By Deputy Editor Thea Lim
As if independent bookstores don’t already have enough to worry about, Fidel Martinez at Guanabee writes about a language controversy at Atticus Bookstore in New Haven:
Atticus Book Store and Cafe, located in New Haven, Connecticut, has caused a controversy over a recent policy decision to require all Hispanic employees to only speak English within a customer’s earshot.
The staff is allowed to speak Spanish, but only in restricted areas.
A document from the bookstore states:
Spanish is allowed in the prep area, the dishwasher area and the lower level. Let’s make our customers feel welcome and comfortable.
“Let’s make our customers feel welcome and comfortable”? Yeeeeouch. (And yes that stuff about “the dishwasher area” is plain unfortunate.)
I’m sure I’m not the only one on this site who feels happy, or even relieved, when I hear multiple languages being spoken in a space – even though I’m a filthy monolinguist myself. Places where people are welcome to bring their culture with them, are places where I feel comfortable. So you have to wonder just who Atticus is referring to, when they imagine customers who feel uncomfortable when they hear Spanish.
And despite when I might’ve been led to believe by The Great Gatsby, it doesn’t sound like New Haven is some enclave of pearl-grabbing ethnocultural anglo purists. Martinez goes on to report:
This new directive has pissed off members of Yale University (Atticus is located next to Yale’s British Arts Center) and the New Haven Workers Association. The latter sent out an email to local community groups like the New Haven Labor Council and Unidad Latino En Accion protesting what they deem to be racism in the workplace.
Apparently though, Atticus is within their legal rights to demand its employees speak English.
This is just a little news piece, but I can’t help but feel discouraged by things like this, because they seem to evidence to me how wide the gaps are, when it come to how different folks think about race and culture in America. I imagine that the body responsible for the language rule at Atticus has no concept of the fraught history of language bans. It just seems like good business sense, right? An English bookstore should have English-speaking employees. Even though Martinez says
From our own personal experience, the Hispanic waitstaff at Atticus speak English well enough that it doesn’t impede them from taking an order properly.
But at schools and in the workplace, the restriction of language has a long ugly history in our country. Almost any group of colour or marginalised linguistic group in this country has a history of their language, or access to language, being suppressed at one point, for the sake of cultural comfort and good business. I’m sure Atticus Bookstore carries history books that could tell us all about these things.
So apart from the fact that it’s just inherently not right to restrict people’s culture, there is also a historical context for the abusive relationship that business has with language.
This just reminds me of that pretty poor episode of Seinfeld, where Elaine get’s George’s dad to spy on the Korean women who do her nails, because she knows they’re talking smack about her. Is that why Spanish makes customers uncomfortable? Because I’m pretty sure that kind of thing only – well almost – happens on Seinfeld.
Photo credit: Aaron Gustafson