We are now living in the 21st century. Even given an increase of nationalism, bigotry, and hate crimes, we have mostly moved past the prejudices of a century ago. I’m not saying our television and films are perfect, but practices like blackface, yellowface, and general mockeries of other cultures usually face criticism from general audiences. Similarly, making fun of how someone talks or acts in comedy is generally reserved for those who belong to that particular demographic (or a presidential candidate).
That’s why there’s been such an uproar over the behavior of Jamie Foxx when he appeared on the Tonight Show.
The evening of that show, Foxx thought he was having some fun as Jimmy Fallon threw to commercial. As the host spoke, Foxx began making fake signs to the camera, pretending to interpret while in reality making random gestures. The mockery of sign language wasn’t met with much amusement, however, by members of the Deaf community. Marlee Matlin and Nyle DiMarco both targeted Foxx and Fallon over the behavior, while Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people have made their displeasure known across social media.
What some seem to have ignored, even when members of minority groups themselves, is that sign language is a real language and an important part of Deaf culture. To pretend to sign is just as offensive as speaking mock Chinese or wearing fake Native American clothing. We don’t tolerate the days of “ching chong Chinee” or “me smokem peace pipe,” and the same should be true for signed gibberish. Yet, somehow, because these are visual languages used by “only” 1% of the world population, mocking sign language is considered humorous to some.
I would even dare to say that sign language is even more important to Deaf culture than other languages are to Hearing cultures. Not only is it essential to much of D/HH communication, but also this language was almost lost in America due to a century of Oralism and Hearing oppression. In fact, the prevalence and rise of sign language in the United States began during the Civil Rights era and has become central to Deaf society and pride. To mock sign language is to tell Deaf people that the heart of their culture, and the painful history surrounding it, is silly.
The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community is no different than any race, ethnicity, religion, etc. when it comes to social issues and respect. Making fun of their language is not appropriate, any more than Native American stereotypes, blackface, or mocking those with developmental disorders. Jamie Foxx should be ashamed of himself, as should Jimmy Fallon and the Tonight Show for their complicity.
We are not your punchline. We are people and we are proud.