“Hearie Privilege” – a PSA for Hearing People

A few days ago, in a Facebook conversation, I was discussing the issue of lack of captions and Deaf rights in-depth. I went to the trouble to type up a long response about the struggle Deaf people face to get equal access. I was talking about how my local theater used to show open-captioned movies for the deaf once or twice a month, but they stopped because a few hearing people who attended those particular showings were selfish enough to complain about the “words on the screen” despite the theater people telling them that these once/twice a month showings were for the Deaf. The theater stopped showing open-captioned movies because of it and now all the Deaf in my area are left to wait for movies to come out on DVD/Blu-ray or use uncomfortable mediocre equipment that no one really likes as much as open captions.

It’s just another way that Deaf people got thrown under the bus in favor of hearing people as though we are not worthy of the same considerations as people who can hear. It’s an important part of the Deaf rights issue, because discrimination and prejudice is very alive and well towards the Deaf. It’s not just limited to lack of access for entertainment. It goes all the way up to extremely important things, such as access to medical care, education, government, etc. It’s even just about how we get treated by others in general, which is not well. We are often treated like second-class citizens. As advanced as this society may be with other things, it is very behind on Deaf rights and access.

In this comment, I used the word “hearie” which is Deaf culture slang for “hearing person.” Instead of recognizing the injustice of this discrimination and being supportive, the very first reply was someone, a hearing person at that, taking offense at the term “hearie“. A discussion followed about whether or not the term was offensive. Several comments were made, the hearing person was backed up (by other hearing people, of course), and very little support was shown regarding the actual issue of discrimination towards the deaf, at least compared to the whining about the offensiveness of “hearie“. Finally someone likened their perceived offense to the word to racist terms such as “nigger” and “cracker“, showing that they really didn’t get it at all when I explained that the word “hearie” was a cultural word specific to the Deaf and not meant to be offensive in any way whatsoever. The point here is: a hearing person being offended by a benign word I used was far more important to them than the discrimination I and many other Deaf people face on a daily basis, discrimination against our very humanity.

I just ended up conceding and moving on since I could tell I wasn’t going to get anywhere. Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t understand where they were coming from. I did. I know why they thought the way they did. They didn’t know enough about Deaf issues and Deaf Culture to know any better, plain and simple. But that doesn’t change that they are wrong.

Hearie” and “Deafie” are both used to differentiate between people who are culturally/physically hearing and people who are all manner of deaf – physically and culturally. Neither term carries a negative or insulting connotation. However, it should be noted that both are terms used by Deaf among each other and about each other, but should not ever be used by a hearing person or anyone who is not culturally Deaf, especially “Deafie”. For what it’s worth, I generally try to avoid using Deaf slang with hearing people but sometimes I forget and it slips in without me realizing it, such as in the case I mentioned above.

Deaf people have a lot of words like that – such as, “undy” for “understand“, “remmy” for “remember“. It’s slang that is particular to Deaf culture, which is a subculture of American society just as Asians, Hispanics, Blacks, etc are subcultures of American society and have their own slang, not all of which carries a negative or insulting connotation either. There are a few slang words that are meant to be offensive within every culture, and Deaf culture does have these words – but “hearie” is not one of them.

A common misconception by hearing people is that ASL is simply signed English. It isn’t. ASL is a full language on its own. It has its own history, structure, grammar and slang just like any other foreign language. It is NOT a visual representation of spoken English, nor is it based on English or anything like English. However, it does sometimes borrow from the English language just as other foreign languages borrow from each other. Deaf culture is the same way: while it may share many similarities with hearing culture, it is a still a completely separate culture with its own history, structure, etc. You should not co-opt the rules for hearing culture onto Deaf culture – which is exactly what a lot of hearing people try to do.

There is a single sign that means “culturally hearing person“, we don’t sign “cultural” then “hearing” then “person” except in formal circumstances. The best way to represent that single sign in spoken English is to use the word “hearie” and refers to the hearing culture and people who are culturally hearing. So really “hearie” and “deafie” are no different from if other foreign languages had their own words for “culturally hearing person” or “culturally Deaf person“.

A hearing person taking offense at a benign Deaf culture term is like an American deciding that the world “Papillon” or some other possible French slang for “butterfly” is offensive for the French to be using when they talk about butterflies, even though it’s not meant by the French to be offensive and is just their word for “butterfly“. Can you imagine? An American telling a French person that he or she is using their native tongue improperly just because the American says so, inferring intent and meaning of a language and culture he knows very little about? It’s no less preposterous when a hearing person tries to argue with a Deaf person about that Deaf person’s language, culture and experience.

To be clear, for “hearie” to be offensive it would have to be used in a certain way and usually with another more offensive word, such as “hearie bitch“. That would be offensive because it was meant to offend. This is why it is nothing like racial/cultural terms such as “nigger” or “cracker“. Those are hateful slurs that definitely have negative and insulting connotation and were created for that express purpose and are still used that way. They were meant to be offensive and those who use it in that way make no secret of it. I tried explaining this to the hearing people involved in the above discussion, but they wouldn’t listen or even try to get it. But I digress.

Who is this person, or any hearing person for that matter, to decide anything about a culture they aren’t even a part of and know little to nothing about? And here is where we come to the heart of the matter: “Hearie Privilege”. Yes, I used the word here because it’s appropriate: hearing culture privilege. That’s what this is truly about, not just terminology.

It doesn’t matter why a hearing person thinks the word “hearie” or even “Deafie” is offensive, they will always be wrong. Why? Because no one has the right to judge an aspect of a culture they aren’t part of and know little to nothing about. I’ve already explained in detail why “hearie” is not meant to be offensive when it’s used among the Deaf, and any Deaf person would confirm this.

So it is incredibly arrogant for a hearing person to decide any part of Deaf culture is offensive or wrong when it’s not meant to be offensive, and most importantly, doing so implies that a hearing person’s opinion is more valid than a Deaf person’s. That’s “hearie privilege”, which is very real, very prevalent, and needs to be done away with just as white privilege did half a century ago.

The same hearing person raising the issue of how offended she was also had the viewpoint that she just didn’t like that “there was a word that solidifies a division of people where there shouldn’t be based on a physical affliction” and that it was as absurd as “calling someone a walker because they aren’t paralyzed.” While I get where she’s coming from, she’s still wrong and those views are ignorant of Deaf culture. She might as well have said that Deaf culture shouldn’t exist just because it’s based on physical attributes (or lack of) and it’s “divisive”. This viewpoint is completely dismissive of Deaf culture, which is by definition, a self-imposed and welcomed “division” by the very people of that culture. She, a hearing person, is not a part of that culture yet she is implying that her opinion about that culture she’s not even a part of is right and the Deaf person’s opinion is wrong. Hearie privilege in action.

Yes! We are divided! Deaf like having their own language that makes communication easy. We are human beings that crave socialization, that “division” is only there because hearing people don’t make the effort to learn to communicate with the Deaf in our own language since we physically can’t use theirs. What are we supposed to do, read minds? Or just be socially isolated? No thank you, give us “division”, because ironically that means being able to connect with other people and be part of a community where we have equal access to each other. Deaf people don’t see it as a disability at all. It’s not an “affliction”! To us it’s a physical trait like hair color or height.

Yes, technically, by society’s definition and textbook definition, deafness is a “disability”. But life isn’t about pure technicalities, is it? Disability is a social construct, anyway. What we consider to be disabilities only exist because the world was built around “normal” people with socially defined barriers. If the world had been built around Deaf people, Hearing people would be considered the ones to be disabled. People in wheelchairs are only considered disabled because people built everything with standing and walking in mind. Learning disabilities are only disabilities because things are taught a certain way en masse. A good friend of mine put it well: “Many disadvantages only occur when one set of differences becomes mainstream and others are not given as much allowance.”

For some who are culturally hearing and consider themselves to have a hearing loss, deafness a disability. For those who are Deaf (capital D), it is not. For us, it is a way of life. It is not hearing loss but Deaf gain. It is a full culture and it is every bit as valid as geographically based cultures. And since disability is a social construct, when a Deaf person holds the view that it’s not a disability, it isn’t a disability. It really is that simple.

For a hearing person to say that the Deaf are “just kidding themselves” or say condescending things like “It’s great that you take pride in it but it’s still just a disability” is very disrespectful and is a prime example of hearie privilege. If the people who have this trait themselves are the ones calling it a “trait” rather than a “disability” or an “affliction”, who is a hearing person or anyone else to decide that it’s otherwise? Is their opinion more valid or important than the people with the trait? I don’t think so!

The thing is, hearing people with this ignorant, arrogant viewpoint don’t know what it’s like to be d/Deaf. If they did, they would understand that Deafness is different from other so-called “disabilities”. The very nature of being deaf isolates a deaf person from the majority of the rest of the world which was built around being able to hear. People who are blind, missing limbs, or dealing with serious illnesses can still hear and talk and communicate and while more limited than able-bodied friends, are nowhere near as isolated or socially disadvantaged as a deaf person is in their world.

So the Deaf made their own world by making their own culture and language so they could have fulfilling social lives just like everyone else. When a hearing person says or even just implies that Deaf culture shouldn’t exist or that Deaf should learn to lip-read and speak rather than sign, that hearing person is once again implying not only that a hearing person’s opinion is more valid than a Deaf person’s, but that Deaf people aren’t even worthy of having the same basic human rights as others – such as socialization. Hearie privilege at it’s finest.

For the record, I am not in any way trying to imply that all hearing people suck or are out to oppress the Deaf. I know many hearing people are great people but are just uneducated when it comes to Deaf issues and don’t know any better. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of education to help them understand, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish here. Unfortunately, there are also many hearing people who are bigoted and refuse to open their eyes to Deaf issues, or even go so far as to be prejudiced against us. These are the people that hurt us, and why it doesn’t help one bit when a hearing person says “But not all of us are like that!” All it takes is a few ignorant, intolerant bigots exercising hearie privilege to make life unnecessarily difficult for the entire Deaf community.

What bothers me about the situation with my acquaintances is not so much that they were ignorant of these issues and had a hearie privilege mindset in that conversation, but that they wouldn’t even listen when I tried to educate them about it. They refused to even read articles written by more articulate, better educated Deaf people than me, that explain it WAY better than I do. They were that dead set in their belief that their views on my own culture were superior to mine. When a Deaf person encounters that level of “hearie privilege” from people they respect, people they consider to be friends or family, it can hurt very deeply. It’s possible I did a poor job of explaining it. I don’t know. But it made me realize that since the majority of my friends are hearing people, a lot of them could hold the same views. Hearie privilege is really hard to overlook, and even harder to battle. This is why I felt the need to write this.

I hope that at least people read this all the way through even though it’s really long, and as a result DO get it. If I’ve opened your eyes on this, please let me know, and if you have any questions feel free to ask!

~ Lily Rayne

“Hearie Privilege” – a PSA for Hearing People