Is Insistence on English and Punishing Spanish about Maintaining Racial Power?

Too many white Americans get upset about simple matters like adapting modestly to other languages and related cultures, sort of normal stuff in many other countries. I know Europeans who know numerous languages and associated cultures–not to mention some of my Asian-Indian students and colleagues who know even more languages and cultures. Why cannot U.S. whites adapt?

We saw recently this story about Dallas police officers and the Spanish language. And then there is the Associated Press story (at on a hotel owner in Taos, New Mexico. Veteran hotel entrepreneur Larry Whitten came to town, an ex-marine, and took over a dying hotel. He had some rather authoritarian rules:

he forbade the Hispanic workers at the . . . hotel from speaking Spanish in his presence (he thought they’d be talking about him), and ordered some to Anglicize their names. No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.

Well, the Latino employees and some other folks there did not take kindly to his new rules and his firing of those who did resisted them:

His rules and his firing of several Hispanic employees angered his employees and many in this liberal enclave. . . where Spanish language, culture and traditions have a long and revered history. . . . Former workers, their relatives and some town residents picketed across the street from the hotel.

This is a beautiful city, with ancient history. It is also Native American land as well, with the Taos Pueblo, home of the Zuni people for some 1,000 years there in town. After he fired employees for what he says was insubordination and hostility, Whitten says he was worried they would talk about him and his rules in Spanish, and he could not understand Spanish. In our field interviews with middle-class Latinos across the country, José Cobas and I got several accounts of white employers insisting employees not speak Spanish at work, with a similar rationale. (We are writing them up for a book now; See also here)

Why is it that U.S. whites so often insist that smart people who speak more than English only speak English around them? One thing that baffles me about the restrictions on Spanish here and elsewhere, and the broader English-Only nativism we are seeing everywhere, is why whites cannot learn a little Spanish. It is by not difficult to learn (I learned it in a few short courses in high school), and it would be a sign of whites losing some arrogance and ethnocentrism if they would bend a little and learn another language or two. Especially since many/most expect others, especially when they are traveling across the globe, to learn English. The AP account continues:

Then Whitten told some employees he was changing their Spanish first names. . . . “It has nothing to do with racism. I’m not doing it for any reason other than for the satisfaction of my guests, because people calling from all over America don’t know the Spanish accents or the Spanish culture or Spanish anything,” Whitten says. Martin Gutierrez, another fired employee, says he felt disrespected when he was told to use the unaccented Martin as his name. He says he told Whitten that Spanish was spoken in New Mexico before English. . . . After the firings, the New Mexico chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national civil rights group, sent Whitten a letter, raising concerns about treatment of Hispanic workers. . . . The messages and comments he made in interviews with local media, including referring to townsfolk as “mountain people” and “potheads who escaped society,” further enflamed tensions.

The mayor, Darren Cordova, said the Whitten should have familiarized himself with the area and its Latino culture before buying the hotel and taking such drastic action.

There is much that is important in all this stuff about English-only or English-centrality. The commonplace white insistence on a dominant English is often about insisting on a white framing of things and about white control. As a matter of everyday reality, Latinos, whether very longterm, multigenerational residents as here or recent immigrants, are forced to adapt to much in the white racial frame and to the dominant racial hierarchy. The mostly white-controlled major institutions across this society aggressively press them to conform constantly over lifetimes. They learn that they must more or less conform to white-normed or white-framed realities, so that they can survive in this racially oppressive society. Indeed, they adapt much more cooperatively to many of these societal pressures, such as in quickly learning and using the English language, than most whites are willing to give them credit for. Such stories about restricting Spanish and ethnocentrically accenting English are not too surprising when whites are unused to adjusting substantially to new folks and subcultures in an increasingly multiracial society where they are a minority, or soon will be. Tis learning time in the white world.


  1. Yeah, white Americans can’t even handle different dialects of English! I agree with Whitten, though, that the employees could have talked about him without his knowing. I took French in high school and Swahili in college; but I’m strongly considering Rosetta stone for spanish just so I can know what they’re saying behind people’s backs! LOL!! I’m just not sure what difference it would make if they spoke spanish in his presense or when not in his presence. Cause they would still be talking about him behind his back!
    But you gotta wonder how many polyglots speak behind white folks’ backs. It wouldn’t be that difficult.
    Seriously though. White Americans, and anyone else who does the same, do themselves a disservice with all this nativism, English-only stuff. If for no other reason than just to expand your mind, you’d think folks would be more open to it. You’d really think the Evangelicals would be all over it, offering Spanish language classes at church! But no. If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for them! (Yes, I’m being sarcastic.) I wonder how much is arrogance and how much is fear that they’re not “all that.” If a person’s sense of worth is based on their supposed superiority as a white American, I can imagine the desperation to maintain that superiority.
    Also, I wonder about a person’s sense of courtesy. The courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it. I’ve never had any problems learning anyone’s name when I stayed at hotels. Of course, I’ve never really tried; I just take a peak at their name tag. Is it really an imposition on white folks to do the same? At some point, racist or not (Though, it’s definitely racist.), it’s simply what my grandmother would call “ugly.”
    And you wonder why “they hate you?”

  2. ellen says

    @ Captain Chaos:
    Making educated comments for you is Definitely an Effort. Why do you insist on being here when all your friends are at Occicental Dissent talking about 1. Jewish people caused all the world’s problems and 2. Nobody ‘sticks up’ for white folks anymore and 3.Women should stay hide in kitchen pantries and stop trying to make men feel inferior by Being More Conversant with History than they are? {Get it..Magna}

  3. ellen says

    >I think Americans have lived in a fairy tale world for so long {ignoring minorities other than Anglo-Saxons via media etc} that it’s caused cognitive dissonance to try to adapt to the Reality of Our True Diversification.
    > America’s always been diverse. However, the people who achieved a semblance of power continued to deny the existence of other ethnicities for So Long that they actually started to believe the ‘other ethnicities’ weren’t there!
    >Joe makes an interesting observation about Europeans’ language skills versus Americans’. I never thought about this simple comparison, but damn he’s correct. Europeans speak 2 or 3 different languages easily. It’s such a part of being European that they don’t think it’s a notable feat at all to do this…kinda like drinking wine!
    >Why hasn’t this ever happened in America? A second language is taught in high school, but I honestly don’t know too many people {including college educated Americans} who can Fluently speak another language.
    The entire process of learning another culture’s language would really increase understanding and Interest in other cultures. Maybe college curriculums should require Fluency { la porte anymore} of another language to graduate! What a great way to be a truly Global Citizen and battle narrow-mindedness.

  4. Jessica

    Whitten’s fear that his employees were talking smack behind his back seems to fall right in line with hubris related to generally being in power and rarely being challenged due to white (and male) privilege. After all, not understanding what’s being said because of a “language barrier” is an easy way to strip someone of his power; Whitten obviously recognizes this because it is the same tactic he’s using against his employees.

    Also, if you’re mistreating your employees, it seems a (subconscious?) way of acknowledging this would be to feel they’re talking poorly about you to each other. If he thinks what he’s doing is good and fair business practice, why should he worry about what his employees are saying?

    To Ellen: College is too late – we need to start teaching children second languages early, during that window of time when they’re able to learn it easily and quickly (i.e. teach Spanish/French/whatever right along side English when learning numbers, colors, shapes, etc.). We also need to start celebrating multilingualism outside of educational institutions instead of damning it (like allowing state/federal regulation of language, such as with the Dallas ticket). Not only does multilingualism allow English speakers to communicate better with non-English speakers (obviously) and give them a sense of their place in a global community, it arms students with better writing skills, better grammar, a larger vocabulary, and it’s a hugely marketable skill in this age of low employment rates.

    Last year, I sat on a panel at A&M to discuss with undergraduate students what it’s like working for a non-profit organization. After telling students that being multilingual was a huge asset to anyone wanting to enter social service, two of the panel members – who also work in Texas, a state with an enormous Spanish-speaking population – said they’d never felt the ability to speak Spanish was a necessary or even relevant job skill. I can’t help but assume these two women were among the large group of Americans who pass the buck to a bilingual coworker when confronted with a client/customer for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language.

  5. Melissa

    I know people at work who think when native Spanish speakers talk in Spanish to each other, they are talking about them. That’s a bit arrogant. I like Martin, he is correct Spanish was spoken in the US before English. Spain was the first European country to establish a permanent colony in the United States.

    It is bad that more in the US don’t speak a language other than English, and many don’t even do that well. 😉 I’ve taken Spanish classes in school but didn’t practice it enough to keep up with it. Lately I’ve been trying to refresh my studies by listening to to the podcast Coffee Break Spanish. It’s nice to be able to speak another language.

  6. Sandra Canuck

    Whoever owns a person gets to name that person. One opinion I’ve heard expressed is that immigrants to Canada or the U.S. should be so grateful that they should stop “…”, but of course they should keep their charming holidays and traditional dress and teach the kids language classes on Saturday mornings. Different languages define the world in different ways, and your language, or even your dialect, connects you to your people and your home.

  7. You have to wonder how far this would be allowed to go. In Los Angeles, a great number of manicurists are Asian–Taiwanese to be specific. Does the public have a right to require the employees to speak English so that we know that they are not speaking about how badly kept our nails are in front of us?

    I often wonder if fools like Whitten follow their own logic to its ugly end. I doubt it.

  8. anon

    Of course language is used to maintain a power differential. And Europe has used this tactic in the past if not so much now (although I doubt you’ll find enthusiasm in, say some of the southern European countries on hearing, say, certain African immigrant languages). One example I know of was the prohibition (or assorted consequences) on speaking Irish in parts of Britain, especially through the Troubles. Australia tried to eliminate the Aboriginals in part through eliminating their language. We did the same to Native Americans here, constructing schools and forbidding the children to speak their native languages. Hearing people do it to deaf people by forbidding them their native sign languages and either forcing them to go oral or to use a coded form of signing that is NOT a language nor particularly usable.

    Language is all about power, who gets to speak what, and even how one speaks (think of the weight given to different accents).

    In some ways I’m surprised you even have to ask this question when the answer is such a resoundingly clear Of Course.

  9. Titanis

    “Why hasn’t this ever happened in America?”
    Because America is one huge country instead of a whole bunch of small ones packed together, like Europe? When you can go hundreds of miles in just about any direction and everyone’s still speaking your language, you don’t need to know more than one.

  10. Alyssa

    What Titanis said. America is a large country with only two boarding nations. Of the two, only one speaks a language other than English (okay there is French Canada, but that region is small and not bordering the US). Because of this, the majority of Americans are unaffected if they speak only English.
    However, there is a little more going on here. Even in states bordering Mexico (and perhaps especially states bordering Mexico) there is a backlash against speaking Spanish. In places like Southern California, Southern Texas, and Arizona, English-only speakers often have encounters with Spanish-only speakers. More and more jobs in these areas are hiring bilingual workers over English-only speakers. It is in the interest of of these residents to become bilingual. However, they still put the onus of learning a new language on the Spanish-only speakers. This is because there is a view of “this is my country so immigrants should learn my language” (never mind the fact that if they are living in the US it is their country too). A lot of English-only speakers don’t want their kids to learn Spanish either (forcing them to take French or ASL, even though Spanish would be more useful in bordering states). This shows it’s not just a simple matter of it’s hard to learn a new language. It is a matter of seeing Spanish-only speakers as not worth communicating with.
    I don’t think this comes from intensionally stripping people of their power (although this is indeed what it does). But it certainly comes from a place of seeing Spanish-only speakers lesser and therefore not worth making an effort to communicate with.

  11. @ Alyssia – Yeah, not knowing spanish hasn’t affected my ability to shop or go to school or whatever. And I’ve done ok traveling the eastern half of the US top to bottom. Not very top to very bottom, but, whatever, right? So yeah, the US is geographically huge. But to piggyback on your last thoughts, even Americans going overseas expect the people there, whether it’s Spain or France or wherever, Americans expect the people there to know english. This goes from shopping merchants to regular citizens giving directions. So I definitely think it’s arrogance and not the difficulty of learning a new language. Rossetta Stone costs only $520 give or take. That’s not a lot.

  12. Illusions

    From the original post;

    “There is much that is important in all this stuff about English-only or English-centrality. The commonplace white insistence on a dominant English is often about insisting on a white framing of things and about white control.”

    “English” does not equal “All white people.” A lot of Europeans whom today just get lumped under the generic category of “White” also gave up their language and Anglicized their names to assimilate into this country. Why? Was it because they all sat down and agreed that English was the whitest language and that was what whites should force all other peoples to speak? I dont think so. I think it was because the people who started the real economic ball rolling here happened to be English. (Regardless of the fact that several Native American languages and Spanish preceded English here in North America.) And, if you wanted to have a piece of that economic pie, you tried to fit in. Was it racist to insist the Germans speak English? Or the Poles? Or the Danes, Swedes, Swiss, Irish, etc? Is insisting that immigrants learn the most commonly spoken language of any given country racist? In this case, I really dont think it can possibly be called racist, because it isnt something “whites” are doing to POC but not to other whites. It seems to have happened to ALL people aside from the English that came here.

    If you wonder why there isnt much sympathy from “Whites” on this issue, it may be because we checked our languages and cultures at the door to assimilate in America. Maybe some of us are bitter and wish we had insisted that the country bow to us, and become multi-lingual, or maybe we agree that to make and keep a group cohesive, a common language is necessary, and since English won, oh well. It is what it is. My question would be, why isnt it racist to assume that the rules should be changed for YOU based upon your skin color, when they held for all others?

    Language as a common element may very well help keep a country united and forge an identity as one people. Perhaps it is a factor in why Quebec seeks to secede from the rest of Canada. Anyone know of any studies on the topic?


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