The Silence of the Lambs

Posted on June 24, 2010


Edward left the following comment on my last post, Driving While Dark (one of only two comments at the time — the other being from my mother, Flo). My response was too long so I’ve turned it into another post, which is actually quite appropriate, since the initial post started as a comment on Edward’s blog (if you follow what I mean.)

WARNING: This is a long post. It’s about political stuff and if you want to skip it, I really, really understand. It does make reference to Maxwell Smart, though. In case you’re interested. Also Glee.

I’m just sayin’.

Here’s the comment.

Edward: It’s interesting how few comments this piece has drawn. The topic touches on areas that many people (for which term read “mostly well-meaning but nervous white people”) don’t like to touch. This is dangerous, because the things left unsaid fester. Honesty is only racism when it comes from a place that rejects the presence or nature of other ethnic groups. But fear of being labelled racist for being simply fair and common-sensical is, oddly, more dominant than the fear that the vitality of the existing culture and laws might be threatened.

Even advocating practical help and guidance for newcomers is just not acceptable, which means the topic is only addressed by the more bigoted segments of Canadian and US society. This is unhealthy and, when we look at it, really bizarre.

And my response:

Thanks. I really mean that.

Comments are often unpredictable. BonyMike mentioned a few days ago that one of his most commented-upon posts concerned a sports game. For me it was my visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Some posts that feel like masterpieces disappear with barely a ripple, while others, sometimes written in a 20-minute rush, are praised to High Heaven (which, I understand, is somewhere near Pittsburgh).

And then there are days where everyone is off doing stuff in “The Real World” — although since this is also the name of a televiion show, they may just be kicking back in front of the tube

The worst times are when everyone’s silent because nobody wants to be first to mention the foul stink you just let loose into the blogosphere.

That said, however, it’s damned rare for a post to go comment-free for so long. This is a topic that seems to inspire silence.

Here’s a good example.

A new director seems to have taken over our English department (or an existing director has suddenly become galvanized — not sure which), and called for a meeting with the English profs the other week (the day after my job interview, in fact). Very official. She didn’t even send out the e-mails herself. Everything was done through an intermediary. Included with the date, room number, and time, were also directions for converting the time to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Say what?

Frankly, I was scared.


Sue Sylvester of Glee

When the meeting started, the first thing she said was that she’d been going over reports and various other documents, none of which I remember because I kept thinking, “Holy Shit! That’s Sue Sylvester from Glee!” which didn’t help my concentration at all. (Really.)


But then she said, “And as I see it, the biggest problem you guys face is language.”

Nobody dared speak. We looked at each other. This was something that Was Not Talked About. Could it be a trap?

There was silence upon the land. (Yes, I did finally pipe up, “Do ya think?” which is why I will never have a full time job with a college.)

As for the silence possibly inspired by the previous post, even as I’m writing now, comments are starting to appear fairly regularly, and so far nobody is accusing me of racism. (Thank God.)

Truth is, I worried before I posted. I worried as I posted. And I’ve worried ever since. Each chirp of the cricket increased my worry.


Now chief, what were you saying about the English department?


This is a subject that has been thoroughly encased in a cone of silence.

Take a reader to work day.

I’m faced daily with the growing problems of rapid and increasingly changing immigration. I’m “teaching” students, half of whom don’t really understand what I’m saying, and I have to go along with the pretence that they’re learning something.

They’re not.

This is not English as a Second Language (ESL). It is not Basic English. It is College English, which deals with research and writing techniques. Supposedly, anyone who passes this course, according to the college, is able to write to a relatively sophisticated academic degree. Yet many of my students have primitive English skills at best, and a sizeable number can’t even speak it.

How close to the goal do you think we’re coming?

Me too.

During that same meeting with what turned out to be a much nicer Sue Sylvester, we learned of a nursing graduate from our college who, with her college-approved English, thought a patient’s complaint about severe chest pains was a religious request.

I have no medical training, but I’m pretty sure that Dr. House would consider the difference to be medically important. And that kind of mistake certainly can’t help instil warm feelings toward immigrants. (It might, however, explain why the administration is suddenly taking the English department a bit more seriously.)

At school, I am essentially teaching two sets of students: English speaking and non-English speaking. The English speaking students, handicapped as they are by the education system, are more than enough of a challenge all on their own. But the non-English speaking students often don’t even understand the words I’m saying. It’s not unusual for me to spend an hour or more after class, with a concerned and earnest group of foreign-born students standing around my desk as I summarise the lecture I just gave, this time with whiteboard drawings and Internet graphics to help define unfamiliar words and phrases (and just try finding graphics for phrases such as “put your facts into context”).

And yet, every student standing there has met all the criteria for admittance to College English.

But that’s only part of it.

Pay attention. This is important.

In order to get into the course I teach, students must either show that they have the credentials from previous education (high school, other colleges) or take Basic English.

Basic English is attended almost exclusively by immigrant students.

In Basic English, students are encouraged to write about the immigrant experience in an “empowering” fashion. Common subjects suggested by teachers, handouts or workbooks include:

  • Discrimination faced through wearing hijabs.
  • Discrimination faced by new immigrants.
  • What you miss most about your home country.

The assigned readings are of a similar nature.

By the end of the semester, those who started with an apparent willingness to make at least token adaptations to their new country have, to some degree or another, been politicised into warriors of their cultural rights. The few who buck the trend must do so against oft-heated debates during “brainstorming” sessions.

To complicate matters, since the various cultures from which the students come often hold mutually antagonistic beliefs and customs, there is seldom agreement even on how they should refuse to adapt.

When these students pass Basic English (did you remember that’s what this was supposed to be about?), they come to my class wanting to write on the same subjects.

Each of the following topics are among the most requested by my students:

  • “I can write on my culture and your culture, and show how your culture is immoral because it allows abortions, okay?”
  • “I want to show that my culture’s festivals are more joyous and positive than yours.”
  • “I think that it’s wrong to have women in positions of power, and I want to write about how my culture doesn’t allow it and why that’s better than yours.”

And remember. They like me. They really do. They don’t intend to be offensive, and they show no indication they expect me to be offended.

I suspect this behaviour is becoming increasingly inherent, too. That is, immigrants are arriving already instilled with little expectation of adapting. But it’s hard to tell how much is inherent when so much is being actively encouraged by our own system.

But, yeah. I think there’s a problem. And it’s not all on the immigrants, and it’s not all on us. But it’s damned serious.

And as Edward noted in his comment: fear of being labelled racist for being simply fair and common-sensical is, oddly, more dominant than the fear that the vitality of the existing culture and laws might be threatened.

As someone said, “Don’t fix the blame, fix the problem.”

But that kind of sounds a bit too motivational and rah-rah to me, so I think I’ll go with, “Fix the problem so you’ve got the time and energy to really nail down the blame.”

Either way, it’s a problem, and it really needs to be fixed.

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