10 February 2020
If you watched the Super Bowl, or tuned in to feast your eyes on the dramatic opening show, you might have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Christine Sun Kim performing both the American national anthem and “America The Beautiful” in American Sign Language alongside celebrity performers.
I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, I value my sleep far too much and care about American football too little. I found out about Kim’s performance on Instagram – Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic for New York Magazine, shared a still from her performance as he was her former tutor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Having recently started learning British Sign Language, I was keen to investigate further and quickly found myself stalking her on every social media platform!
If, like me, you are hearing about this performer for the first time, let me introduce you. An American sound artist based in Berlin, Christine was born and raised in Southern California with a deaf sister. Working predominantly in the fields of illustration, performance, and video, she explores how sound operates in society and in relation to various aspects of deaf culture. Her work has been exhibited in major culture institutions internationally – she was named a TED Fellow in 2013 and 2015, as well as a Director’s Fellow at MIT Media Lab in 2015.
To be clear, I didn’t choose to continue learning British Sign Language because of Christine Sun Kim’s stunning performance (although that would be reason enough). I’ve been considering it for a while now, and made it one of my goals for 2020. After all, as a designer, accessibility and inclusivity is crucial – so why not apply that same philosophy to my everyday life?
The idea first came to me a while ago while working as a waitress. I was approached by a deaf customer who wanted to redeem an expired voucher. She was already frustrated; she had tried redeeming it once before, but wasn’t given a good enough explanation as to why it wasn’t valid. I didn’t even know how to begin apologising, so I ended up writing an explanation on a piece of paper. After the encounter, I felt really embarrassed. I find language fascinating, yet I’d never even considered trying to learn the basics of sign language before this.
Naturally, as I started learning BSL, I came to discover a wonderful group of people who are ready to welcome anyone who puts in an effort into learning about their culture and how they communicate. According to the British Deaf Association, there are over 150,000 people in the UK that use BSL, 87,000 of which are Deaf. [A side note here: Deaf, when capitalised, refers to a person who has been deaf since birth.] This makes up a significant part of our society that we exclude, just because we don’t know how to communicate. This alone makes it worth giving a try in learning the basics of BSL and Deaf culture, and some things came as a surprise. For example, did you know that there is a difference between deaf and Deaf people? And that there are different regional varieties to British Sign Language, just like there are accents to spoken English?
Christine Sun Kim poured all of herself into the performance, translating the lyrics into articulated and flowing movements combined with striking face expressions. While the performance was broadcast in real time on the screens of the arena, the people who watched the show on their TVs or computers only got to see her for a few seconds here and there. I’m not an expert, but I think it’s quite obvious that not showing her full performance at least in the corner of the screen kind of defeated the purpose of her being there. If they were trying to be inclusive, they should have done it properly by showing it in full. It’s not about the deaf community understanding the lyrics, as they could have subtitles for that. But they should’ve had the opportunity to enjoy it.
In a time when conversations about minority rights and inclusivity are happening more than ever, I think there’s still plenty we can do to build a more aware and inclusive society. I admit that I’m not the best person to preach, as I’ve only recently started learning BSL and there’s still plenty to become aware of. However, I really do think that putting at least a little bit more effort to learning about the different people around us would certainly benefit us all.
There are plenty of sign language courses online and offline, but here’s where you can find the BSL basics one that I’m taking right now: https://www.british-sign.co.uk/learn-online-british-sign-language-course/