Haben Girma was thrilled to learn a new Netflix series would feature Deaf students at Gallaudet University — the only liberal arts college in the country dedicated to the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Girma, a 32-year-old human rights lawyer and author who identifies as DeafBlind, had once taken a course there herself.
“Authentic disability representation is so rare that when we learn about an upcoming show alleged to portray ‘real’ experiences, we pin all our hopes on it,” she says.
But when Girma, who is Black, accessed the descriptive transcripts for “Deaf U” episodes after Netflix released them, she was struck by what was missing: The “Deaf U” cast features no main characters who identify as Black, Deaf women, nor does it include DeafDisabled people like her.
Girma was one of many who took to social media to criticize the lack of diversity reflected in “Deaf U.” While the reality show has been hailed as groundbreaking by some, others say “Deaf U” is a whitewashed portrayal of Deaf culture. For Girma, it shows “the teeniest, tiniest sliver of the Deaf experience.”
The eight-episode show follows seven main characters: four White women, two Black men and one White man. With the backdrop of Washington, D.C. — whose Black population, at 46 percent, is much higher than the national average — the usual college drama is on display: relationships, partying, questions about belonging and the future. In the 1,800-person school, rumors travel fast. The characters also open up about how their lives have been shaped by their deafness, signing in straight-to-camera solo interviews.
Critics argue the show erases the experiences of non-White and DeafDisabled women, while perpetuating racist stereotypes about its two Black male characters. This is more than just a missed opportunity, they say: Scarce media representation means a show like “Deaf U” may be the first introduction to Deaf culture for mainstream, hearing audiences. “It’s important to call out the producers of ‘Deaf U’ because it is misleading and dangerous to set the precedent that Black, Deaf females do not exist,” says Jade Bryan, a Black, Deaf filmmaker, television writer and producer who founded the #DeafTalent movement. “We’re everywhere.”
The show’s majority-White cast doesn’t reflect Gallaudet’s demographics: Less than half of the student population was White in 2019′s fall semester, when the show was shot, according to a university enrollment report. The show’s absence of Black, Deaf women and DeafDisabled students was especially disappointing given recent allegations of racism at Gallaudet, Girma adds.
Gallaudet played no role in the show’s production, casting or creative decision-making process, according to Robert Weinstock, the interim public and media relations director at Gallaudet.
“Deaf U” executive producer Nyle DiMarco made it clear from the get-go: This reality series was not intended to be a PSA. In an interview with Vulture, DiMarco, a Gallaudet alumnus from the class of 2013 who identifies as Deaf, says he wanted the show to portray universal dramas and draw hearing audiences into characters’ stories.
In particular, DiMarco has said that he aimed to explore challenges of students who entered Gallaudet without exposure to American Sign Language (ASL) and tensions of “eliteness.”
In a statement provided to The Lily, DiMarco wrote: “A show like ‘Deaf U’ has never been done before, and is a big step towards Deaf and Disability inclusion in mainstream media. We can always do better. I hope we get the opportunity for more seasons, so that we can dive deeper into more stories and showcase a wider variety of life experiences.”
“Members of the Deaf community made up 30 percent of the crew, 60 percent of the story department producers, and 30 percent of the edit team. Our production team also contracted Deaf-owned businesses throughout filming,” DiMarco said.
When Bianca Hamilton Miller, 27, first watched the show, she was stunned by what she felt was an obvious double standard. “How does the Deaf community continue to oppress others when they tell the world to stop oppressing them?” says Miller, who identifies as Black and Deaf.
To Miller, it’s crucial for these stories to reflect how multiple oppressed identities interact. “Understanding these intersections provide valuable insight into how BIPOC Deaf women encounter misogynistic attitudes and experience conflicts between the different cultures of their families and friends and the hearing community,” says Miller, adding that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), Deaf women must constantly navigate the challenges of code-switching.
Those tensions make for distinct, deep and complicated stories. “We lived and continue to live a life that is different than White people,” says Wegahta Aresei, 32, who lives in D.C. “Before I am identified as a deaf person, I am first being judged on the color of my skin — a Black woman first and deaf, in that order,” says Aresei.
So, Aresei asks, “Where are the stories of Black and brown girls’ experiences at Gallaudet?”
This concern includes the absence of multiply disabled characters, too. DeafBlind and Deafdisabled people are highly marginalized within the Deaf community, says Miller, and excluding their stories perpetuates stigma. What’s more, many say the show advanced racist tropes about the two Black main characters, Daequan Taylor and Rodney Burford, who did get airtime.
Taylor admits to getting Alexa Paulay-Simmons, a friend and classmate, pregnant without her consent; he also drunkenly jokes that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that “one day all the Black boys will get a White girl.”
“The show demonized both Black men as sexually aggressive towards females by portraying Daequan as a rapist and Rodney as a dog,” says Miller.
Meanwhile, others point out that “Deaf U” neglected to focus on Black American Sign Language (ASL), a dialect of American Sign that resulted from educational segregation. “They took the time to explore the linguistic politics of how Cheyenna signs — but not how Rodney or Daequan sign,” says Octavian Robinson, an associate professor at Gallaudet University who identifies as deafdisabled and White. “In 2020, with the Black Lives movement ongoing, how could we not include this?”
Robinson says the show presents important themes such as shunning and language purity, but he takes issue with their framing. “None of those were framed in ways that made clear how non-deaf people in the audience were responsible for co-producing this world,” he says, noting that the show could more actively challenge hearing audiences to unpack their audism and ableism.
He highlights examples like medical ableism and racism, as well as sexual assault. When one character, Cheyenna Clearbook, shares a childhood experience of sexual assault, the show could have segued into exploration of why deaf children are more likely to experience sexual abuse than hearing children. Factors like communication barriers within families can inhibit reporting, for instance, or education about consent, says Robinson.
Some of the show’s toughest critics say it’s not the existence of “Deaf U” that troubles them — it’s the outsize influence it holds, and what hearing audiences might take from that. “If we had lots of Deaf shows, then audiences would know to treat ‘Deaf U’ as a very specific show limited to a particular group of college students,” Girma says, pointing to comments she’s seen on social media of hearing people “claiming to now understand Deaf people after watching the show.”
As Girma puts it: “That’s like Deaf people saying we know all about hearing people after watching ‘Tiger King.’”
Ultimately, directors have huge power and must use it responsibly, says Miller.
“What ‘Deaf U’ highlights is the importance of Black Deaf women not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well,” says Kari Cooke, a 37-year-old consultant who identifies as Black and Hard of Hearing. She refers to the scene where Taylor jokes about Martin Luther King Jr.: “If a Black Deaf woman was empowered in a decision-making role at the production table, she would have been able to challenge her colleagues on the addition of the scene to the final cut.”
“Such as, ‘What is the purpose of leaving this in?’” says Cooke. “‘What makes this funny? The bastardization of MLK’s words, or the deification of White women’s desirability at the expense of Black women?’”
Still, those in the Deaf community hope “Deaf U” will open the floodgates for more art about deaf people’s experiences, and with it more nuance. Women like Cooke and Bryan, the filmmaker, say that Black, Deaf women have urgent stories to tell.
“The Deaf community has our own Breonna Taylors. We have our own Trayvon Martins. We have our own Mia Greens. We have our own issues of ableism, classism, queer-antagonism, and so much more,” says Cooke. “And Black Deaf communities have so much less support and allyship from Black Hearing communities than we should.”
Bryan says that stories “have a way of shaping our worlds: our attitudes, our fantasies and realities, our aspirations and our decisions, and bridging hearing and deaf lives together. These will be our truths.”
“We need to be the ones leading our stories,” she says.