The True Language of Insensitivity

Vygovoritye po-russki?

I'm a fourth-generation Russian American. But my name leads many to believe, when they see or hear its strong Slavic intonations, that my family more recently arrived in this country. As a result, on several occasions since my first year at Harvard, people have asked me, in Russian or in English, whether I speak Russian.

My response is usually a chuckle at the misunderstanding: "Nyet. Actually, no one in my family has spoken Russian since my great-grandparents, but my parents just liked the name." In fact, ever since I have taken an interest in Russian history and literature, my enrollment in several courses on the subject has precipitated more instances of benignly misplaced courtesy.

If I were a Black student, someone knowledgeable enough about my family's heritage might attempt to speak to me in the language of an African country, Caribbean country or other nation of my family's origin. I can imagine essentially the same response.

But I can't imagine anyone would be as insensitive as to attempt to speak to me in "jive."

Not so, according to Joan R. Cheng '95, co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association (AAA). Cheng and AAA Co-President Haewon Hwang '95 wrote a letter on behalf of the organization last week which accused Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III of inefficiency and insensitivity in his role as race relations czar.

One of Epps' alleged "insensitivities" was that he often offends Asian American students by "randomly" greeting them in East Asian languages. But even more telling was Cheng's remark to a Crimson reporter writing a story on the letter that "you wouldn't do that to every Black student, try to speak to him in jive. Why should you try to greet Asian students in various Asian languages?"

I think I missed something. Last time I checked, Japanese was the national (and cultural, if you'd like) language of Japan. Chinese was the national and cultural language of China. Korean, Vietnamese, and other East Asian languages represent national tongues.

But "jive" was never the national or cultural language of any nation or ethnicity, let alone the language of a Black student's family or their nation of origin. Never mind that speaking in other languages represents an honest attempt at multiculturalism by Americans, vilified the world over for their lack of appreciation for other cultures. Never mind the fact that "jive" is a hopelessly dated cultural anachronism.

There is a world of difference between the suggestion that a student would speak a language spoken by his or her ancestors and a thoughtless, misplaced Black stereotype. The analogy Cheng makes is ridiculously flawed--and is far more insensitive than any alleged remark or inefficiency attributed to Epps by the AAA.

So no, Ms. Cheng, you wouldn't try to speak to a Black student in "jive." But if Dean Epps thought he knew enough about a given student's background to deduce a language they or someone in their family might speak, and greeted them in that language, it would be no more insensitive than greeting me in Russian or asking me if I speak it.

Assuming a Black student speaks "jive" is not the same as assuming a Chinese American student speaks Chinese. Neither the letter nor Cheng explicitly said that Epps ever, for example, addressed a Korean student in Japanese, although it vaguely refers to a greeting made "so insensitive" by Epps to a Filipino student. Admittedly, the latter would be an insensitive error, in certain contexts. But it hardly even approaches the suggestion that "jive" is a Black national or cultural language and that students should be greeted in it.

Without more information, it's very difficult to defend the rest of Epps' record, including the bulk of the AAA's concerns about his failure to open doors to students as race relations czar.

I started to wonder when I read in The Crimson that a prominent Japanese American theater company director, whom Epps allegedly "deeply offended" on a visit to Harvard, called the incident "very minor." Epps himself called the letter "irresponsible" and "full of unsubstantiated smears," and having read about, written and edited stories on the dean's long and accomplished record of more than two decades, I tend to agree.

The "jive" reference and the sensational accusation regarding the director forces me to be suspicious of other claims the AAA makes, and whether their leaders truly understand Epps' role, or the significance of "insensitivity," at all.

It's unclear that the AAA's most recent action will serve to benefit race relations for any students at the College. Although it may shed light on the relationship between Epps and Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations S. Allen Counter by questioning why Counter failed to approach Epps himself with the concerns of the AAA, precious little seems to have been gained.

More to the point, it's unclear that the AAA has accomplished anything for itself other than to make members of the community question the goals and sensitivities the leaders of a group which holds a representative opinion on minority issues. Epps said he was "very surprised" by the letter, and many students probably echoed his sentiments upon reading it Friday.

I certainly was surprised. But I'm not when someone greets me in Russian. Just because Dean Epps is the Colleges' race relations czar doesn't make something he says more insensitive than when someone addresses me in the language of my great-grandparents--in fact, it's not insensitive at all. An effort to build a better race relations policy has not been weakened by any of Dean Epps' policies so far, but instead by false accusations made without any regard for sensitivity.