On Color-Blindness and Observation Method

Thoughts, US Culture
four diverse women

The author (second right) and international students on a trip to Washington, DC

There are by now several compelling arguments why being “color-blind” does not address the problem of racism but merely masks it. A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, detailed in New York Magazine, found that children were self-censoring to avoid referring to people by race. Middle-school children were asked to identify a photo of a person out of a group of 40 by asking yes-or-no questions. It was discovered that:

Overall, the odds of children mentioning race were 4 times lower than mentioning gender […], despite the fact that both questions were equally useful for completing the task. It was also clear that children noticed race: Over 97% reported noticing that the photos varied by race in the posttask measures.

The results were consistent across different (self-reported) racial backgrounds. The children who avoided mentioning race despite noticing it explained their choice as not wanting to be rude or racist. The study concludes that the stigma on mentioning race hurts minority children as race is central to their identities.

While this is a powerful argument to stop avoiding race in conversation and pretending to live in a postracial society, one should be careful not to interpret the findings as an encouragement for referring to people by their (perceived) background — something the authors never explicitly state in the article. Whatever benefits a person may derive from a strong racial identity, that identification needs to be determined by the person themselves and not assigned to them by the external observer.


US Perceptions of Language Learning

Language, US Culture
Man listening to headphones

image by m0php

A question I’ve heard a lot in the US is “How long have you been here?” The answer currently stands at 2.5 years and counting, and the reaction has often been “But your English is so good!” The degree of amazement is usually inversely proportionate to the number heard. You may imagine what it was like when that number was in the months. A frequent follow-up question is “Did you know English before you came here?”

Far from insulting me, this line of thinking is very revealing of the Americans’ notions of language-learning. What I take from it is that people often assume that you learn a language by going to a country where it is spoken. This is consistent with how language-learning occurs for many Americans, and they seem to extrapolate that experience onto other people.

Unlike in many countries in Europe and my native Russia, Americans usually don’t start taking a foreign language until middle or high school. Those who decide (or have to) take it in college often opt for a study abroad experience as a way to immerse themselves in the language and culture and to improve their language skills rapidly. Many language majors don’t start taking “their” foreign language until college — as opposed to Russia, where you need to have a certain prior knowledge of the language to major in it.

How is it different from my experience (and I hope, this is somewhat representative of other people’s experience as well)? I started taking English in elementary school (fairly early even for Russia, where most children don’t start learning another language until the 5th grade or so). I was nowhere near fluency the first 3 to 5 years, but I had a lot of time to learn a lot of nuances of grammar and register — something an intensive-course student may not have the time to do.

So, to answer the original question, by the time I arrived in the US, I had had 16 years of English instruction (along with classes in other subjects taught in English — I was a Linguistics major) with a year-long US stint in between. While my experience may not be representative of everyone in Europe or even in Russia, I think it’s safe to assume that your average Russian will have had at least a few years of English instruction prior to arriving in the US and that this learning experience will be mostly classroom-based (as opposed to immersion or stay abroad), although this tendency is gradually changing.

Is this consistent with how people learn languages in your country? If you’re American, would you agree with how I described language-learning in the US?

Diversity in the US

Globalization, US Culture

You often hear that the US is a diverse nation and you can meet people from all over the world here. I would like to examine this notion of diversity.

First of all, there is no arguing that the US strives to end race and ethnicity-based discrimination (at least on the legal and official level). While there may still be some racism in the attitudes, unlike in my home country of Russia, it is unlikely to make its way into the mainstream discourse or policy. Diversity is proclaimed and welcomed in universities, in the workplace, and in the community. Far from trying to challenge this notion, I would like to examine what kind of diversity we are talking about.

One of the things you often hear from some Americans is how you can meet people from all sort of cultures and backgrounds in the US. This makes sense considering that in 2010 13 percent of US residents were born abroad. There is no arguing that people from all over the world have been coming to the US to work, study, live, or travel.

However, this interaction seems to be very one-sided. Foreign-born people are primarily viewed in terms of how they adapt to the US. Americans seem to be indifferent to these people’s cultural “baggage” and know little about the life in their home countries, their history and language. Thus,  the American notion of “diversity” pretty much reduces all international people — immigrants or not — to “Americans of X origin.”

While it is to be expected that guests and newcomers adapt to the rules of their host country, Americans don’t seem to meet them halfway. This is purely anecdotal, but I have met people who worked/served abroad for a few years but failed to pick up more than a few stereotypes about their host location. Having been the expat who fails to learn the local language, I am far from judging them, but isn’t it time we reconsidered the supposed diversity of the US?

Take the example of language as a vivid illustration of this trend. As reported in National Journal, “an analysis of 2010 census numbers shows that only 10 percent of the native-born reported speaking a second language. When immigrants were included, that percentage increased to 20.1 percent.” That means most US residents who can speak another language acquired it through speaking it from birth rather than mastering it through study.

Language is but one example but the list can be expanded. Education, business, entertainment — the diversity seems to consist in people flowing to the US and learning about it and not the other way around. “Well, everything is better in the US,” you may say. But how do you know that before you explore other cultures? Do you know as much about the culture of your foreign partner as they do about yours?