Why White People Should Stop Pulling a Tim Kaine (or Joe Kennedy)

In his response to the State of the Union address this past week Joe Kennedy made the decision to use Spanish. I immediately saw parallels with Tim Kaine’s use of Spanish that I previously commented on. Kennedy’s use of Spanish was not identical to Kaine’s use of Spanish. Kaine typically sprinkled Spanish words throughout his speeches as the vice-presidential candidate. In contrast, Kennedy choose to use Spanish at one moment in his speech when he directly addressed Dreamers. Yet, despite these differences the key similarity is the communicative function that it served, which was to show the world that both of them knew Spanish.

In the case of Kaine, there didn’t seem to be a specific audience in mind in his use of Spanish. Instead, it seemed to be targeting all Spanish-speakers. Yet, his use of Spanish was fairly minimal in most of his speeches. It is unlikely that a Spanish speaker with little to no proficiency in English would have been able to follow what he was saying. In addition, bilingual English-Spanish speakers would likely not have required any translation as they are able to follow the English parts of the speech. It is clear that the point wasn’t to improve comprehension but to demonstrate Kaine’s Spanish proficiency.

The same is true for Kennedy’s use of Spanish. In contrast to Kaine, Kennedy directed his comments at a specific audience, the Dreamers. By definition, Dreamers arrived to the United States when they were children and so they are typically quite comfortable in English. Indeed, many have been in the US for so long that English may be their primary or only language. In addition, there are many Dreamers from a range of non-Spanish speaking contexts including Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who may not have understood the message that he was directing to them. Again, it is clear that the point wasn’t to improve comprehension but to demonstrate Kennedy’s Spanish proficiency.

Why are Kaine and Kennedy so invested in demonstrating their Spanish proficiency? Because they want to advance their political careers and attract Latinx votes. That is what all politicians do so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Kaine and Kennedy are doing it as well. However, their use of Spanish connects with raciolinguistic ideologies that give white people the autonomy to engage in whatever language practices they want to without social sanctions even when people of color do receive social sanctions for engaging in seemingly identical language practices.

This is certainly the case for Spanish in the US. White people using Spanish are typically thought of as cosmopolitan and well-traveled. In contrast, Latinx people using Spanish are typically thought of as provincial and resistant to assimilation. This is not to say that white people are never criticized for using Spanish. But the nature of the criticism is quite different from the nature of the criticism targeting Latinxs using Spanish. Few people will suggest that their use of Spanish represents their failure to assimilate. Few people will nitpick their Spanish and suggest that it should be better. Few people will suggest that they give up their Spanish and become monolingual English speakers.

But pulling a Tim Kaine is not simply an example of white privilege. It is also inadvertently racist. In his analysis of Kennedy’s use of Spanish, comedian Trevor Noah analyzed how his use of Spanish reinforced racist stereotypes of Latinxs. He argued that Kennedy’s use of Spanish completely undermines the narrative of Dreamers as being Americans by suggesting that they don’t know English. That is, in an attempt to purportedly build solidarity with Latinxs, Kennedy reinforced the idea that Latinxs in general, and Dreamers in particular, are resistant to learning English and need to be addressed in Spanish. In this way, pulling a Tim Kaine is actually a microaggression where a white person’s desire to show off their Spanish serves to otherize Latinxs. Pulling a Tim Kaine may make white people feel good about themselves but will do little to improve communication with Latinxs (most of whom know English) and may actually contribute to their further marginalization.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that white people should never use Spanish. There are many times and places where it would not be a microaggression for white people to use Spanish such as when traveling abroad, communicating with the Spanish-language media and communicating with Latinxs who have indicated a preference for using Spanish. There are also many times and places where it could be a microaggression, which is something worth reflecting on. But more importantly, even if I did want to prevent white people from using Spanish I have no institutional mechanisms at my disposal to do this. white people can use Spanish whenever they want, no matter how I or other Latinxs feel about it.

In contrast, there are many institutional mechanisms that seek to eradicate Spanish in Latinxs. One of the primary institutions that serves this functions are schools. When Spanish-speaking Latinxs enter school they are typically placed into English-Only classrooms where their Spanish language skills are at best ignored and at worse systematically eliminated. Of course, there are many educators everyday trying to challenge these deficit perspectives but they are often fighting an uphill battle against institutional racism. Unsurprisingly, the only time the Spanish language skills of Latinxs are typically valued at the institutional level is when they can be used to help white children learn Spanish in dual language programs so that they can perhaps be able to pull a Tim Kaine in the future in ways that advance their own careers. So until we live in a world where the bilingualism of Latinx children is seen for its beautiful brilliance in its own right, and not only for how it can benefit white people, I will continue to remain unimpressed by white people pulling a Tim Kaine—and as I have said before I will continue to refuse to give them a cookie for it.

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