The Impact Of Communication On One’s Identity

Do you remember learning in pre-school that your words have the power to hurt or to heal? When was the last time that you thought of the Golden Rule, to treat others how you would like to be treated? Communication is used to trade beliefs and ideas between people, literature, and the world. Today, we communicate through language and social media. In Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, we learn about a young Mexican-American child’s journey of learning English and in turn, losing “validation” of his race in society’s eyes through his language. Another form of communication, social media, has both elevated and combated racism in ways that were not possible before the twenty-first century.

In Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Tatum shows how social media has exposed racism in everyday life and has not allowed it to be ignored any further, in comparison to her original novel written in 1997. Tatum describes how active racism - intentional acts of discrimination towards an oppressed race - differs from passive racism, which includes both denying and ignoring racism. Anything that is not blantantly racist or blantantly anti-racist is considered passively racist. Children of immigrants, who feel language insecurity, struggle with accepting their own identities in terms of the outline that society has provided, due to racial standards. Although Rodriguez and Tatum demonstrate how daily communication can reinforce active and passive racism, people of color can also use social media and language to combat racism.

Although communication varies in form, language is the most common use of communication in daily life. A controversial stereotype is the relationship between Hispanophones and Latinos and the harsh critism placed on Latinos who are not also Hispanophones. This backlash is caused by both other Hisphanophonic Latinos as well as society as a whole. In Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez faces this as he is forced to learn English resulting in the loss of his “private language”, Spanish. Rodriguez recognizes Spanish as a barrier from the world of “los gringos” when he describes, “Español: my family’s language… I am speaking with ease in Spanish. I am addressing you in words I never use with los gringos. I recognize you as someone special, close, like no one outside. You belong with us. In the family.

Rodriguez even believes that Spanish is a private language, that it could never be public like English. When Richard and his family use Spanish they are home, they are safe and trusting. In contrast, Rodriguez believed that since his learning of English caused him to lose his ability to speak Spanish as well as before, English would not allow him to make the same connections with his family that Spanish did. Richard recognizes that Spanish speakers around him “seemed to think that Spanish was the only language we could use, that Spanish alone permitted our close association”.

Rodriguez’s family refers to only-English speakers as “gringos” and subconsiously validate their own racial identity as Latino through their ability to speak Spanish. The opposite is also true when Rodriguez’s uncle disowns him for not being able to speak Spanish: “My mother met the wrath of her brother, her only brother, when he came up from Mexico one summer with his family. He saw his nieces and nephews for the very first time. After listening to me, he looked away and said what a disgrace it was that I couldn’t speak Spanish, ‘su propio idioma’. His family, as well as society, are convinced that in order to be authentic - or truly Latino - one must speak Spanish. Rodriguez overcomes this racial misconception with the help of his grandmother.

While Richard had a friend over, his grandmother spoke to him in Spanish and his friend was curious as to what she had said. Richard realized that it did not matter what she said, but how she said it: “This message of intimacy could never be translated because it was not in the words she had used but passed through them. So any translation would have seemed wrong; her words would have been stripped of an essential meaning”. Richard’s realization proved that although his family was more intimate when they spoke Spanish, their transition to English did not destroy their opportunity to be intimate once again. His experience shows that communication can reinforce racism through racial stereotypes shown through Rodriguez’s uncle’s critism of Richard’s ability to speak Spanish and how Rodriguez should feel guilty because of it, according to society’s standards. Yet, Rodriguez’s journey also proves that despite that, if one overcomes their fear of being judged by society because they do not authentically represent their identity, then they will come to realize that it is not the form of communication that will determine one’s bond with others, but that a relationship can and will nurture through any form of communication as long as they do not hold themselves to racial stereotypes. Although language has the power to form and break relationships, social media adds its own modern twist to battling racism through communication.

Twitter and other social media platforms have not only helped activists plan and organize protests, but they have been used to spread awareness and videos of shootings in daily life. Social media spread the video that was taken when Eric Garner was pulled over around the world and the shootings did not stop. Tatum describes the aftermath of Eric Garner’s shooting, “Where there had been conflicting narratives about the shooting death of Mike Brown, in the case of Eric Garner the video was clear. ‘Hundreds of thousands of people had watched the video of him pleading for his life and repeating, eleven times, ‘I can’t breathe,’ while Pantaleo squeezed the life out of his body’”(Tatum, 35). Not only has Twitter raised awareness of Black Lives Matter and police shootings, it has also united People of Color and allies to fight together against racism.

An activist from the Ferguson protests, DeRay McKesson, describes the advantages of Twitter during these times: “...You are enough to start a movement… you don’t need a VIP pass to protest. And Twitter allowed that to happen… I think that what we are doing is building a radical new community in struggle that did not exist before. Twitter has enabled us to create community”. People are shown that racism cannot be ignored and that “multiple sides to every story” cannot be used as an excuse when real lives are in danger. Racism is also evident in video games and online chatrooms.

Tatum describes African American teens struggle with racism through technology, “‘Almost every day on Call of Duty: Black Ops I see Confederate flags, swastikas and black people hanging from trees in emblems and they say racist things about me and my teammates’”. Racists communicate racial slurs through social media in these online chatrooms to target People of Color because the racists can hide their own identity and do not have to take ownership for their words. These tactics leave young minorities, especially African Americans, without protection from cowardly racists online.

One way that communication is used to combat racism in the online world is Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s MuslimGirl. Following the 9/11 attacks, the racism towards Islam caused Amani to deny her religion. Soon after, the Al-Khatahtbeh family moved to Jordan which helped Amani rediscover herself as a Muslim and her passion for her faith. When they returned to the States, Amani decided that she would be proud of her identity and wear her hijab to school. When Amani became isolated at her school, she decided to use social media to communicate about her struggle: “... in 2009, still a teenager, she created a virtual ‘cafeteria table’ for herself and other young Muslim women by launching the website MuslimGirl… MuslimGirl evolved from a teenager’s refuge to a cultural phenomenon, garnering attention from mainstream media outlets and giving its founder a platform and eventually national visibility as a media commentator” (Tatum, 293-294).

Amani used technology and social media to communicate how racism has impacted her life and to combat racism when society refused to accept her identity. Social media not only calls out passive racism and intensifies active racism, but awards Amani’s leadership and courage and continues to empower both Amani and other women of color when they are put in oppressive situations.Although People of Color experience intensified racism through language and technology, communication can give them the power to fight racism with their confidence in their own identities. Richard Rodriguez realized that learning English did not stop him from being able to form close relationships.

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh rejuvenated her passion for her faith and opposed racial isolation by using technology to connect to other oppressed women of color. In Kevin Garcia’s “Can You Lose A Language You Never Knew?”, Garcia describes his struggle with language insecurity. As a Mexican-American growing up, Garcia had to grow up fast along with his brother, who both taught English to their aunt who raised them while Garcia’s parents were working. Since Garcia had never gotten the chance to learn Spanish, he has felt an impact on his identity, shared by many other Latinx. Garcia quotes Amelia Tseng, a professor at Georgetown University, describing this effect: “... Tseng stresses that growing up monolingual, like I did, isn’t anyone’s fault.

For second- and third-generation Latinx Americans, retaining Spanish ‘isn’t a question of how much you want to keep it. It’s a question of how much opportunity you have to keep it’” (Garcia). Garcia shows readers that despite the stereotype, the amount of Spanish-speaking Latinx is decreasing in America and thus future Latinx should not feel guilty because they are monolingual, similarly to Rodriguez overcoming his fear of losing close relationships due to his inability to speak Spanish. Garcia admits that language will always have a hold over his identity as a Mexican-American, but that he will choose to live on as a monolingual and not feel guilt for losing something that he never had.

Racism holds a strong effect over people of color’s identity, which is shown through language and social media. Language is a huge part of identity, yet racist stereotypes will cause People of Color to feel a lack of authenticity of their own identities, simply because they do not fit into the stereotype set for them. With Rodriguez, he learned that his relationships could still thrive despite the language that they chose to communite through, although other people in his life still chose to live according to society’s racist stereotypes.

People of Color have to face heightened racism through social media, but they also get to use social media - along with allies - to bring awareness to the effects of racism, as well as to battle racism by uniting with others. Tatum discusses the power of Twitter to bring awareness to racism, but also how People of Color are attacked on social media. Tatum finally discusses Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s advances in anti-racism through social media and technology. Garcia disproves the common misconception that new generations of Latinx speak Spanish and the racist stereotype’s effect on the identities of Latinx around the world.

Communication is a large part of one’s identity and racism can set standards for society in terms of what certain identities are accepted by others. Rodriguez, Tatum, and Garcia all show how racism benefits from communication, but they also prove that communication gives people of color a platform to face racism and make a change. People of color are not set to racism’s standards and they use communication to step out of these expectations in order to validate their own identities.

03 December 2019
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