Tuesday, May 23, 2006

¡Ay, caramba!

The United States Senate recently passed a resolution declaring English to be our "national language." Some people were surprised, having assumed that English already was our national language. After all, it was the language in which our forbears wrote the Declaration and the Constitution; Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in English, and it was the language Ronald Reagan used to tell Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down [that] wall." Most people in this country speak English, and it still serves as the lingua franca of the world.

Yet English has never been officially declared our national language. We’ve apparently never before thought it necessary to have an official national language. In fact, in recent years the movement has been toward trying to recognize and honor the multiplicity of languages spoken by U.S. citizens with bilingual and multi-lingual services proliferating. English certainly predominates in American discourse, but do we really need to call it the one true American language?

Christianity has been the religion of the majority of Americans, and one form or another of it was the religion of most of our forebears. Should Christianity be named our national religion? Should jazz, or country and western, or rock and roll be declared our national music? Should meatloaf and mashed potatoes or the greasy diner cheeseburger be declared the national meal?

Of course, the "melting pot" metaphor has long been used to describe the American ideal. They come to this country from wherever they're from and, in the great melting pot that is American culture, become like us. This model has encouraged immigrants to assimilate, to actively strive to be absorbed into the larger dominant culture, to let go of the cultural norms of their homeland and to adopt the norms of America. The arguments for an official national language draw from this longstanding tradition—we’re told that naming English as the national language will aid the assimilation process and increase unity in our country.

And this all might sound good on the surface, yet the underlying assumptions are inherently racist. That's because the "us" who "they" must become like are almost invariably white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual males. I know because I am one and the cultural norms that go largely unquestioned in our country are based on, and cater to, people who look and sound pretty much like me.

If you're also a heterosexual, European-American male you may not know what I'm talking about—that's why it's sometimes called "invisible white privilege." We don't usually see it because we're so fully immersed in it—like a fish in water—that we don't need to be aware of it. But just ask someone who looks, sounds, or acts differently and they can tell you how difficult it is to hear over and over again, "you are welcome here as long as you become like us—in other words, as long as you become somebody else."

Sociologists have long suggested that the metaphor of the melting pot—which was always more of an ideal than a reality anyway—should be replaced by the image of a "tossed salad" or a “smorgasbord” in which each of the individual elements retains its own uniqueness while creating together a richness that none could achieve on its own.

And if only unconsciously, the dominant majority culture recognizes this. Who would eschew sushi, tacos, bagels, or pizza simply because they’re not “American” foods? Where would we be without espresso and chai? Wouldn’t we be the poorer without the mambo of Tito Puente, the reggae of Bob Marley, and the symphonies of Beethoven?

According to a recent Washington Post article one in three U.S. residents—and nearly half of the nation’s children under five—are members of a racial or ethnic minority. This suggests that in the not too distant future the demarcations between majority and minority will be getting blurry. Is this what’s feeding the sudden urgency for a national language? As Sen. Barbara Boxer asked during debate on the Senate’s resolution, “Are we that insecure about ourselves?” If so, and if we give in to that fear, we will all be the poorer for it. Oye gevalt!

In Gassho,

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