They’re Just Old Buildings, Right?

A black and white photo of a family holding hands

Prompted by the discussion surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP resignation, this series of posts is about how and when we take performativity seriously…, and when it bows to interests in historical or experiential specificity.

My brother, Elliot, who died in 1996, was mentally disabled. That’s him above, with my two sisters. And that’s me on the far right; he was 12 years older than me and, as a baby, had taken a particularly bad fall from his highchair; presumably, that’s what caused what, just a couple years later, became painfully apparent to my parents: he had no speech development and began suffering from repeated grand mal seizures. I won’t belabor the tragedy of his life and death, but suffice it to say that in the 1950s there was little choice but to institutionalize him, when he was a young boy, in a government-run institution. So his profound cognitive problems were quickly compounded by a number of physical problems — who knows what all abuse he was subjected to over the course of his life, but from the “cauliflower ears” and missing teeth that soon resulted, well…, it was apparent that life in the institution was horrendous.

To be honest, I really don’t much like thinking about those long car trips, when I was a child, to go visit Elliot. He lived in the wards of those large institutions that you’ve likely seen depicted in movies (such as the one below, in Orillia, Ontario, where he started out): big imposing brick “hospitals” with their check-in desks, their heavy metal doors where you waited for admission to the ward, and then the long hallways lined with naked or semi-naked men, with clear physical and mental debilities, curled up and often yelling, rocking back and forth incessantly.

A black and white photo of an older building in the distanceSo you can see why I have no fond memories of what those buildings represented. The stakes are just too high, I guess, for someone like me, with the identifications I happen to make, to see them as just brick and mortar.

Instead, they seem to me to be inherently signified.

Come to think of it, I feel that way when I think about an historic psych hospital located adjacent to our own campus (and recently acquired by my university). Curiously, though, in its day (mid-1800s) it was seen to be at the cutting edge of humane and respectful mental health treatment….

An unclear black and white photo of a buildingBut it’s tough for me to see such institutions from multiple viewpoints or as being signified based on the experiences and interests of the one doing the viewing, and thus the signifying.

So you can probably also understand my dismay when, in the early 1990s, my wife (who was already an elementary school teacher) started a year-long program to train to be a teacher for deaf and hard of hearing students, and did that training in, yes, a large late-19th century residential deaf school a couple hours east of Toronto. Founded in 1870 and originally known as “The Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb,” I found it amazing that such an institution still existed (despite a name change or two over the years), what with how poorly deaf people have been understood and treated historically. It therefore struck me as a holdover from an earlier, and deeply troubling, era — a time when ashamed or embarrassed parents would send their deaf kids away or, if they stayed at home, maybe hide them away from friends and family.

Instead, integrating these children into hearing classrooms, and providing them with the necessary support and services, was the obvious solution, no? Those residential schools — relics of a bygone era — ought to be closed….

A black and white photo of an old buildingBut then I started learning more the Deaf Community — those who, because they advocate for a distinct cultural identity for deaf people, might criticize the use of such devices as hearing aids or cochlear implants and discourage deaf people from speaking (opting for sign language instead), inasmuch as all this can be seen as forcing deaf people to conform to what might be understood as a dominant but alien hearing culture. (Click the image to learn more.)

The definition of Deaf communityTaking this position seriously — whether one agrees with it or not — makes apparent that what to me was an antiquated residential deaf school could be re-purposed, re-signified, and understood by others, with yet different pasts and different interests, as a key organizing basis for people who saw themselves as (because, for generations, they’d been seen by others as) distinct — for rather different reasons than why others might have once set them apart, of course. So, far from being progressive, some understandably would see anyone advocating for integration and the abolition of residential deaf schools as terribly a regressive, even imperialist, move that risks undermining one way a segment of the deaf population tries to achieve a sense of affinity and thus shared identity in the dominant hearing world.

The symbol of that old bricks and mortar turns out to be more fluid than I’d like it to be.

So although, as a scholar, I approach identity of all kinds as the result of a series of ongoing operational acts of identification — on the part of those attributing an identity to themselves, yes, but also on the part of those who attribute it to others (identification is a two way street, after all) — I also think that I “get” why some do not always see it this way, even those who, like me looking at that residential deaf school, you would think would know better. For in such cases the luxury of seeing the contingency is just too costly — as it was, I would argue, for many on the so-called progressive left when they confronted the performativity of Rachel Dolezal’s race and reacted surprisingly viscerally, as if this one identity was really real, and thus an essential trait bred deeply into the biological bone.

(Did you notice, by the way, as I did after re-reading this post, that I specifically went looking for old, tattered, black and white photos of each of those buildings that I mentioned above? I guess I don’t have an interest in seeing them as contingent, changeable, modern, contemporary….)

This doesn’t mean that we ought not to study the contingency of identity formation in all cases, including those where we judge the stakes to be high, but it does remind us that not everyone will probably join us in those studies. While I’d hope they’d understand why studying the pragmatics of competing identification in the emotionally charged cases (whether gender, race, sexuality, etc.) may be among the most important places to study it today, I think I can understand their reticence.

After all, although I know those old buildings are just old buildings, I really can’t quite see them that way.

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