Yo, Black Twitter: Why did the coverage of Black ASL Interpreter Billy Sanders went wrong?

Adeerya Johnson, a Black Ph.D. student who is also a Spelman College alumni. Johnson’s twitter handle is @nubianlocz and she proudly tweeted TMZ’s article of Billy Sanders. She corrected the role of Black Twitter’s coverage of Billy Sanders that played a pivotal role in launching Billy Sander’s ASL interpreting career. The problem with Black Twitter’s highly sexualized coverage of Billy Sanders did not lead to a heightened Deaf awareness in Black communities.

On Jan 6, 2021, Washington DC Mayor, Muriel Bowser announced her emergency curfew plans regarding right-wing terrorists besieging the Capitol building with less or no resistance from the Capitol cops. Billy Sanders, a Black male ASL Interpreter stood next to Mayor Bowser to interpret for Deaf and Hard of Hearing residents who live in DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia). Adeerya Johnson thought that he was attractive then she tweeted her recording of Billy Sander while interpreting for Deaf/Hard of hearing communities. Black Twitter users saw her tweet and agreed with her assessment of Billy Sanders’ attractiveness. They proceeded to retweet her tweet and made a lot of sexual references based on his appearance. None of them has praised his work to bring accessibility services to Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

Eventually, Halle Berry came across Adeerya Johnson’s viral tweet. She agreed with their sexual gratification toward Billy Sanders. Then TMZ, a popular tabloid media entity, took notice of Halle Berry’s retweet of Adeerya Johnson’s tweet and rapidly wrote a bizarre, inadequate article about Billy Sanders with no context of his profession and communities he gladly serves for.

From my Black Deaf male perspective, I became very concerned that the sexual gratification of Billy Sanders viral tweet brought the wrong type of attention from Black Twitter has a snowball effect with unintended consequences. The sexual gratification of Billy Sander intentionally erased his expertise as a sign language interpreter and led to the erasure of the existence of Black Deaf People. Consequently, Black Twitter rendered the invisibility of Black Deaf communities impossible to escape from. Black interpreters are and always be a Black representation of Black Deaf communities apart from white Deaf communities.

Black Twitter is the sole reason why I became avid on Twitter. Black Twitter is a global community of Black Twitter users who will discuss topics ranging from race, pop culture, politics, sports through their Black perspectives. Black Twitter often consistently tackled and highlighted many issues and became a top 10 trending topic on Twitter that often swept under the rug from the traditional media that started with police brutality. Black Lives Matter hashtag originates in Black Twitter that grew into a global civil rights movement that impacts the world and permeated into American consciousness after the murder of George Floyd. Black Twitter also does not steer clear of thorny issues derived from white supremacy and settler colonialism such as colorism, homophobia, transphobia, toxic masculinity, hypersexualization, adultification, and many issues that affect Black communities.

The hypersexualization of Black people is a well-documented issue that dates back to the days of Sarah Baartman, the first Black woman to be publicly sexually objectified for her voluptuous body that is different from white woman bodies. Frantz Fanon discussed the hypersexualitizion of Black male bodies in his Black Skin, White Masks book, stated that, “no longer do we see the black man; we see a penis: the black man has been occulted. He has been turned into a penis. He is a penis.” Black Twitter is well aware of the history of hypersexualization of Black people since we know history better than everywhere due to the systemic whitewashing of history regarding Black bodies in America. I find it so ironic that Black Twitter chose to repeat the history of hypersexualization to sexually objectify him instead of empowering him and acknowledging our existence of Black Deaf communities through Billy Sanders and the rest of Black ASL interpreters. None of the Black interpreters would make this far without the supporting system of Black Deaf communities especially.

ASL interpreters usually receive unexpected attention from the non-signing public that is part of the interpreting profession. I can’t help but notice completely different Twitter and Black Twitter coverage of David Cowan and Billy Sanders. In 2019, Nyle DiMarco tweeted his viral tweet of a recording of David Cowan while interpreting at Atlanta Pride. David Cowan is a well-known certified white male Deaf interpreter in the Deaf community in Atlanta, Georgia.

I observed Twitter users’ reaction toward David Cowan’s interpreting comments under Nyle’s viral tweet at the Atlanta Pride concert. They do not sexualize David Cowan’s physical appearance, but instead, many Twitter users praised him for his expertise in his incorporation of signing style and dance moves. He appeared in a Time article because of Nyle DiMarco’s viral tweet.

Interestingly, He appeared in some more articles. He interpreted next to a top Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling regarding Georgia’s voting fraud controversy recently. He appeared with Gabriel Sterling on the MSNBC segment titled, “Gabriel Sterling held the press conference but ASL interpreter David Cowan said it all”.

What I’ve stated earlier in this article is that Black Twitter showed completely opposite reactions toward Billy Sanders. Once Halle Berry, a famous Black celebrity, retweeted Adeerya Johnson’s viral tweet of Billy Sanders. he has suddenly appeared in a TMZ article for obvious wrong reasons. TMZ gravitates to unfounded gossip about celebrities, invading celebrities’ privacy spaces, and often first ones with dubious information that proved scandalous enough to attract unwanted attention from the public.

I can’t help but wonder if Halle Berry might not be aware of Black Deaf communities. If she did, maybe her shout-out tweet would have turned out differently that could lead him to appear in one of the top 10 Black magazines such as Ebony, The Source, VIBE instead of featuring in TMZ.

For instance, Bennie Fuller, a Black Deaf Arkansas high school basketball legend regarded as “Wilt Chamberlain of the Deaf”. In the 1970–1971 season, he was famously known for his highest 102 points against the Leola basketball team. Bennie Fuller’s legendary 1970–1971 high basketball season captured mainstream media’s attention. He appeared in titled, “Sports Brighten A Silent World” on page 44 in Ebony’s December 1971 with Arthea Franklin, the Queen of Soul on the front cover. This positive coverage of Bennie Fuller reminded the public of the existence of Black Deaf communities. Here’s a digital of an Ebony 1971 December Issue link.

Black Twitter is a representation of Black America. Billy Sanders did not land in any reputable Black magazines after he caught attention from the Black Twitter. Because the attention from Black Twitter was the wrong type of attention that led him to be landed on TMZ compared to Bennie Fuller and David Cowan. Billy Sanders expressed his positive outlook about the prospect of his newfound recognition to shine on the underrepresentation of minority interpreters in general. My perspective is far more pessimistic than Billy Sanders’ optimistic views. I view this particular attention from Black Twitter as a glass is half empty due to the persistent underrepresentation of Black Male ASL interpreters in media coverage.

Registry Interpreting for the Deaf is an accredited organization for ASL interpreting and provides national certification exams for those interested to continue a career in the ASL interpreting profession. In layman’s terms, RID is a bar exam for aspiring interpreters who want to continue their careers in ASL interpreting professions.

RID’s membership statistics based on 2018–2019 shows that only 57 Certified Black male interpreters out of 14,257 interpreters that is equivalent to 0.003% of Black male interpreters exist in the predominantly white ASL interpreting professions. 57 certified Black male interpreters out of 1,195 interpreter of colors is an equivalent to 0.05% due to rounded up numbers of 0.047%.

Black Twitter is well-aware of the importance of Black representation in every sphere of life in everyday life. The underrepresentation of Black Male Interpreters is a dire issue for Black Deaf male consumers across the country. Black Twitter would have focused on issues of the underrepresentation of Black male interpreters. The problem is Black Twitter did not acknowledge him as our Black representation of ASL interpreting on the highly politicized stage is insulting to the existence of Black Deaf communities. As a result of Black Twitter’s hypersexualized coverage of Billy Sanders, this unintended consequence of this coverage led to a highly diminished Deaf awareness in Black communities. Black Deaf communities remain stuck in the cloak of obscurity.

References

Bruner, R. (2019, October 16). This Atlanta Pride Deaf Interpreter Is a Dancing Hero. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://time.com/5700042/atlanta-pride-david-cowan/

Fanon, F. (n.d.). Black Skin, White Masks. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://books.google.com/books/about/Black_Skin_White_Masks.html?id=m5ysTujFqbgC

Parkinson, J. (2016, January 07). The significance of Sarah Baartman. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35240987

Santiago, M. (2021, January 05). Gabriel Sterling held the press conference but ASL interpreter David Cowan said it all. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/gabriel-sterling-held-press-conference-asl-interpreter-david-cowan-said-n1252807

Staff, T. (2021, January 09). Viral D.C. Sign Language Interpreter Gets Career Boost From Celebs. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.tmz.com/2021/01/09/viral-sign-language-interpreter-dc-riots-aslbae-billy-sanders-career-boost-halle-berry/

Sharing my Black Deaf perspective on racism and audism issues. RIT Alumni ’19 | University of New Mexico Graduate Student

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