ESSAY: What, You Can't Hear Me?


In this essay, there is the use of the n-word, which the author spells out. The author wants to warn Black people who might experience discomfort in seeing the word.

by Keisa Reynolds

Berkeley, California, 2014. There is a Marine-turned-political-science-student facing me with a blank stare. Perhaps he is a republican. Moments ago I finished my rant about Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel. I stressed the evils of his policies and the damage he has caused communities of color across the city. Lance*, the potential republican, looks at our classmate, Jonathan, who nods and says, “You know, I’ve heard a lot about Rahm,” and shares his piece. Jonathan is a sweetheart for pretending I didn’t make an ass of myself by delivering an unwanted rant. I thought they wanted my opinion because I was a Chicago resident. Of course I have some level of expertise. I pay attention to these things, you know?

Lance didn’t want to know what I thought about Rahm Emanuel, he wanted to know what I thought about our quantitative methods professor’s dickish move of writing “Read the fucking manual” on the whiteboard. Oh, I guess that makes more sense. Let me file this moment under the neverending list of embarrassing responses I had to what I thought I heard but was in no way related to what was actually said. This is a moment that reminds me exactly who I am, and while I am not afraid to say it, it often gets awkward for everyone around: I am deaf.

What? If you are like me and didn’t hear, I am deaf. Yes, I am capable of speaking. I have a habit of doing that. My first language was sign language, then my parents decided they wanted me to be more normal. Don’t shame them; they are also deaf, and they, unlike me, don’t have the privilege to pass as anything but. My parents speak too. Deaf people know how to speak; sometimes with our mouths, sometimes with our hands, sometimes only one over the other. There isn’t only one way to be deaf.


My family knows a lot about passing. My dad and his siblings were called niggers by their cousin who didn’t realize they were related by blood. The cousin thought his father was fully white, certainly not half Afro-Indigenous. He ran off crying when my aunt, the youngest at the time, put her hand on her hip and said, “Well, if I am a nigger, what does that make you? We come from the same family!”

There was a look of pride on my aunt’s face when she recalled that moment when I interviewed her for a research paper during my junior year of high school. My English teacher, who is Black and Jewish, encouraged me explore what it meant to live in between cultures. We shared a mutual love for our Blackness and recognized the ways in which we came to fiercely identify as such. We are not people who happen to be Black; everything about looking and living as Black people shapes how we understand the world. However, I couldn’t focus solely on race for the project; I realized there was more to my own identity than my family’s multicultural background.

My aunt doesn’t pass for white and has no desire to do so, but she codes as anything other than Black or Afro-Indigenous. “I am Black,” she says without hesitation whenever someone asks, “Wait, what are you?” During our interview she said she chooses every day to affirm her identity regardless of how people think they understand her. Her love for her people is the only measurement of her Blackness.

“I am deaf,” I told a childhood friend shortly after I moved away for college. She responded with, “I know you had hearing aids growing up, but I didn’t realize you consider yourself deaf.” She wasn’t wrong. This was a recent revelation. I realized I was exhausted living between not quite hearing and not quite deaf.


An aspiring sign language interpreter blew my cover on a tour of the ASL department of my undergraduate institution. As the tour guide I delivered the usual spiel about the department and its accomplishments. The guest was a student of ASL and deaf culture for years at this point. She was passionate about her field and the people she served. She thought nothing about asking me if I was deaf in front of a handful of strangers. Visibly shaken, I answered yes. The prospective student smiled and said, “I knew it.”She was proud of herself for recognizing what most people mistake as a Valley Girl accent. It is the same voice an English professor, a fellow Black woman writer, thought was insincere and unprofessional. The professor urged me to practice changing my voice or no one would take me seriously. She warned my career would not go very far. I wanted to hide anywhere on the street where she accosted me. Instead I reminded her I spoke for a living, and I was fine as long as my paychecks cashed.

But the student didn’t have the same ill intent to shame me. She wanted to show she had the potential to be an expert of deaf people. The rest of the tour looked at each other as if I transformed right before their eyes. My voice no longer sounded like mine, but a deaf person’s.

Later my mother assured me I don’t sound deaf. In sign language, she told me that student didn’t know what she was talking about. I reminded my mother she cannot actually hear my voice. Others can. My ability to speak the way I do doesn’t mask my disability. And I wasn’t sure I wanted it to. The less people who know I am deaf, the more people I have to repeatedly remind that I am incapable of fully hearing them. Most people say, oh, I am sorry, and speak slightly louder, then promptly return to the same mumbling mess I heard. I am part of the circle, but often, I have no idea what is going on. And rarely will someone try their hardest to help me.


My mother insists I am hard of hearing or hearing impaired, not deaf. Deaf is a word  reserved for who the world considers the most helpless. She gets frustrated that I don’t know sign language as well as she feels I should. I can hold my own in conversation, even if my hands don’t go exactly where they belong, but it does not feel like the language I learned to speak first. My father blames her for not teaching me throughout my childhood. “What was I supposed to do? She was supposed to be normal.” Normal. Or Mainstream, the word used to categorize me as a student the disability office kept tabs on, but mostly left alone. I can read a lips, a survival tool well-meaning people assume is a party trick. Try me, can you read what I am saying?

I would prefer you tried to speak to me like a person, but yes, I can read you saying sometimes you masturbate with hot dogs.


“They are just jealous,” my mother assured me when I told her about the isolation I felt when I was mocked by my deaf classmates. Two of them, whom I knew for years, spoke in sign language while I sat directly across from them on the train. In school they saw me walk down the hall with my friends. They saw the smiles and laughter. They didn’t notice I often faked it. Like my mom, they saw me as normal. They questioned my presence: She isn’t deaf, what is she doing here?

As a mainstream student, I was invited to attend field trips that would keep me in the loop about Deaf culture. For my classmates, that was their culture, not mine. We went to the School for the Deaf, where we saw students perform entirely in sign language. The hearing people were the ones who needed interpreters. It was a switch that seemed to delight my classmates. Their eyes lit up when we sat in the cafeteria after the show. They were surrounded by people they considered their equals, peers who couldn’t make them feel less than.

I felt the same way. I knew they didn’t think so. They assumed I was anxious to return to the hearing world. The School for the Deaf was their safest place because once we returned to school, I was the one who could pass. It didn’t matter that I had to ask people to repeat themselves until they grew frustrated and said, “Never mind.” And you know, it really didn’t matter. My inconvenience was nothing compared to the teasing they faced and the assumptions our hearing classmates made about their intelligence. My inability to hear has hindered my life, but I was never discarded in the same way as most Deaf people are in our hearing society.

I recently got hearing aids for the first time in almost eight years. I know I can’t hear. Everyone around me knows I can’t hear. Yet most hearing people are more comfortable with me saying “Oh, I have a bad ear” with an apologetic giggle than me saying I am deaf and need them to try to accommodate my needs.

My new audiologist showed off the latest hearing aids and gushed about their invisibility. Part of me was relieved because I grappled with the fact that strangers will look at my hearing aids and try to practice their sign language on me. Those strangers were always as annoyed as my deaf classmates and parents that I wasn’t an expert. Part of me felt my option of visibility was removed by people who want deaf people to fit in.

There is no normal. There is no magical solution that will help me fit inside the narrow space I fear will suffocate me. There is the only choice I make every day: Hi, can you speak up? I am deaf.