How Do You Say “Seriously?” in Spanish (or Mandarin)? Language, Assimilation and White Discomfort in America

Legendary NBC journalist Tom Brokaw took to Twitter yesterday to apologies (and Tweet some very weird messages too) for comments he made about Hispanic Americans during a panel discussion on NBC’s Meet the Press this Sunday. Talking about immigration in America, Brokaw said that he has had conversations with (presumably white, older) Americans in which he “pushed” them to talk about their worries over interracial marriage, cultural conflict and potentially having “brown grand-babies”

**Clears throat, steps onto soapbox** Professional tip #1: Don’t recount quasi-racist statements attributed to anonymous sources who you describe in ways that sound a lot like you’re describing yourself. **Steps down from soapbox, momentarily** While these comments by themselves would probably have led to disapproval, or at least head-scratching, Brokaw kept talking and said he following:

I also happen to believe that the Hispanics should work harder at assimilation. … You know, they ought not to be just codified in their communities but make sure that all their kids are learning to speak English and that they feel comfortable in the communities. And that’s going to take outreach on both sides, frankly.”

Professional tip #2: Donald Trump has ruined “both sides” for the next couple of years.

The backlash on social media was immediate and severe. The page for Latino Victory denounced his remarks, saying his “comments give credence to white supremacist ideology and are not rooted in reality. Gary Segura, A UCLA Dean and expert on Latino political representation, said Brokaw went “full-on racist” with his comments. Brokaw responded over social media with a multi-Tweet apology.

My Tom Brokaw Story

I’ve met Tom Brokaw once, just over 4 years ago now. I was a grad student at Harvard and a TA for a history and political science course. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – that event and it’s aftermath were my professor’s area of expertise – she had invited Brokaw to speak at a Harvard Kennedy School forum about covering that moment for NBC news. The next morning, the class teaching staff and a handful of students had a private breakfast with Brokaw where we could ask him questions about his long career and his views of the country and the world.

At our breakfast, Brokaw came off as a sober but open man who took journalism extremely seriously. He also came off as someone who though deeply about race – in response to questions from several students about his career and the events he’d covered over many years, he discussed at length America’s issues with race, specifically it’s shaky performance when it came to providing equal rights and opportunities to African Americans.

It’s hard to put into words (yes, I know, putting things into words is my job), but Brokaw’s comments that morning felt like they had an air of regret and disappointment – there was an explicit idea that the country had come far on issues of race but still had a long way to go, and an undertone of personal regret, as if he was acknowledging that his generation hadn’t done all they could to confront and get rid of societal prejudices.

All this is to say that I think Brokaw is aware of some of the shortcomings that he and many in his generation have when it comes to adjusting their views on race (i.e. actively getting over all the racist b.s. that was more socially acceptable in their formative years). This awareness, however, seems to have left either a lingering adherence to those attitudes of the past, or at least a sympathy for those who are still holding on to their uneasiness with brown (or black or otherwise nonwhite) people.

Assimilation and Language

There’s a popular but false myth that, just after American independence, Congress nearly made German the official language of the US, presumably to distance the new country from its former English masters. While untrue, the story reflects the reality that the US has always been multilingual. German was never meant to be an official language (the actual proposal concerned translating federal law into German as well as printing it in English), but it was spoken by a sizable minority of Americans until WWI led to the widespread suppression of German language education in most states (other aspects of German culture, like German Catholic and Mennonite churches, were also targeted). Japanese language education, although not nearly as widespread, was similarly targeted during WWII. And of course, Native Americans, especially children forced to attend government or church-run boarding schools, were made to give up their languages and religions. Language policy has thus been political, and tied to larger questions of identity and civil rights, for a long time.

In this context, Brokaw’s comments reflect a popular, although likely unnecessary, sentiment. In recent years, at least 8 in 10 Americans have consistently favored making English the official language of the country. But despite concerns about language and national identity, as fellow NBC journalist and Miami native Yamiche Alcindor pointed out in response to Brokaw during yesterday’s panel, Hispanic kids do generally speak English, even if their parents are primarily Spanish-speaking. The data backs up this observation: use of Spanish, both as a primary and as a secondary language, drops precipitously among immigrant families after a couple of generations. In short, the argument of whether or not Hispanic immigrants should assimilate linguistically is a fairly moot point – they already are. Which implies two things. First, many Americans may simply be ignorant concerning these trends and assume that there is a widespread resistance against English that doesn’t actually exist – I wonder where such misinformation could come from? (that was sarcasm: the answer is Fox News).

Second, these sentiments reflect larger issues of uneasiness with multiculturalism in various American settings – including within one’s family (“brown babies” and whatnot) and within the classroom. This trepidation, and the specific objection to languages other than English, has been coming out in various ways, and not just with regards to Latinx communities. Also this weekend, Duke Professor Megan Neely resigned her position as Director of Graduate Studies in the Biostatistics Program after an email she sent Friday caused a firestorm over both English-language and Chinese-language social media.

The email, sent out to biostats grad students, condemned an unnamed handful of international grad students for speaking “VERY LOUDLY” in Chinese in the department’s common areas and urged them to “commit to speaking English 100% of the time” while in that building or “any professional setting.” Despite the framing of the request as one of concern for the students’ development and well-being, the email also alluded to two faculty members who clearly wanted to blackball these students as punishment for their VERY LOUD conversation (Professional tip #3: If you’re sending a work email and are using all caps to convey your frustration at subordinates, and then threatening to harm their careers, you should rethink a few things).

While English appears to be in no danger of losing its place as the dominant and pervasive language of American discourse, increasing diversity and global interconnectedness implies that the country will grow more multilingual over time. There are a lot of people in many settings – from conservative Middle America to the liberal halls of many American universities and newsrooms – who are uncomfortable with diversity hitting close to home. May I humbly suggest that they should be the ones to “work harder” at adjusting to the evolving status quo?

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