Confessions of a Lifelong Discriminator

December 10, 2020

Remember a few years back when All Are Welcome Here lawn signs were all the rage? In the wake of a contentious election, rising racial tensions, and the separation of immigrant families at the border- I, along with thousands, rushed to stake my sign prominently in our front yard. I was taking a stand, making my voice known, and showing the world (or at least my block) that I believed in diversity, equity, and inclusion. The signs themselves were offered in multiple languages; proof that the woman creating the signs was also committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Despite applauding her multilingual approach, I ordered my sign in English, assuming all my neighbors spoke English, and if they didn’t know how I felt, what impact was I even making?

That staked statement stood in my front yard for nearly four years; a literal sign of my discriminatory and exclusionary ways. The fact of the matter is, until I began working for INGCO International 3 months ago, I genuinely had no idea I have been excluding others non-stop for more than 32 years.

To be clear, this exclusion was an accidental dance with discrimination. There was no malice behind it, no nefarious undertones. Simply put, as a native English speaker I have always understood the world around me. Literally everything, in every arena, every possible setting, has catered to my native language. Plopping that sign in my front yard read to me as an open door policy for anyone in need. Fairly misguided, as those in need: immigrants, non-native English speakers, refugees etc. couldn’t read my message of welcome and inclusion.

I can’t even chalk it up to not understanding the vital role language plays. As a fluent Spanish speaker, I was the go-to server/interpreter in more than one back-of-house restaurant conversation. My partner is forever grateful for my language skills when we visit a Spanish speaking country, and on more than one occasion I haven’t realized the program we were watching was in Spanish until he added subtitles in frustration. In fact, at one job, I read the same heath and safety sign every time I used the bathroom for THREE YEARS before it occurred to me it was in Spanish.

Even so, until I began working in the interpretation and translation field, I had spent exactly ZERO time considering the social exclusion and unconscious bias that existed within me, around me, and in every facet of American life. Language based exclusion and bias that caused me to discriminate against, and exclude, non-native English speakers on a daily basis.

Social Exclusion…involves the lack or denial of resources, rights, goods and services, and the inability to participate in the normal relationships and activities available to the majority of people in a society…it affects both the quality of life of individuals and the equity and cohesion of society as a whole”

Within hours of working at my new gig, I felt shame wash over me, and I was forced to reckon with the mammoth gap between my touted equity & inclusion and the reality of my native language English privilege. For many, social exclusion, unconscious bias, and privilege are trigger words. The vast majority of people aren’t trying to be exclusionary, so trigger words feel like an attack, like I am pointing out their failings and screaming them to world.

In total transparency, I AM telling you that you have been socially exclusionary and that you hold unconscious language biases. There are no two ways around it, BUT you don’t need to feel ashamed. Rather, you need to become aware. You need to take a step back and take it all in. Until we have open, uncomfortable conversations, exclusion, discrimination, and bias will thrive.

The surprising reality is, 1 in 4 Americans are non-native English speakers, and in big cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Houston, that number jumps to 1 in 2 Americans. Despite this, nearly every aspect of American life is built on the assumption that everyone can, or should, speak English, despite the United States of America having no official national language! Americans speak more than 350 languages, and over the last 30 years, the numbers of Americans who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled, nearing 70 million people.

I know the majority of the time, businesses, government agencies, educational systems, non-profits etc. aren’t trying to be exclusive. Most of us just haven’t considered what a need there is, or shrug it off as no big deal because we’ve personally never needed language services. We know interpreters and translators exist, maybe we’ve seen them in action, but because native English speakers are a part of the majority, we often don’t make the connection that those services exist because people need them.

The Language Services Industry is colloquially called the biggest industry you’ve never heard of. Clearing more than $50 Billion in 2020, and growing more 5.2% year over year, the need to integrate multilingual solutions grows stronger by the day. Even so, Americans systematically force non-native English speakers to fend for themselves, with limited, if any, resources.

This isn’t about chastising you, your business, or your values. This is about the real world impact that 25-50% of our fellow Americans feel daily. There simply are not resources available, which has devastating affects on the education, careers, and health of close to half our country.

“The ability to speak and be understood, to listen and understand – is the key, the enabling life skill. It defines who we are and how we succeed…it impacts the range of choices and opportunities available.

…in a world where social communication skills are prized, [the] link between limited language skills and social disadvantage cannot be ignored…any attempt to reduce social exclusion must consider the role of communication….intervention must be aimed at the environment or society, rather than the individual alone”                                              -Melanie Cross

In Education, limited English speaking parents often face language barriers in their child’s education. They do not understand assignments, school policies, and opportunities that may be available to their children. It becomes nearly insurmountable to be responsive to their children and engage with them, often resulting in their child falling behind. Increasing studies show 75% of children who face language barriers develop lifelong social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties.

While children struggle in school, their parents struggle at work. Despite English-only policies often being perceived as discriminatory, they continue to thrive under misguided notions. Factually, employees who do not speak English as their primary language are ostracized and rated as less competent in their work by peers and managers. Non-native English speaking employees also have reduced access to resources, and feel devalued and excluded. Moreover, failure to provide employees with equal access to information in their native tongue disrupts collaboration, information sharing, and interpersonal relationships among staff. These real life consequences for non-native English speakers will continue as long as we pretend non-native speakers are not victims of language bias.

When it comes to healthcare, non native speakers have limited access to up to date information, affecting their health and wellbeing. They experience higher rates of medical errors with worse clinical outcomes than English-proficient patients and receive lower quality of care. Language barriers contribute to misunderstandings in diagnosis and treatment, cause the lack of informed consent for procedures, result in longer hospital stays and fewer self-care options.

Despite all this, we continue to tacitly accept social exclusion by failing to take personal action. Though the hiring of Diversity and Inclusion executives has grown 113% in the last five years, few companies include multilingual services in their DEI initiatives, even though non-native English speakers comprised 17.4% of the U.S. labor force in 2019, and 72% of executives attributed their companies value to their employees. Not to mention, 94% of HR professionals list employee experience as the top reason employees stay or leave.

To be clear, I don’t fault anyone. Unconscious bias is just that, unconscious. The first step is acknowledging that unconscious language bias and social exclusion exist. As an accidental discriminator, I know first hand how uncomfortable that can feel, but I am here to tell you my worldview is better for it.

Once we acknowledge this systemic problem, we can begin to see opportunities for improvement. For businesses, these opportunities represent big profits that are currently being left on the table. Simply put failure to implement language services is costing your business money. 75% of consumers prefer to purchase products in their native tongue, and 30% of buyers never buy from websites only offered in English. Even more so, 53% of consumers consider product information in their native language to be more important than price. Considering non-native English speaking immigrants and refugees hold $100 billion in buying power, and make more than 14% of all income in America, businesses are leaving billions on the table by failing to translate their websites, product information, and marketing. In fact, 93% of companies who offered multilingual services saw growth in their business.

If you own a business, you don’t have to spend thousands, even hundreds, of dollars to make a huge impact. Federal OSHA requires you to train employees in the language the employee understands, so translate your company manual and training materials into multiple languages (this map shows the most common language in your state outside of English and Spanish). Set up an over-the-phone interpretation line, they provide 24/7/365 services in dozens of languages, and allow your customer service, HR, sales staff, etc. access so they can best serve your clientele. Translate your website. Take a step back, seek out areas of improvement, and set metrics for success to guide your company into an inclusive era.

As an individual, if you are a native English speaker, speak up! Use your voice to bring this issue to light. Talk to your boss, your neighbor, your mom. Share resources that offer multilingual information, such as Health Translations, which provides medical documents translated into over 100 languages. Commit to actively keeping language at the front of your mind. Seek out companies that offer multilingual websites, and buy products that are marketed in multiple languages. If you speak another language, volunteer your time. Community non-profits are always seeking volunteers who can connect with community members in a variety of languages.

Language discrimination won’t disappear overnight. It won’t disappear in five years. By giving it a name, and making a conscious choice to keep language social exclusion front of mind, we can take tangible steps in our social and corporate circles to open lines of communication. We can recognize language bias, and begin the process of true equity, by taking the first steps in a long overdue journey.


Interested in learning more? I’d love to chat about your business, and how I can help you implement language solutions to truly achieve DEI initiatives and goals! Contact us today.