Linguistic Lessons

Tell me I am stupid. Tell me I am worthless. Tell me I am inferior. Because I am a woman. Because I am Asian. Because I am young or uneducated or poor. Tell me this over and over and over again, and I might start to believe it. One year, I had a classmate who made fun of the way my parents and I spoke English. He mocked me when I mispronounced “R”s, dropped articles or substituted Cantonese words when I did not know the English. He was not the only one. His belief that people who look like me are poor English-speakers is echoed and magnified in the media — in all those films and movies with that one Asian character labeled “foreigner” who utters a few lines garbled by a thick accent for comic relief and in the comedy shows that belittle the intelligence of Asians because of the way they speak. Implicitly and explicitly, I was told that I would never be as articulate as my white peers. So I remained the quiet kid for a long, long time. Uncomfortable participating in class discussions and awkward on a stage, I opted for technical or managerial roles in the school play. I shied away from any leadership positions that required public speaking. Years later, I have gotten over this to an extent. I have worked tirelessly — reading and writing and speaking — to make the words come naturally, fluently. But my classmate took his toll. I still get nervous at the podium and in heated or graded discussions. I still cringe when my parents confuse English and Cantonese in public. Last week, James Jung ’14 criticized Andover for our lack of so-called “diverse opinion.” Jung wrote that “every student [at Andover] has been screened by the admissions office to match the school’s ideals.” Because there are no “racists and misogynists” here, we are unable to learn “how they arrived at their conclusions.” So we must play “devil’s advocate,” he wrote. “Be annoying, and maybe even hurtful. Nice is overrated.” Language that asserts the inherent, immutable superiority of one human being over another is violent. Whether it is ignorant or supposedly “informed,” whether it is rationalized in a “meticulous or reasonable manner,” it hurts. It destroys self-esteem, inhibits opportunity for growth and learning and leaves psychological damage for years to come. It is dehumanizing, and it has no place at Andover. It’s easy to “rip apart,” “crucify” or “deconstruct” the argument of a homophobe or a misogynist or a racist when you are not gay, female or a person of color, when those opinions aren’t meant to devalue or degrade you. It is easy to speak from a position of privilege and claim yourself to be above the fray. But when we welcome into our community views that degrade other human beings, that’s when we institutionalize cultural violence. You are inferior because you are female. You should fear for your life because you are gay. You cannot be well-spoken because you are Asian. That is when we come another step closer to committing hate crimes and begin to embrace inequality and injustice. If you want diversity of political or intellectual opinion, that is fine. I say we welcome educated, pro-life, fiscally-conservative, religious Republicans. But let us not imperil human rights for the sake of an educational “challenge,” as Jung put it. Everyone is entitled to a community that protects us — physically, emotionally, mentally. No one is entitled to an opinion that endangers that community.