When I was younger, I used to think that universities were the ultimate safe spaces. Thanks to idealistic children’s literature and well-meaning teachers who assured me that higher education would be everything I wanted from an educational environment and more. So I launched myself into life as an English major expecting wholesome discourse, supportive faculty, and a community where I could thrive.
I wish I could give my younger self a tight hug and a good shake.
The sad truth is that higher education isn’t always the best place for people of color to receive support systems.
If anything, as Duke University’s student body, was reminded after e-mails from a dean that instructed Chinese students to speak English, it can be a microcosm in which every negative experience you’ve already had is intensified.
People of color, particularly those who are visibly and audibly other, are familiar with the experience of being told to speak English. It is certainly not restrained to higher education alone. Even Spark Joy author and Netflix host Marie Kondo isn’t free from being accosted.
We are constantly assured that if we can speak this one tongue and no others, we will attain respect and keep our society moving smoothly. This is apparently what the dean at Duke believed and, incidentally, the same day, Tom Brokaw of NBC endorsed this line of thinking as well, insisting that the “Hispanic” community ought to assimilate better to have a better relationship with the American government.
It disturbs me that in these narratives, the benefits of to marginalized speaker are downplayed. Instead, there is stress placed on their civic duty to others, particularly the dominant group and their comfort. In the recent Duke incident, the dean’s primary concern was that students’ conversations were “not understandable” and thus excluding passerby and onlookers. The lack of surveillance over their interacting and exchanging ideas with each other was apparently a threat.
What is not considered is the threat that being monolingual and assimilating poses to these students and their future within their communities.
This is something I know first-hand. My first spoken language has always been English. Being raised by parents in an interracial marriage who only had English in common between the two of them, that was never an issue. What was, though, was my ability to also express myself in my father’s tongue, which is Bengali.
From infancy until four years old, I reveled in my bilingualism. I watched American cartoons but was also able to babble happily to my grandmother in Bengali when she came to visit. It was the only time in my life that I was actually able to communicate with her without an interpreter on hand.
It was a time in my life that was, tragically, cut short. Anticipating professors and teachers in my future who might take the same perspective demonstrated at Duke, and painfully aware of his accent, my father encouraged me to speak English exclusively.
“If you don’t have an accent, you’ll succeed,” he told me. “English is what you need to have a better future.”
So I was left with a tongue that I never would have lost because it is enforced in school systems and supported societally. In return, I let go of any chance to communicate beyond signs and smiles with a dear and now deceased grandparent, and retained an anxiousness about claiming half of my identity when I couldn’t even speak the language associated with it.
Every time I meet someone from the Bangladeshi community, I offer it up as a disclaimer: “Oh, I can’t speak Bengali.” I try to smile around the bitterness, but it is hard. It feels like a diminishing of my claim to cultural experiences and connections.
When discussing my experience with an older cousin, she confided in me that – in part due to my own lack of a shared language – she had continuous nightmares after immigrating to America in which she couldn’t speak to our family back home. She lost that tongue, and it severed the connection she had to an entire bloodline and heritage. Her nightmare is my daily experience.
Without parents who may have the privilege or determination to ensure that you hold onto it regardless of the complications that come with existing in a diasporic community or the teasing and taunting that may result, the ability to speak a second tongue can slip away so easily.
It is not a mark of pride when speakers are browbeaten into letting go of their ability to speak their languages. It is never a victory. It is a loss, and it is one that I know I am not alone in feeling keenly and continuously.