Unchecked White Savior Complexes in Linguistics

“I just want to learn Swahili and save endangered Bantu languages for the rest of my life while simultaneously analyzing the syntactic structures and verb morphologies of each.”

The above quote is a perfect example of a mindset that is far too common among linguists. In writing this, I don’t mean to shame the person who wrote that specifically, but rather to talk about a more general problem in the field.

This mindset is hugely problematic, and various other incarnations of it can be found by googling “white savior complex” (here, for example). It sets up a white person, who is often additionally privileged in some other way, whether by being rich or by being well-educated, as a hero who comes in to save a group of ignorant, helpless people of color. Linguists are not immune to this, despite all our talk about all languages and dialects being equally valid.

In addition to the ridiculous amount of privilege needed to feel this way about oneself, some problems of this mindset include: the fact that linguists do not have the power to “save” languages; that language communities may not be motivated to continue the transmission of their language and don’t want any outside help; or that they may have their own efforts underway and don’t need any outside assistance.

To think about this more deeply, we first have to talk about what we mean when we say we want to “save” a language. Does this mean to merely document it? If so, that’s nice, but no written grammar can compare to the knowledge possessed by any native speaker of a language. While a grammar might allow interested heritage learners to acquire a language once all its native speakers are dead (as happened with Cornish, Manx, and, in a different way, Wampanoag) this does nothing to preserve the continuity of language transmission from parents to children, which is what a language needs to survive.

Does saving a language mean increasing the number of speakers? Short of raising your own children in that community as speakers, there is nothing linguists can do on this front. All the cheer-leading in the world is not going to convince people to stop speaking an economically useful language in favor of a dying one, unless they already have that desire themselves.

Most of the time, if a language is dying (if it’s not because all its speakers have been killed or forced to move apart) it’s because parents feel that the best hope for their children’s economic futures lies in speaking a different language than the one they themselves were raised with. When rich, educated linguists come into a community speaking English (or some other western language) and maybe a local trade language (e.g. Swahili) for field work, this reinforces the idea that speaking prestige languages is necessary for success in life. When we come into a language community, no matter how much enthusiasm and interest we show for the local language, we are reinforcing linguistic imperialism, and are doing nothing to upset the social and economic structures that cause these languages to die.

It’s true that linguists have certain skills that could be valuable to minority language communities, but it’s important to make sure we’re using these skills to help people in the way they want to be helped. Linguists are getting slightly better at this one, mostly thanks to efforts by Native American nations to make firm rules about the conditions under which they will agree to work with linguists. I suspect the situation is different when linguists work with communities that have even less autonomy and power.

When linguists do fieldwork, we get valuable data which we can analyze and use to further our own careers. None of this is inherently of any use to the language communities we work with. What good does it do them if some linguist who works on their language gets tenure? What help is it to a member of the community, who wants to learn more about their own language, if there is a dense and theoretical paper published on one obscure structure of that language?

When working with Native American communities, linguists often agree to deals which involve writing a grammar or dictionary, or producing language-learning materials for that community in return for permission to use the language data. This is in addition to paying speakers for their time, of course. Naturally, this requires linguists to talk to members of the community about whether they would like help in making an orthography for the language (if it lacks one) or making a dictionary, rather than just coming in and assuming payment alone is enough, or assuming that of course any community would love to have a grammar. An additional problem is that theoretical linguists are lucky to get much training in doing fieldwork, and are unlikely to get any training in pedagogy which might assist in creating effective language learning materials. There is also the constant problem that these arrangements leave the power in the hands of the linguist, rather than in those of the members of the community.

It’s great when linguists work specifically on one language or family of languages — this increases the likelihood of our analyzing them well. But, if we are going to work with language communities, we need to remember that they are helping us with our work, and we are not saving them. If we do our work well, language consultants should feel like they understand what it is linguists do, and not that it’s some complicated science that’s only for westerners. Doing fieldwork should be regarded as a way to attract new linguists to the field, just as undergraduate intro. to linguistics courses are.

A colleague of mine pointed out to me that the reason generative/theoretical linguists aren’t trained about neo-colonialism or to be aware of their privilege is because the field was started by people analyzing the structure of their own native language based on their speaker intuitions. Fieldwork is a recent addition to the set of tools generative linguists use to further our understanding of language and Universal Grammar. Because these are our framework and methods, we should be working even harder to put our tools of language analysis in the hands of native speakers of all languages. Ken Hale, who was famously good at attracting and training native speaker linguists, was aware of this, and has said, “significant advances in the study of American Indian languages can be made, in my judgment, only when a significant portion of the field is in the hands of native speakers of the languages concerned.” We should all strive for this, for Native American languages and all languages we work with.


When will white people stop doing this?

In 1961, John Howard Griffin published “Black Like Me”, an account of his experiences as a white man pretending to be a Black man traveling through the southern US. Apparently this brought the reality of racism to many white Americans, and the book is still read in lots of American high schools. Because I’m white and too far removed from the time period, I have very little to say about whether this was appropriate or helpful, in the end. (But I’m gonna go ahead and say I fall on the side of 1961 not being too early to listen to actual Black people.)

However, I do think this approach is completely inappropriate for “exposing” any kind of inequality or poor treatment today. It’s 2013. We have the internet. Anyone (basically) can write about their experiences, and anyone (basically) can read them. We no longer need kindly white men to dress up as various oppressed groups to tell us how members of these groups are treated, and yet…

A straight, white man pretends to be gay for a year and gets a book deal. There is more criticism of the project here and here.

A white German man pretends to be a Somali immigrant and gets a film made of it.

A straight, white, American man pretends to be a Syrian lesbian and gets lots of attention.

A straight white man pretends to be a lesbian and gets lots of attention too.

Because I can’t beat the original title: White Woman Wears Afro, Life Changes. Or Something.

A high schooler pretends to be pregnant and gets a final project, book, and TV movie.

A white, non-Muslim woman wears a hijab to the mall for a couple of hours and gets attention.

Rich lawmakers try living off food stamps for a week to protest budget cuts. (This one has been done multiple times.)

“Projects” like these help no one. It requires a ridiculous amount of privilege to think that the actual experiences of people in oppressed groups is less worthy of being heard than are the experiences of people just pretending to be part of them. Moreover, if we only take prejudice seriously when privileged people are the targets, it implies that on some level people “deserve” their poor treatment for being gay or of color or pregnant. It’s only really terrible or worthy of note when it is accidentally directed at “innocents” or “people like us”.

It’s also interesting to note that the only two of these that were broadly criticized were the straight men pretending to be lesbians on the internet. I think the key difference between these and the others is that the internet at large was “tricked” by them. For the rest, people can convince themselves that they wouldn’t have acted badly towards these people (or been tricked into having misplaced sympathy for them).

It’s over 50 years since “Black Like Me” and we still apparently can’t trust the voices of actual people experiencing oppression.

How to get into cooking professionally with little to no experience

Before I started grad school, I worked as a cook in a fancy French restaurant. After working there full time (and then some) a year, I had to decide if I wanted to go seriously into cooking (and get a second job, to gain experience) or go to grad school. I chose grad school, but I think I could’ve been equally happy (in different ways) doing either one.

When I got hired, my only food service experience was working as the sandwich person in a shit cafe for five months. That job was hell, and I wanted to get more into cooking seriously, so I applied to about 7 different restaurants that were hiring kitchen staff. I got interviews at 4 places, and was offered a job at every place I interviewed.

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Mairg darab galar an grádh

Recently I thought it would be nice to try to translate an Irish poem into English in a form that retained the Irish rhyming system and all the internal rhyme and alliteration. (I have not yet succeeded at this.) But, I went looking for a short, fun poem to try out, and found this Classical Modern Irish poem. I have found a translation of it online already, but it is quite flawed, so I decided to make it my first post on this blog. It’s entirely possible that my translation is flawed as well, but I believe it is less so, and, at the very least, it is differently flawed.

The poem is by Isibeul ní Mhic Cailín, a 15th century countess of Argyll (so the Classical Irish here is on its way to becoming Scottish Gaelic), to whom a number of poems are attributed, including this lovely one about a priest’s penis. In addition to choosing this poem for its short length, I also wanted the excuse to work on my Classical Irish, which I have only barely studied formally (usually I just triangulate between Scottish Gaelic, Modern Irish, and Old Irish, if I have to). This poem is also somewhat unusual in being written by a woman, and in being an example of personal, rather than professional, poetry. As impressive as the meters and ornamentation of the professional poems are, I get a bit bored reading about how some lord had really great hair and was just like every ancient Irish hero.

Because I haven’t managed to do a translation that incorporates the rhyming schemes of the original, explanation of that and of the grammar (as I understand it) will follow my quite literal translation.

Mairg darab galar an grádh,                  It’s a pity that love is sickness
gibé fath fá n-abraim é                         Whatever reason that I speak it
is deacair sgarthain re a pháirt;             It’s difficult parting his company
truagh an cás a bhfuilim féin.              ‘Tis a pitiable state that I’m in.

An grádh-soin tugas gan fhios,            That love, I fell into without knowledge
ós é mo leas gan a luadh,                    And him my benefit without his saying
muna fhaghad furtacht tráth,              If it does not get comfort soon
biaidh mo bhláth go tana truagh.        My flower will be withered and pitiable.

An fear-soin dá dtugas grádh,            This man with whom I fell in love
‘s nách féadaim a rádh ós aird,           And cannot say aloud
dá gcuire sé mise i bpéin,                  If he should put me in pain
go madh dó féin bhus céad mairg!    May it be to him that is a hundred sorrows!
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