Those of you keeping up with the new season of Project Runway may have noticed that several moments of major drama so far have centered around language, emerged in moments of mis/communication between competitors speaking multiple varieties of global English.
The first clash happened in the season’s second episode, the unconventional challenge (designers had to make dresses out of Hallmark cards) when stress was already high. Swapnil entered the workroom to inform the group that three sewing machines had been set up for heavy materials.
“Did you set them up for us?” asked twinky American whiteboy Blake.
“Sorry?” asked Indian contestant Swapnil.
“Did you set them up for us?”
“Sorry?” Swapnil asked again.
“I don’t know how to speak Indian so I can’t say it.”
An outburst of “Wooaaahhh” spreads around the room as Swapnil protests, “I’m not speaking Indian I’m speaking English.”
In confessional, Kelley called his comments “ignorant” and “completely uncalled for” and Swapnil says, “Racism is something that I do not want to give importance to.” And Blake clarifies that he’s “actually adorable.”
Is this racism? Perhaps it’s more effectively termed “linguistic racism,” discrimination based on a racialized variety of speech. Linguistic racism is discussed by Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman on their book Articulate While Black, which uses President Obama’s codeswitching practices as an opportunity to discuss privileged and oppressed varieties of spoken American English. According to Alim and Smitherman, linguistic racism is one of the ways that racism has gone underground, so that (for example) in one experiment, landlords didn’t call back or denied having open apartments to callers who effected “Black-sounding” speech patterns on the phone.
Because American students are taught with a monolingual ideology that denies the existence of multiple varieties of English, the clash between Blake and Swapnil is touted as pure racism and there’s little awareness that Blake and Swapnil may speak different varieties of English, but they are mutually intelligible if both listen carefully and understand the communicative challenges at hand.
I’ve been thinking as I watch this season that as the show has worked to diversify its cast, including bringing in people from different races and identities from the US and from all over the world, they have hit up against Americans’ general monolingualim, the mistaken notion that American English that should be learned by all citizens of the world, while Americans have no responsibility to learn foreign languages. This ideology has particularly toxic manifestations in writing classrooms, where increasingly diverse cohorts of American students are taught that there is one way to use English correctly and that other language skills are liabilities, not strengths.
What Paul Matsuda calls “the myth of linguistic homogeneity” manifested itself in last week’s episode and was a lot more subtle, as communication problems emerged between pair Edmund and Hanmiao as a pair in the season’s first team challenge. For issues of personalitity as well as language, it was a tough team. Both are strong-willed designers who worked best alone; neither seemed comfortable thinking alone or working together through ideas. In the second episode, Edmund was highlighted refusing to talk through or even disclose his designs to his neighbor at the work table. Collaborating takes verbal practice, practice Edmund didn’t seem to have had.
But I couldn’t help being curious about Hanmiao’s linguistic history–did she learn English in China? How long had she been working in the United States?–and Edmund’s as well, an African-American man from Atlanta, with its own strong dialect of African-American Language. Edmund doesn’t speak AAL in the workroom, but he may speak it at home; Hanmiao and Edmund might both be people who learned Standard English as a second language or dialect. Or maybe not–that’s why we do research.
When Hanmiao was eliminated at the end of the episode, I found myself wondering whether the outcome could have been different if the two had communicated better. To my surprise, Hanmiao had the exact same thought.
“I’m not mad,” she said in the confessional, “just speechless, and helpless. I know I failed. You have to work as a team. Communication is the only way, the best way to fix it.” She continued: “Several years ago I was in China. I watched Project Runway Season 4 in China. I never think about I can be in New York and I can be in Project Runway. It’s amazing.”
Standard American English is the lingua franca of the Project Runway workroom, but SAE may be the second language or even dialect of English learned by many of the designers there. Language diversity has always been a part of Project Runway, every since Heidi introduced Nina Garcia in her German accent and then later issued a stern “You’re out,” her R’s dropping away, then offered a double-cheek kiss in Euro-Fashion fashion, with her trademark German “Auf wiedersehen.”
When Heidi leaned in to give Hanmiao a double cheek kiss and Hanmiao wrapped her arms around the tall model for an earnest hug, I was reminded of how much broader than language communication can be, and all the ways a designer can be rendered “speechless.”