(portions published in the March 9, 2000 Plain Dealer in response to the February 18, 2000 article "Panel says bank showed bias against two women ordered not to converse in Spanish")
February 18, 2000
As fate (or at least an editorial decision) would have it, Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs’s last column appeared next to the article “Panel says bank showed bias against 2 workers ordered not to converse in Spanish” in the February 18 Plain Dealer. After reading Ms. Scruggs’s intent to “provide nuanced, sophisticated reporting of [minority and ethnic] issues that will become increasingly important as our nation becomes increasingly diverse,” I thought the world had gone loco when I saw that two young employees of National City Bank were ordered to stop conversing in Spanish because it supposedly made their co-workers “uncomfortable.”
Ms. Santiago and Ms. Rueda were told that other employees “felt excluded.” Even worse, these other employees were “worried that they were being talked about in a language they did not understand.” National City Bank Vice President Mussette T. Vincent supported this view by claiming “deliberate speaking of a language others do not understand, in normal conversational tones, is rude and alienating to co-workers and customers alike.” Does this mean that speaking “in hushed tones” or “shouting” is more polite? Besides, “deliberate speaking of a language others do not understand” serves no practical purpose. If A talks to B in a language B does not understand, A cannot convey his or her message. The problem here is that A was speaking to B in a language she did understand, but C and D were nosy and paranoid.
I applaud the Ohio Civil Rights Commission’s finding that National City Bank discriminated against these women as well as Councilman Nelson Cintrón in his efforts to draft legislation prohibiting such “English-only” policies. Attacks against a language are but thinly veiled racist attacks against its speakers. Two people, even if highly skilled in a second (or third) language, will often speak to each other in their native language—the language in which they feel most comfortable. This is the most effective means of communication. If two English-speaking employees in a largely Spanish-speaking office conversed in English on break, management’s reaction would have been that the Anglophones were simply “relaxing” or “unwinding.” Their behavior, linguistic skills (in either language), and competence on the job would never have come into question.
According to the article, it was the interlocutors, not the eavesdroppers, who were made to feel “uncomfortable” and who should be “worried.” Shortly before receiving the English-only order, Ms. Santiago had filed a complaint against a white employee for calling her “trash.” Vincent contended that this employee (who just happens to be one of the co-workers disturbed about the conversations in Spanish, go figure?) denied Ms. Santiago’s claim saying that she “had referred to Ms. Santiago instead as ‘garbage.’”
Basura by any other name (or in any other form) still smells as foul.
Milton Alan Turner