Conflicted Phonemes

Laurence Abu Hamdan’s visually stunning project, Conflicted Phonemes, records the use of accent and language tests by the Dutch immigration service to validate or deny asylum claims.

Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes

Abu Hamdan, Conflicted Phonemes

It reminded me of the October 1937 mass killing of Haitians, on the island of Hispaniola, in which Dominican soldiers would ask people they suspected of being Haitian the name of the sprig — which they carried for this cause. Perejil, in Spanish, a world difficult for Haitians to pronounce properly. It is unknown how many Haitians were murdered, historians spread from 12,000 to 35,000, under the order of Trujillo. I read of this as a teenager, and it still sticks in my memory.

Abu Hamdan’s work is of similar emotional weight. Using language to sort people is not new, though those Somalis sent back due to these tests are often killed.

The tests themselves, as he notes, hinge on a couple of words, and particular accents. Thus language as a resource is not spread equally across communities and being born into a particular one may result in one’s loss of asylum, or life.

The visuals he uses, mapping the phonemes, the voices, and the outcomes are striking visually, and more so when one understands what is happening, and how language is being used against minority communities, against those who do not have documents, and those whose accents may not match the expectation of the interviewer.

The only thing I can imagine that could be worse with this, is to let an AI run it. Or maybe that won’t be worse? Except it would be difficult to create a database large enough, with enough voice and variety, to ensure adequate representation. Perhaps, though. Hmmm.

If language and accents as identified by humans, are being used to deny legitimate claims of asylum, perhaps this is a space where we can see greater justice with AI assistance.

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