“Please speak English when ordering”

By Samhita Mukhopadhyay Jul 05, 2007

Growing up in upstate NY, I remember going anywhere with my father meant dealing with people that did not understand him. My father moved to the United States when he was 30 and he has a thick Indian accent. Public encounters were always traumatic. People would treat him with such frustration and disdain as though he were a child, even though in actuality he has an MBA in Finance and runs a business. I remember all throughout my life people making faces and having trouble understanding my father because of his accent. When I was really young it embarrassed me a lot, but as I got older I began to realize that his accent wasn’t actually that bad. It was his name, the way we looked and our foreignness that was the problem. People didn’t just hear our accent, they saw it and there was no way phonetic breakdowns were going to get us passed that. Those memories haunt me now in light of the failed immigration bill and some of the sentiments that inform its failure. I grew up in an America that was hostile towards immigrants and especially brown ones. That America has not changed. Just ask this pizza shop owner in Philly. The BBC reported:

Then, as now, immigration was the hot political topic of the day, and Joey had turned up the heat. He had been reported to the authorities for having a sticker on the sliding door of his stall, which featured a picture of an eagle and the phrase: "This is America. Please speak English when ordering." For some, he had struck a chord, struck a blow for ordinary Americans. For others, this was brazen discrimination. English is a language that Joey’s Sicilian grandfather never mastered when he came to the United States in the 1920s. "But he tried," Joey told me, "and he knew that was what it meant to come here."

Well this article certainly struck a cord for me as well. Also, one of the ugliest forms of xenophobia for me is when it comes from people that are descendants of folks that came here and didn’t speak the "proper" English. As though the only survival mechanism they could come up with was to hate on others that remind of the pain and hardship felt by their own families. I have many friends who’s parents didn’t teach them their native language upon immigrating to the United States with fear they would be discriminated against. I have traveled all over the world and nowhere have I come up against this attitude of, "I am sorry, what did you just say, I don’t, can. . . can you just speak English?" as I have in the US. The "English-only" sentiment isn’t so we can all get along and communicate. It is to let people know who is in charge. Other languages, other communications styles, alternative forms of English–well those are just too threatening for our racist Americans–so we have to suppress, silence, destroy and detain them. What languages were denied to you from fear? Or have you ever experienced discrimination because of the language that you speak?