Speaking Spanish – helpful… or racist?

The language barrier and your will.... - Wills Worldwide

I just came back from a couple weeks in Mexico.  I speak Spanish.  Not well, but enough to have a  brief conversation, or at least communicate what i need to.  I was back in the office yesterday, and crossed paths with our cleaning folks.  They are, for the most part, Hispanic.  Out of habit, I greeted them in Spanish.  Nothing happened, but it got me to thinking.  If I see someone who is Hispanic, and I speak Spanish to them….  Is it helpful, or racist?

Obviously, my goal is to communicate pleasantly with anyone I cross.  I think speaking Spanish is a nice courtesy… as one human to another.   Then I think, is it wrong I assume they speak Spanish?  Or, if they speak both… is it wrong for me to assume they would prefer Spanish?  Or is the subtext of my passing greeting “well, since you are a cleaning person, it’s clear you probably don’t speak a lick of English.”  In that case, my speaking Spanish is totally condescending.

To be transparent, I am basically a white collar professional.  The folks I am thinking of are generally cleaning folks.  I have to admit if I saw an Hispanic person in a similar ‘white collar’ position, I would speak English.  This is because I assume they speak English quite well.  Clearly, this is some white person guilt.  I think know speaking Spanish is an asset in life.  Spending my entire life in the Southwest, Hispanic people are abundant.  Unfortunately, it seems they are also burdened with some of the lower paying and more physically demanding jobs.

Isn’t acknowledging their culture considerate?  Or is it racist to assume every Hispanic person I cross speaks Spanish… and prefers it.  I will also note the Spanish I speak is Mexican Spanish.  There is very much a difference in Mexican Spanish and the rest of it.  I have learned this the hard way speaking Spanish in central America and in Europe.  When I speak Spanish outside Mexico, I get looks like I just threw up on centuries of history.  To make an analogy, much of the Spanish speaking world outside of Mexico sees Mexican Spanish as… as we see Ebonics.  There, I said it!

I remember in Costa Rica, every time I spoke… even very simple phrases… they would correct me.  It got so bad that I took to just speaking English.  Luckily, that is spoken pretty much world wide.  At least… world wide every I as a well off white tourist go.  Its worked everywhere except Cambodia.

To close, I will tell a pretty cool story of how great it is to speak English.  We were eating at a restaurant in the airport in South Korea.  Its the most amazing airport on Earth!  There was a couple next to us sitting down to eat. One was, I assume, Japanese.  The other gal was black… and some flavor of African.  The hostess taking orders was, I assume, Korean.  They all struggled with language for a minute.  Looking at each other trying to figure out how to communicate with each other.  They quickly settled on English, and I am betting it was not the native language of an of the three.

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