Aria Razfar grew up in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Los Angeles and a multilingual family. When he was an undergrad studying biochemistry at UCLA in the early 1990s, he realized that he had been conditioned to leave his non-standard English languages and culture at home.
Razfar would later experience a revelation that inspired him to not only embrace his diverse heritage and upbringing, but switch tracks, from the sciences to the humanities. Today, he is a Professor of education and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
As a fellow in residence this summer at USC Shoah Foundation’s Center for Advanced Genocide Research, Razfar – who arrived at the Institute in early June and will stay through July – is mining the archive for material that will augment his research on marginalized languages.
He has found that, much in the way that he left his language and heritage at home when attending school as an undergrad at UCLA, Jews tended to leave Yiddish at home when attending school in Europe in the years leading to World War II.
“The Jews of Germany were highly assimilated,” he said of Jewish students and professionals. “Maybe Yiddish was being spoken by their grandparents, but it was not something that they probably owned up to.”
Co-hosted by the Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Shoah Foundation Education department, Razfar is keenly interested in links between language, identity and social status, and in the implications of his research for the marginalization of other “non-standard” languages. In a separate focus, he is also using the Visual History Archive to explore medical ethics, and plans to help develop several educational resources for IWitness, the Institute’s education platform for students in middle and high school and, increasingly, at universities.
He notes that, in 1930s Germany, scholarly literature on language presented Yiddish as an illegitimate language.
“Before there was a physical Holocaust, there was a linguistic and a cultural one,” he said. “That’s ground zero for the dehumanization process.”
The dehumanization played out in the schools. As an example, he cited Holocaust survivor Erika Gold, who in her testimony with USC Shoah Foundation spoke of the dread she felt as a child attending school in pre-war Germany, where her teacher, a Nazi, would grab her by the ears and scornfully call her a “Yiddisher.”
Razfar sees parallels between the status of Yiddish in pre-war Germany and the status of Black English in the U.S. public school system.
He likens the pre-war efforts to delegitimize Yiddish to criticism leveled at educators who try to validate Black English. In 1997, for instance, the Oakland Unified School District’s attempt to recognize Ebonics as an acceptable language prompted California lawmakers to draft bills seeking to penalize the district.
“There is little to no status afforded to the language of African Americans,” Razfar said. “Clearly something socio-cultural-political is informing that type of judgment about the nature of the language.”
As an undergraduate science major at UCLA, Razfar took a Holocaust class that affected his world-view and sense of responsibility to act.
“At the end of the course the Professor stood up and said, ‘You are all witnesses now,’” he said. “It put this air of responsibility on our shoulders that I’d never felt before. I always remember that episode very vividly.”
Another revelation came to him as an undergrad in 1993, when administrators threatened to close down a library dedicated to students of Mexican-American heritage and initially rejected a proposal from students on campus for a Chicano studies program. This triggered a headlines-generating hunger strike that lasted for six weeks.
Razfar participated as an organizer in the movement, which catalyzed the creation of the Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana/o Studies.
“Until that point, I never thought of identity as an issue,” he said. “I had subconsciously assimilated a normative narrative: ‘If it’s not English, it stays at home.’
“So that was the first time that I actually became kind of ‘woke’ – we didn’t use that expression then, but I think I became ‘woke,’” he said.