Comparative chart: Deaf and ethnic cultures

What makes a social group a culture? How does Deaf culture compare to full-fledged ethnic and religious cultures? What are the criteria for recognizing a group as a genuine community or culture? We’ve devised a chart with a few major characteristics—a distinct cuisine, a distinct, immediately recognizable mode of dress, a distinct way of worship, separate schools, and so forth—specific to a sampling of American cultural groups. Note that this chart is, of necessity, VERY general. The category “American Protestant” can encompass a broad range of sectarian subgroups (denominations), each of which have their own churches, customs, and cuisine.

1.) Distinct cuisine
Virtually every ethnic/religious culture has a distinct, colorful, traditional cuisine reflecting its history and values. Food and feasts are an important part of family, religious, and communal life. Orthodox Jews have several distinct cuisines representing the traditions of East European (Ashkenazic), Asian/Mideastern (Sefardic) communities, and multi-ethnic Israel, with the ancient practice of kashrut, eating kosher foods. Special foods are eaten during holidays (e.g., matzo on Passover and cheese blintzes on Shavuot).

Some American Catholics still observe dietary restrictions during Lent (e.g., giving up sweets) and the old custom of eating fish on Friday. (Note that many restaurants have Friday fish fries, an example of a religious custom that has become an accepted part of U.S. culture.) Likewise, Mexican/Hispanic foods such as tacos, tortillas, and burritos have likewise become part of popular culture, with the ubiquitous fast-food eateries and frozen-food products making them accessible to all. Italian-American cuisine, at least the commercialized version, is equally popular and ubiquitous. American Indian cuisine, based on the staples of beans, squash, and maize (corn), is the truly native-American cuisine, one of the factors that distinguish American cuisine from European, and has been deeply influential.

The Amish have their own traditional German cuisine. American Muslims have their tradition of halal foods and the special foods eaten, for example, during Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr.

African-Americans popularized “soul food,” which has a historic origin, reflecting the humble foods eaten by the poor (with a bit of African influence)—collard greens, field peas, and the cheapest cuts of meat. Chitterlings (chitlins), for example, were made from pigs’ entrails, the least desirable part of the pig. Black cooks used a bit of ingenuity to make favorite dishes out of these exceedingly humble raw materials. Soul food has also achieved some degree of commercial popularity.

Although American Protestant culture doesn’t have as distinctive a cuisine, many families have their own special culinary traditions. And what’s served at church picnics and suppers may constitute a special cuisine. Many Protestants have special Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter feasts. Again, some of these, like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and pumpkin pie, have become part of American culture.

There are no comparable “Deaf-cuisine” customs, no “Deaf foods,” no community-wide “Deaf feasts.” There is no Deaf counterpart to Thanksgiving. Deaf people eat what their hearing families or schoolmates eat, and enjoy what’s popular in American cuisine. Deaf people can, of course, devise their own cuisines, and can celebrate important events in Deaf history such as the birthdate of Laurent Clerc, the founding of Gallaudet University (the Charter Day Banquet is an annual event on campus), or Deaf Awareness Week, by participating in a local feast or cookout, but that’s a different matter entirely.

2.) Distinct mode of dress
Dress is a shorthand language, a means of communication, a way of proclaiming one’s identity, values, and allegiance to a particular system of belief. Wearing a distinct mode of dress immediately identifies that person as belonging to a particular ethnic or religious community or subgroup. Orthodox Jews and the Amish constitute two of the most distinct ethnic-religious minorities in the U.S.A. Members of these communities are immediately recognizable as Orthodox Jewish or Amish by the way they dress, and are members of self-sustaining, somewhat insular, communities, speaking distinct languages, having distinct forms of worship, scriptural traditions, religious authority, schools, and cuisines. By looking at them, one can see what their affiliation and essential beliefs are. The details of dress (such as the shape of a hat) can even indicate which local religious leader the wearer follows. Deviation from the accepted dress code can get the wearer in trouble.

In general, Protestants, like Catholics, have assimilated so thoroughly into the fabric of American culture that it's difficult to perceive them as having a distinct mode of dress. Sunday best, worn for churchgoing, falls into this category. But note that it isn’t a fossilized or restrictive mode of dress; it’s based on what’s currently fashionable.

African-Americans wear some of the most striking and dapper churchgoing outfits. Some, at least on special occasions, don African dress (e.g., kente-cloth caftans), even if they dress in an ordinary American style most of the time, and even if they no longer know which region or tribe their ancestors came from. Wearing African dress is an expression of Black pride.

Mexican and Latin-American native dress is noted for the variety of styles, handwoven textiles, and colorful patterns, again, with a Spanish influence, and something of this shows in American Hispanic culture, on special occasions. American Indian dress is another complex and colorful subject, and, like Tex-Mex and cowboy dress, has deeply influenced commercial American fashion: chaps, conchos, gaucho hats, sombreros, ponchos, rebozos, etc.

Italian-American children who attend parochial schools wear the distinctive school uniforms, and a few elderly women may wear traditional garb, such as black dresses, but as with Hispanic-Americans, it may be difficult to “identify” them at first glance.

There is no distinctly Deaf mode of dress. Deaf people can, of course, devise their own fashions according to their tastes, and can wear “Deaf Pride” or ASL-themed T-shirts, baseball caps, and badges proudly proclaiming their identities to the world, but that’s not the same thing as adhering to a traditionally prescribed, restrictive mode of dress, such as worn by Orthodox Jews, Muslims, or the Amish.

3.) Distinct religion/ethical framework
Many communities in the U.S. define themselves solely by their religion. It’s common for a particular church or group to believe that it is the “one true church” whose members are destined for salvation. In the U.S., one can find informally and formally organized groups of believers representing all manner of religions and beliefs, even destructive cults. The majority of U.S. citizens claim Christianity as their religion. The basis of Christianity is the Bible (called the Old and New Testaments), although innumerable versions of the Christian Scriptures abound. Christianity encompasses a bewilderingly wide range of beliefs.

Which religion one chooses (as an adult) is usually influenced—if not determined—by one’s birth. If your parents are practicing Catholics, you will most likely be raised as a practicing Catholic. If you’re from an evangelical-Christian family, you will be brought up accordingly.

Cultures and specific religions go together. The community has allegiance to a particular church, whose basis is to be found in a particular scripture, or an interpretation of the scriptures. Each community sets up boundaries for behavior, and severe infractions of its code are punishable by ostracism, temporary banishment, or permanent expulsion. The Amish communities, for example, are self-governing, with a small group of church elders enforcing the rules and determining how to respond to particular exigencies—whether it’s permissible to set up a telephone line, for example. The elders lay down the law, and all members of the community are expected to obey. Those who persist in breaking the law are punished in various ways, from a public rebuking to outright expulsion from the community.

Growing up in a community with well-defined boundaries can be a positive experience. Since religion is so deeply ingrained into the lives of the community members, children learn about moral precepts and ethical behavior as part of everyday life. Parents with high ethical standards typically impart these to their children. In a sense, such children are better off than those from families without a strong sense of morality.

Each religion designates certain behaviors and acts as ethical, others unethical. The sanctity of marriage, for example, is a universal feature of most religions, as are the prohibitions against adultery. Prohibitions against stealing and cruelty to animals are also an important feature in most religions.

There is no specifically Deaf code of ethics. Deaf children who spend their formative years at schools for the deaf, if they have hearing parents and a poor communicative situation at home, will likely imbibe more influence from their school and their peers than they do from their families. If a school doesn’t have an effective ethical setup, the repercussions for the deaf student can be unhappy.

4.) Distinct scriptural tradition/history
Each ethnic/religious culture has a scriptural basis. That is, each community has a holy book that they believe was divinely transmitted, and which serves as a basis for their liturgy and communal history. The Jews have the Torah (Five Books of Moses), and the Talmud, Shulchan Arukh, and other commentaries that provide a comprehensive guide to beliefs. morality, and everyday conduct. They use various editions of the siddur (prayerbook). The scriptural basis of Christianity is the Bible, called the Old and New Testaments, although innumerable versions and translations abound. Catholics have the Douai Bible, the long tradition of canon law, and the missal; Protestants use various editions of the Christian Bible, and various prayerbooks and hymnals. The Amish have their own German liturgy and church government. Anglicans have the Book of Common Prayer. Mormons have the Book of Mormon. Hindus have the Bhagavad-Gita. Muslims have the Koran (Quran). American Indians maintained a variety of beliefs, including the familiar Great Spirit. Hispanic Americans have their own liturgy (in Spanish) and customs, so a church serving a primarily Irish Catholic, Italian-American, Polish, or Ukrainian congregation would do things a bit differently from one serving a Hispanic congregation. Essentially, though, it's the same liturgy and set of beliefs. The Greek Orthodox liturgy differs on key points from the Roman Catholic.

There is no “Deaf religion.” There is no “Deaf God,” no “Deaf Gospel,” no special liturgy, and no set of beliefs unique to the Deaf community. Unlike the Mormons, there is no “Deaf Prophet” who is revered as having received the Word of God from heaven or an angel. Deaf people utilize the same scriptures and liturgies used by hearing people.

5.) Distinct houses of worship
The first European settlers in the U.S. were Puritans—members of a radical breakaway wing of the Anglican Church. Spanish, Netherlandish, and French settlers soon followed. The Puritan church evolved into the Congregational Church, and the current setup bears no resemblance to its Puritan roots. An endless variety of churches, which can roughly be classified as Protestant, have been, and are being, set up in the U.S. Some are offshoots of the Episcopalian/Anglican tradition; others are Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and so forth.

The early history of the U.S. was marked by anti-Catholic sentiment. Nonetheless, many Catholics emigrated here to escape religious persecution, as did the Amish and the Jews. Each group established churches serving specific congregations or populations. Although Thomas H. Gallaudet was ordained as a Congregationalist minister, he is remembered for his pioneering role in the establishment of the American School for the Deaf. His son, Thomas, ordained as an Episcopalian minister, founded the first Deaf church in the U.S., St. Anne’s in New York City.

Churches are political institutions. There are churches that are considered left-wing and middle-of-the-road, churches that take a right-wing stance, churches that are welcoming, churches that are exclusive. There are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics, churches that welcome gays and lesbians, and churches that shun them.

Some African-Americans attend Black churches; others are members of multi-racial congregations. Orthodox Jews and the Amish constitute two of the most distinct ethnic-religious minorities in the U.S.A. Members of these communities are immediately recognizable as Orthodox Jewish or Amish by the way they dress and act, and are members of self-sustaining, somewhat insular, communities, speaking distinct languages, having distinct forms of worship, scriptural traditions, religious authority, schools, and cuisines. By looking at them, one can see immediately what their affiliation and beliefs are.

Deaf people may attend a Deaf church, or a “hearing” church (we’re using the term “church” to denote any organized house of worship) that has interpreted services, they may attend one without any interpreter, or may not attend church at all. Note that Deaf churches are almost invariably offshoots of established churches, such as the Lutheran or Episcopalian.

6. Distinct social customs
Each culture determines which behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable. For example, in Muslim culture, it is improper for a man to touch an unrelated woman in public, and men and women take care to avoid making direct eye contact with each other. In large cities such as New York, touching or glaring at a stranger may be interpreted as aggression or even assault. In Orthodox Jewish culture, husbands and wives refrain from touching each other in public or in front of their children—but they lavish plenty of affection on the children. They save the intimate stuff for when they’re alone with each other. To those of us who are used to seeing couples smooching and cuddling in public, this seems a tad strange.

Deaf culture maintains certain rules of protocol that differ from what’s considered socially acceptable. In U.S. culture, it’s considered “forward” for two persons to maintain a steady, locked gaze into each other’s eyes. This kind of behavior tends to make uninitiated hearing people uncomfortable.

Deaf culture maintains certain rules of protocol that differ from what’s considered socially acceptable. For example, in Hearing culture, a restaurant waiter must never touch a diner. In Deaf culture, it’s acceptable for a waiter to touch a diner’s shoulder to get her attention. Similarly, it's okay for Deaf persons to maintain a steady gaze while they’re signing to each other—something that might be impermissible by Hearing standards.

Another example: according to Deaf culture, a person who leaves a room where there are other Deaf people notifies them that s/he’s going into another room—even if it’s a short jaunt to the bathroom . Hearing people might consider this tacky, but there’s a practical reason—it forestalls frantic searching for the person who has just left the group. Since Deaf people can’t hear another person yell through the bathroom door, they notify their friends before removing themselves from eyeshot. It’s a practice that, all things considered, makes sense.

Deaf social protocol is based on Deaf people’s need to maintain good eye contact and visibility, and to make signing easier and more comfortable. Therefore, Deaf culture does have this in common with ethnic/religious cultures.

7.) Transmission from parents to children
One important criterion of a culture is that it transmitted from parents to children. In other words, parents teach their children the byways, norms, and values of their culture: the language, rules, customs, folklore, religion, and moral values they cherish, as part of their everyday family life. As far as Deaf culture goes, this holds true for only a small minority of Deaf children—those with Deaf parents. Every other culture is transmitted from parents to children. Deaf culture is unique in that it has traditionally been transmitted from child to child at the schools for the deaf. Since the overwhelming majority of deaf children have hearing parents, they didn’t learn the language, values, and social customs of Deaf culture from their parents, but their peers.

8.) Distinct folklore/literary tradition
This is a major characteristic of a culture. Every culture has a distinct and colorful folkloric tradition. In many cases, folklore wasn’t written; it was retold. Traditional folklore was transmitted from generation to generation by parents, elder relatives, and local storytellers, who shared the history and myths of the tribe or community with the adults and children gathered together to listen and participate. These “texts” were memorized by the new generation who, in turn, transmitted them to their children.

Deaf people have a folklore. In the U.S. and Canada, this is based on ASL, and utilizes dramatic storytelling, ASL humor, signplay, poetry, anecdotes, legends, and myths.

9.) Distinct language
The language used by an ethnic, religious, or geographical community reflects its values and world-view. Each ethnic culture possesses a native language. Subgroups have their own dialects. Spanish is the native language of Hispanic Americans, although there may be some Indian influence, and the local dialect would be somewhat different from Castilian Spanish. The Orthodox Jewish community uses Hebrew (Ivrit), Yiddish, a blend of German and East European languages in the Ashkenazic community, and Ladino, a blend of Spanish and Hebrew, in the Sefardic community. The Amish use their own dialect of German. Of the many American Indian languages that were once used throughout the New World, most have perished unrecorded, but Cherokee is one language that has survived, and has a written form. American Muslims learn Arabic, and they may also speak the native languages of the countries their ancestors came from: Turkish, Parsee, and so forth. Italian Americans use their own dialect of Italian American Protestants and Catholics use American English. Latin is no longer a notable feature of the Catholic liturgy. The members of most of these ethnic groups, with a few exceptions, are multi-lingual—they speak and read their families’ languages and are fluent in English.

ASL is the native language of Deaf Americans and a number of Deaf Canadians. However, most deaf people have hearing parents and siblings. The vast majority of Deaf people don’t come from Deaf families.

10.) Distinct social, sports, recreational institutions
Virtually all cultural groups have social, recreational, and sports institutions that are organized to some degree and serve to foster group and communal loyalty, and also serve as a way to have fun within the boundaries of the community. Italian-Americans have a popular urban sport called bocce, for example. Parochial schools and colleges have developed some formidable sports teams. Orthodox Jewish schools (yeshivot) don’t go in for football, but have good baseball and basketball teams.

Team sports, like volleyball and softball, play an important role in Deaf culture. Sports are a way of expressing belonging and kinship in a kinetic way, free from communication barriers. Deaf people enjoy participating in competitive sports with other Deaf people, and this predilection begins at schools for the deaf, where all the children participate; everyone takes turns.

Although Olympic sports are an important part of U.S. culture (to say nothing of their being a multi-billion-dollar industry), most Deaf athletes have preferred to participate in Deaf-only competitions (e.g., the Deaflympics), despite the modest perks involved, the higher expenses, and the relative lack of prestige in Hearing culture. Since easy communication is of paramount importance, most Deaf athletes opt for Deaf sports.

Deaf students in some mainstreamed settings may find themselves excluded from participation in intramural and varsity sports, due to the communication problems involved. This kind of exclusion doesn’t exist at schools for the deaf. Every child, no matter how clumsy, gets a chance to participate. That’s long been a defining characteristic of deaf culture. A few determined deaf athletes have participated in the “Hearing” Olympics.

11.) Distinct schools
Depending on the parents’ commitment to a particular religion (and other factors such as the academic quality of the schools), they may send their children to church-affiliated schools instead of local public schools. There are a number of private schools serving children of the members of particular religious communities, and this also holds true for colleges and universities. Although the number of Catholic parochial schools has declined radically over the years, they have been making a comeback. Some parents want a total experience for their children, in which religious training is integrated into the curriculum, not separated from it.

Traditionally, schools for the deaf have served as the hubs of the Deaf community. Although enrollment has been declining, due to the upsurge in mainstreamed placements, some schools are embattled, and a few have already been closed, this still holds true. Deaf children have traditionally learned ASL from other students, and gained their first exposure to the norms of Deaf culture—for example, everybody takes turns participating in sports; no one is left out.

A growing number of deaf people have not attended schools for the deaf, but are graduates of mainstreamed public-school classes, day schools (oral and sign-affirmative), charter schools, or other setups. Some mainstreamed situations are excellent; others abysmally bad. A number of people who have a non-traditional (mainstreamed) background have nonetheless chosen to join the Deaf community as teens or adults. Although purists don’t consider those from mainstreamed backgrounds “strong-Deaf,” a number of respected Deaf Culture advocates have sent their deaf children to public and private schools, not schools for the deaf, so the “rule,” if there is one, isn’t absolute.

A number of colleges in the U.S. are Catholic-affiliated; others are Methodist, Lutheran, Southern Baptist, nonsectarian Christian, fundamentalist Christian, and so forth. While deaf students are legally free to enroll in the college of their choice, a large number of them choose to attend the “Big Three”: California State University at Northridge (CSUN), National Technical Institute for the Deaf, one of the colleges of Rochester Institute of Technology (NTID/RIT), and Gallaudet University. Gallaudet was the first, and is still the only, liberal-arts college for deaf students in the world. Each of the Big Three has its own distinct Deaf community and brand of Deaf culture. Not all deaf students who attend CSUN and NTID join the Deaf community; it’s possible for a deaf student to go through an entire college career without learning how to sign or having any social interaction with other deaf people. CSUN and RIT are mainstreamed colleges; Gally is a bastion of ASL. Everyone signs there. Gallaudet alumni even have a distinct “Gally ASL” accent.

The only truly distinctive characteristics of Deaf culture are the language—ASL in the United States and much of Canada—and ASL-based schools for the deaf. A growing number of deaf people have not attended schools for the deaf, but are graduates of mainstreamed public-school classes, day schools (oral and sign-affirmative), charter schools, or other setups. Some mainstreamed situations are excellent; others abysmally bad. A number of people who have a non-traditional (mainstreamed) background have nonetheless chosen to join the Deaf community as teens or adults.

The popularity of Deaf sports, Deaf performing arts, chartered Deaf tours, and Deaf social institutions (like biennial school reunions) can all be traced to the importance of ASL in our everyday lives. The basis of Deaf culture in the U.S.A. is ASL. This is testimony to the importance of communication. Accessible communication is of paramount importance in our lives, and ASL, a multi-national blend of native and foreign sign languages, has been developed and refined by generations of deaf people to serve that purpose.

The Amish, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Italian-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and American Indians all have full-fledged cultures: “yes” to all or almost all of the sample criteria in the chart below. How does American Deaf culture compare to them?

Looking at the chart, we see that Deaf Americans don’t have many distinctly ethnic characteristics. There is no distinctly Deaf cuisine or manner of dress.

12.) Distinct geographical communities

Members of certain ethnic/religious groups have traditionally banded together into distinct communities. This afforded them some measure of protection, as well as convenience and comfort. Neighbors could look out for each other, and the church they attended together was usually nearby.

There have been several successful living arrangements for elderly Deaf

Conclusion

Note that Deaf American culture fulfills only some, not all, of the criteria for a full-fledged culture—and the criteria that it does fulfill, primarily a distinct language and schools—are based on communication, not a distinctive religion, world view, or ethnic identity. It shares only a few characteristics with full-fledged cultures like Hispanic-American and Amish. In this sense, it most closely resembles American Protestant culture, which has evolved from its Puritan roots into something more general and multi-denominational, while losing its distinctive qualities as a separate culture. Deaf people in the U.S.A. are more recognizable as members of American culture than as Deaf culture—until they start signing to each other.

Essentially, then, Deaf American culture fulfills four essential criteria: a distinct language, a distinct folkloric tradition (encompassing ASL storytelling, performing arts, and Deaf history), distinct social institutions, and distinct schools (all of which are ASL-based). It also partially fulfills the criterion of distinct social customs and protocol. Therefore, some people insist that Deaf people really do have a full-fledged culture.

Is American Deaf culture a full-fledged, quasi-ethnic culture, a subculture, or a political construct that doesn’t represent reality? Can the existence of a culture be a personal view? What do you think? What are your views?

Comparative Chart:
Deaf and ethnic cultures

Deaf American

Amish

American Orthodox Jewish

American Muslim

American Indian

Hispanic American

Italian-American Catholic

African- American

American Protestant

1 Distinct cuisine
(“ethnic foods”)

no
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
to some extent

2 Distinct mode of dress

no
yes
yes
yes
yes
no
no
to some
extent
no

3 Distinct religion/
ethical framework

no
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
to some
extent
yes

4 Distinct scriptural
tradition/history

no
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
to some
extent
yes

5 Distinct houses
of worship

to some
extent
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes

6 Distinct social customs

to some
extent
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
no
7 Transmitted from parents
to children
rarely
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes

8 Distinct folklore/
literary tradition

yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
no

9 Distinct language

yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
to some
extent
no

10 Distinct social, sports, recreational institutions

yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
to some extent

11 Distinct schools

yes
yes
yes
yes
to some extent
to some extent
to some extent
to some
extent
to some extent

12 Distinct geographical communities

to some
extent
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
yes
to some
extent
no


Definitions | Ethnic Culture | Commentary

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