Speaking English

A few weeks ago, an adult student in a class I was teaching at TAFE said that I didn’t speak English. She didn’t say my accent was hard for her to understand. She just said that I didn’t speak English. She followed this assertion with a question. Did I believe in Australian values? I had obviously come from somewhere else, so how did I feel about embracing the values of the country that had given me refuge? She herself, as a fourth generation Australian, believed it was important that people who came to her country should be very clear about the sorts of values they were expected to uphold. She finished with a final question. I bet, she said, you don’t speak English with your children at home, do you?
Before I comment on all the assumptions inherent in this monologue; before I begin to say how sorry I am that my daughter does not speak anything other than English; before I remember that 30 years ago, English speaking migrants with double degrees (like myself) were considered highly desirable; before I reflect on the values of respect, curiosity and humour that I share with my family and friends – before all that, I had to compose a reply to my student.
A few options came to mind.
I could stamp my foot and storm out of the room (satisfying perhaps, but unprofessional).
I could challenge her assertions and turn this into a teachable moment.
I could point out that her interruption was impacting on the rest of the students and get on with the class (which was about choosing appropriate books for children).
I went with the third option. My lady wasn’t done with me yet. But you don’t speak English, she repeated. I want to listen to someone who speaks English. Ah.
Words are sacred. Tom Stoppard says. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little. I was being nudged. How was I to respond?
I looked around the classroom, at the faces from Rumania, Hungary, South Africa, Scotland and England. I thought about the variety of Englishes they spoke, not just in my microcosmic classroom, but out there, in my country, in Australia. I remembered my daughter at the age of five asking if it was possible to wash the yucky brown off her skin, after her first week at school. I remembered her teacher’s response, she’s very perceptive. Most children that young don’t even notice they’re different. And then we had grown into our skins, comfortably, and forgotten we were different. Until Pauline Hanson came along and told us we were in danger of being swamped by hard work and determination. Or she might have said Asians. I thought about the Aboriginal students who asked me if I’d ever been followed around a shop by an assistant or been doubly condemned for my race. They blame us for looking Aboriginal and claiming welfare. They also blame us for not looking Aboriginal and cheating on welfare. Did I ever feel like a foreigner in my own country? No, I said. I had not experienced any of that. They hugged me when I cried and called me sistergirl, a compliment I hold close to my heart.
It is easier to dismiss instances of racism as ignorance. It is harder to accept that people intend malice. The student who challenged my ability to speak English is a grown woman, a grandmother; an aspiring Education Assistant who will work with vulnerable children. I do not intend to debate the philosophical implications of screening suitable applicants before sending them out to the workforce. I knew my work there was done. I did not have words in the right order to nudge the world.
I sent the students out for a ten-minute break. I set the classroom up for an interactive activity so when they returned they had something to do. I resigned from my position as a Lecturer after almost twenty years. I did not cite racism as a factor in my exit interview.

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24 responses to “Speaking English

  1. Rashida, I have shared this piece — it’s one of the most powerful pieces I have read. I think you’ve followed Barbara’s advice and gone where the energy is! It is indeed beautifully written. (And I want to smack that woman!)

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  2. Love this. Times when one writes from the heart, it shows.

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  3. marlish glorie

    I’m with Louise, this is one of the most powerful, if not most powerful and saddest pieces I’ve ever read, Rashida. Beautifully written but still incredibly sad. My jaw literally dropped on hearing what happened to you. And I want to more than smack that woman!!! I’d hate to see what’s between her ears. I remember when Pauline Hanson was in full flight , crapping her nonsense all over the place. I overheard a woman at a school event saying how all migrants to this country should know how to speak English. I was wild, and told her of my own parents who arrived from Holland in 1951 and couldn’t speak a word of English yet went on to become wonderful citizens of Australia, and as did their eight children. But gee Rashida, I really don’t know what to say to you, to comfort you, to help you understand this vile woman who attacked you so. All I know is that this country is immensely better for having you as one of it’s citizens. Thank God we have you!

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    • Marlish, I don’t know what to say except thank you. I remember feeling stunned, feeling that I had the power to evict her from my classroom but that I wouldn’t do that. Home is where I raised my daughter, so this is home, and has been for a long time, and to be reminded, as Jane Elliot says, of a biological difference I have no control over, was a shock.

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  4. Rashida… I can’t bring myself to hit the ‘like’ button because this is gut-wrenchingly awful. I’m so sorry this happened. It beggars belief that it did.I hope it never happens again. xx

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  5. Suzanne smith

    I got goose bumps reading this…. I am ashamed for my country and my country people. I work with many highly attained people who have come from else where and sometimes have very difficult accents to understand never-the-less one can understand them. If they are from, for example, the north of England their accents may be ‘cute’ and misunderstanding forgiven if they are dark skinned they are often vilified. I try to stand up against such things and now i will try harder. Cry my beloved country.

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    • Thank you Suzanne. The comment seemed to have nothing to do with my accent…or maybe she didn’t have the skills to express it. For the record, my accent is flat – not hard to follow, I’ve been told x

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  6. suzanne falkiner

    Oh, Rashida…

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  7. I… wow.

    Sorry for your experience Rashida. Thank you for writing this.

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  8. The issue is perception about ability of people based on skin color. In Arizona, we call it discrimination.I designed a building here and it took two years of painful effort. It came out good enough to win an award and the developer asked me to attend the reception on behalf of the project. I dressed for the occasion trying to look good. A gentleman came to me as I was standing next to the podium and told me “I will have a gin and tonic”. Most waiters in Arizona are Hispanic and dress nicely for the job. The gentleman could not have imagined anyone looking like me could be an architect.

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  9. Hey Rashida! I always knew you would do things in style and this one takes the cake. What better endorsement of power and dignity than this…. I respect you more than ever. love and light.

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  10. I know we’ve talked about this before but your piece has such power on the page. It is even more shocking to read, the eloquence and grace in your writing makes it resonate so very deeply. Like everyone, I am APPALLED. It’s shocking that a grown woman should speak to you this way, and, at the root of the tree, actually hold these ideas. Just so sad. I agree with Suzanne, that I am ashamed of our country (for a lot of reasons at the moment) but especially this one.
    I wish with all my heart that you could have had some redress. You handled it with so much grace and dignity.
    xxx

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  11. Rashida, I’m appalled by the woman’s initial comments, then her malicious determination to come back for a second go. It saddens me that no one in the class spoke out againt her overt display of racism. I’m so sorry you were subjected to this.
    I’m going to ‘like’ this post for two reasons, firstly you’ve written a beautifully crafted, powerful account of the incident, secondly for me it’s not appropriate to only ‘like’ life’s pleasant truths.
    Tricia x

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    • Thank you Tricia. As I’ve said elsewhere, to other people’s similar response, it helped me to articulate it to understand what had happened. Also helped me to understand that it was okay to be hurt, even quietly appalled that my ‘safe places’ had so dramatically shrunk.

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  12. I have come to this very late in the day – and just a day after our country has sunk to new depths, with a Prime Minister and an Attorney General bullying the President of our Human Rights Commission, subjecting her to eight hours of interrogation by a parliamentary committee, and attempting to besmirch her name – all because she told the truth. Like all the other commentators here, I am appalled and ashamed that you faced such behaviour in the class you were teaching, from an Australian, your fellow Australian. ‘Life is too short to be little’ – but that is the way she has chosen. You, on the other hand, thought clearly and acted with dignity and restraint. Your account is also restrained, eloquent, and very powerful. I don’t know you, but I think you are wonderful.

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    • Dear Marilyn, I am hugely touched and moved that you’ve taken the time to read and comment on this. I agree that we see so many appalling instances of racism and bullying in public life that sometimes it is necessary to speak/stand up. I do not regret making this public as it has given me the courage to articulate my truth, clearly. Thank you for reading.

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