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.