A few weeks ago while driving to pick up my daughter from camp, I turned on the radio to listen to a bit of news. A journalist from NPR was interviewing a senator from Arizona on his thoughts about the current political situation in North Korea. Frustrated by the journalist’s efforts to keep the senator from bringing up past administration’s actions, the senator sarcastically asserted that the journalist “probably didn’t learn English until he was in second grade.” This comment caught me so off guard that it singed my ears.
“What does learning English in second grade have to do with North Korea?” “Why would a public leader choose English language learning as a preferred way to insult a journalist on public radio?” Despite the deviation from the topic, the senator’s message was clear — he had wanted to bring up previous administrations’ response to North Korea despite the journalist’s desire to stay on the current administration’s response. The unwillingness by the journalist to discuss previous administrations’ actions clearly annoyed the senator– but it had nothing to do with communication in English. It was clear that the remark was meant to be both an insult and a concise statement about an ingrained belief held by the public figure; yet, why and what message was he publicly conveying in this remark? In other words, why would a public leader think learning English in second grade to be an insult to a journalist?
One unfortunate answer to these questions was that this politician was making a clear anti-immigrant statement, essentially asserting that the reporter or his family was probably originally from elsewhere (an other) and that would therefore explain why the reporter would not comply with the senator’s desire. The fact that he used the concept of English language learning in second grade purposefully refers to the current bilingual educational program for many immigrant families in public schools. The Bilingual Education Act grants many young immigrant children transitional bilingual education, which many receive through second grade as they transition to English only classes.
Unfortunately, this type of rhetoric of “us” versus “them” is on the rise. It is both toxic and destabilizing and serves only to spur hate, which ultimately spurs violence. We already are witnessing how hate based rhetoric turns into violence throughout the world on our daily news. This rhetoric not only destabilizes and spurs violence, it leaves a path of destruction and societal problems that negatively impacts future generations to come. We bare witness to this fact as we continue to see societies across the globe still struggling from instability due to systematic racism and ethnic violence uniformly instituted during the colonial period.
We at Think Bilingual Austin are working to bring people together as a “we” and “us” for defining all groups of people. We recognize that diversity is to be celebrated because each group adds value to our society as a unique member of the whole. Bilingual immigrants who have a native home language other than English add value to our community by offering us new perspectives and insights on humanity that may be out or our current scope. Moreover, each ethnic group and those with diverse backgrounds bring unique experiences and perspectives and serve to keeps the overall community in check when all sides are given a voice. And yes, while diversity can be messy, it can also ignite innovation of ideas, technology and culture and prevent a group “herd” mentality from steering us into making poor decisions that only benefit the few. In a healthy functioning community, we all need to see each and every group as “we” because in the end, “we are all in this together.