Should ethnicity be used to interpret relations between the Deaf community and the hearing people? Recent scholarship questioning the merits of Deaf ethnicity suggests a need to reexamine the use of ethnicity when describing Deaf identity and culture. This article provides an overview of key contributions to race and ethnicity discourse in the 20th century, identifies epistemological and ontological errors to avoid, suggests adherence to the classical Greek concept of ethnos as an alternative to ethnie, and argues for the continuing significance of Deaf ethnicity. Specifically, I propose that Deaf ethnicity is a triadic relational nexus that approximates communities of origin, language, and religion. This is expressed as Deafnicity ≈ D/deaf (Hómaemon • Homóglosson • Homóthreskon).Eckert goes on to comment that -
Deafnicity offers a promising alternative for examining relations between Deaf and hearing communities, exploring variance between nationalized Deaf communities, and expanding our understanding of audism
What is ethnicity? Sociologists have been defining ethnicity for almost a century. Ethnicity is an expression of self and community (Weber 1922/1978). Ethnicity is a negotiated product of dialectical tensions between internal self-identification and external ascriptions, who we say we are in a set of relations with who others say we are (Nagel 1996). It is an emergent process (Yancey, Ericksen & Juliani 1976) and situational (Gans 1979). Ethnicity is a strategic and adaptive process of reorganizing identity boundaries and the cultural content within those boundaries (Nagel & Snipp 1993). Ethnicity is a rationale choice (Nagel 1996). Should the concept of Deaf ethnicity be used to describe the set of relations between the Deaf community and those who are hearing?1
In this article, I retrace the social scientific understanding of ethnicity. I attempt to expose some of the misunderstandings that accompany recent discussions about Deaf ethnicity. I call for a return to how the ancient Greeks applied the concept of ethnos. In ancient Greece, ethnos included a wide range of concepts involving identity boundaries (Smith 1986, p21). I argue that if Deaf ethnos is viewed as a triadic relational nexus of Hómaemon (community of common origin), Homóglosson (linguistic community), Homóthreskon (community of religion), it has greater explanatory power than the modern concept ethnie (collective name, myth of common descent, a shared history, a shared culture, an association with a specific territory, and a sense of solidarity; Smith 1986, pp22–31).
Stokoe’s (1960/2005) recognition of sign language, Woodward’s (1972), distinguishing cultural constructions (Deaf) from medical circumstance (deaf), and Humphries’ (1977) coinage of the term “audism” imply or infer Deaf ethnicity. However, recognition of the ethnic processes of constructing, maintaining, and reorganizing Deaf identity boundaries is relatively recent (Erting 1978; Markowicz & Woodward 1982). Lane, Pillard, & Hedberg (in press), Lane (2005), and Eckert (2005) argue the merits of Deaf ethnicity using modified versions of Smith’s (1986) dimensions of ethnie. Lane et al (in press) and Lane (2005) rely on historical comparative data to demonstrate the presence of all six dimensions in the Deaf community. Eckert (2005) hypothesized a nationalized concept of Deaf American ethnicity, or what he called Deafnicity, as a counter hegemonic response to audism.
Lane’s (2005) and Eckert’s (2005) usage of Smith’s (1986) dimensions of ethnie illuminates a few problems with the model when applied to the Deaf community. First, Smith (p27) deemphasizes the relevance of language. Smith writes "Examples could be multiplied to show that language, long held to be the main, if not sole, mark of ethnicity, is often irrelevant or divisive in the sense of ethnic community" (p27). Sign language is a critical component of Deaf identity and culture. Lane et al (in press), Lane (2005), and Eckert (2005) do emphasize the importance of sign language in their modifications to ethnie.
Second, the Smith model of ethnie lacks precision when defining the myth of common descent. On the one hand, there is a “self-same ancestor” (Smith 1986, p24). On the other hand, the sense of tribal belonging is something based on “common family ties, rather than any sense of genetic and blood ties” (Smith 1986, p24). Although Smith does not appear to treat ethnie as biologically determined, there is a need to amend the ethnie model in a way that clearly identifies kinship ties as an effort to organize human interdependence through rules of relatedness (see Macintyre 1993). Fictive kinship, as understood by anthropologists, provides an avenue to go beyond the idea of Deaf identity being one generation thick as argued by Davis (2008). Eckert (2005, pp108–110) asked Deaf respondents to compare meeting a Deaf person for the first time with meeting a hearing person for the first time. Respondents described Deaf people as being those they felt instantly connected to and could be their real self around. The lack of connection to hearing people was also highlighted. One respondent (Jim) said, “It is different because the Deaf person feels like family” (Eckert 2005, p110).8 The Deaf self-same ancestor, sometimes signed as “DEAF-SAME,” is not a matter of genetics.
The Smith model of ethnie also fails to account for what Nagel (2003) calls the sexualized boundaries of ethnicity or ethnosexual frontiers. These “are the borderlands on either side of ethnic divides; they skirt the edges of ethnic communities; they constitute symbolic and physical sensual spaces where sexual imaginings and sexual contact occur between members of different racial, ethnic, and national groups” (Nagel 2003, p14). Nagel (2003) defines ethnosexuality as “the intersection between ethnicity and sexuality and the ways in which each defines and depends on the other for its meaning and power” (p10). Padden and Humphries (2005) describe a set of power relations that includes sexual domination of the Deaf community in America from as far back as the early 1800s. Padden and Humphries (2005, ch 1) description of “silenced bodies” illuminates the need to consider the ethnosexualized boundaries of Deaf identity and culture. Stereotypes used to describe the Deaf population offer some of the more extreme examples of sexualizing Deaf identity and culture. The Peoples Common Sense Medical Advisor published in 1890 provides a list of causes for the "paralysis of the auditory nerve" (Pierce 1890, p681). The list includes masturbation, excessive sexual excitement, and debauchery (Pierce 1890, p681).
Smith’s ethnie does not account for sexualized stereotypes nor does it include important cultural aspects of selective mating habits, sexualized stereotypes, abuse, and exploitation. Lane et al. (in press) includes a wealth of information about Deaf ancestry that implies selective mating habits. Eckert (2005) provides narrative descriptions told by Deaf previously married to hearing individuals. However, neither Eckert (2005) nor Lane et al. (in press) provide an analysis that includes ethnosexual settlers, sojourners, adventurers, invaders (Nagel 2003) in the context of the sexualized relations between the dominant hearing majority and the Deaf community that Padden and Humphries (2005) highlight.
Finally, Smith’s idea of ethnie conflates a number of Greek definitions of ethnos. The synthesis of different types of ethnos is a useful starting point. Though, without language, a clear distinction of kinship, or recognition of the sexualized borders of ethnicity, the explanatory powers of the Smith model are inadequate when addressing the continuing significance of Deaf ethnicity in contemporary society. As such, one is compelled to ask if the classical Greek concept of ethnos has greater explanatory powers than Smith’s (1986) model of ethnie. Does ethnos include language? Does ethnos clarify the role of fictive kinship? Does it account for the sexualized borders of ethnicity?
Critics of Deaf ethnicity include Davis (2008), Sabatello (2005) and Tucker (2004). Davis’ objections to the idea of Deaf ethnicity appear to be with both the broader concept of ethnicity and the narrower dimensions of ethnie. Davis (2008) seeks to replace Deaf ethnicity with what he calls postdeafness. For example, Davis (2008) asks "Why use, outdated, outmoded, and potentially dangerous categories of ethnicity, minority status, nationhood (including 'world' and 'culture'), when one might do better to use the category of ‘one-generation’ identities to redefine the nature of social identity?" (p323).
Sabatello (2005) argues "The Deaf community is arguably a linguistic minority based on fluency in sign language that is different from the majority language, or alternatively, an ethnic minority based predominantly on common history and culture" (p1036). Sabatello asserts a need to differentiate "between those who are legally recognized as ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities, and other sorts of 'life-styles cleavages, social movements and voluntary associations' notwithstanding their internal claims for shared linguistic and cultural systems" (pp1048–1049). The arguments of Sabatello highlight the importance of establishing the Deaf community as an ethnic community.
Tucker (2004) argues that Deaf identity, in the context of a deviant medical minority, needs to be rehabilitated and conform to the cultural hegemonic goals of the dominant hearing majority. Tucker argues "deaf people with cochlear implants, particularly children, have a wealth of opportunities and potential life experiences available to them" (p186). Tucker goes on to say, "To deny such opportunities based on theories of segregation is indeed illogical” (p186). Tucker's argument is framed first by identifying Deaf people as second-class citizens using a Washington Post article as proof of second-class citizenship and then claiming that cochlear implant technology will 'alleviate the ramifications of deafness" (p186).
Sabatello (2005) and Tucker (2004) each suggest that the Deaf community is attempting to impose a Deaf centric view on families with Deaf children and in the process deny Deaf children the ability to successfully assimilate into the dominant hearing majority. Sabatello argues "Thus, rejecting cochlear implants for a deaf child, as advocated by members of the Deaf community, coerces the Deaf culture on the child" (p1033).
Davis, Sabatello, and Tucker each express major misunderstandings of Deaf identity and culture. As such, demystification of ethnicity must accompany discussion of whether Deaf Americans are an ethnic population. The larger problem with the assertions of Davis (2008) and Sabatello (2005) is their pretension of recognizing Deaf human identity while perpetuating negative stereotypes that challenge that humanity. For Tucker, assimilation provides human identity. This differs greatly from those advocating Deaf ethnicity who do not view assimilation as a prerequisite of human identity.