexy, cute, or simply visually appealing, extracting pleasure from “WAP” interpretations, signing gorillas, and baby signs for hearing children. Yet society also conveniently ignores the fact that 88% of parents of deaf children will never learn sign language. All too often, this results in language deprived children who might be able to use their voices and speak well, but experience detrimental cognitive and socio-emotional effects that are pervasive, permanent, and disabling.
While every rapping interpreter-gone-viral furthers a faulty cultural understanding of ASL, it is important to note that interpreters do have an important job in the community, and that there are contexts in which sign language visibility does help elevate. For example, throughout the course of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, all 50 states eventually hired interpreters to be included in their televised coronavirus briefings, normalizing the ideas that ASL isn’t just for fun or decoration — it also delivers critical, life-saving information to Deaf people, who are adults watching news conferences. Apple’s integration of an ASL interpreter alongside captions in multiple languages in their recent “Time Flies” video, as well as movements like Sign Vote, which offers political and election information in ASL, function similarly. American Sign Language is as effective, rich, and complete as spoken English. Seeing it at the forefront of news, technology, and political conversations is a welcome indication that ASL is becoming legitimized, but more work remains to be done.
The Deaf community works hard to dismantle the systemic ableism and intersectional marginalization that prevents us from being seen as the experts on ourselves and our language, and Deaf-run programs like Communication Service for the Deaf’s Connect Direct now give businesses and organizations the opportunity to serve Deaf customers directly in ASL via Deaf customer service representatives. Rather than perpetuating the standard of overlaying accessibility retroactively onto an existing business, including Deaf workers and customers at all levels allows for seamless interactions and stronger, more inclusive best practices. This holds true in the music industry, too: Singer Brisa Lauren’s new video “Ode to the Petty” is a heartening example of this kind of inclusivity — it features Jasmine Latrice, a Black Deaf woman performing right alongside Lauren, an integral part of the video rather than an afterthought. “The Deaf community is hungry for appropriate representation, and will no longer stand quiet,” said Sutton. “Get ready! We are coming!”
Normalizing ASL across non-entertainment contexts is a good start to changing hearing people’s perceptions about the nature of Deafness — but it is only the start. There is no better resource on Deaf culture and language than Deaf people themselves — fluent Deaf signers, and Deaf professionals of all fields who have the best knowledge about our worldview and culture. As Deaf people have been saying for hundreds of years, we are here, and we are ready to lead the conversation about what we need. The question is, when will hearing people will start to listen?