Helen Ngo is a DECRA Research Fellow at Deakin University in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from SUNY Stony Brook (USA), and works at the intersection of phenomenology, critical philosophy of race, and feminist philosophy. A mother of three, her recent work explores questions around bilingual parenting, as part of a bigger research project on racialised non-belonging and home-making.
Synopsis: To Helen Ngo, birthing matters because it’s transformative – for new parents and communities as well as newborns themselves – and provides new ways to experience and relate to personal and cultural histories. In this episode, Dr Ngo discusses language and its potential to open us to the world; her experiences as a new parent of reclaiming her ‘mother-tongue’ in order to facilitate inter-generational connections between her children and her parents; the process of developing a new sense of pride in her cultural heritage; as well as embodied experiences of race, white privilege and more.
Read Helen’s article Housing a sense of self: for migrant communities, bilingual school programs are about more than learning for The Conversation.
Find out more about Helen’s academic work at Academia.edu
Music in this episode includes ‘Snake’ by M.W.D. and ‘Webbed’ by REW<<, used under a Creative Commons license from Free Music Archive.
INTRO — You’re listening to Birthing and Justice: a series of conversations about birth, racism and cultural safety. I’m Ruth De Souza. I’m speaking to you from the unceded sovereign lands of the Boonwurrung people ofa the Kulin Nations. I pay my respects to their elders and to any Indigenous people listening. This land always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land. Today’s guest is philosopher Helen Ngo. Helen’s work involves examining experiences of race, gender, and consciousness. So in this episode, we’re going to talk about embodiment and bilingual and bicultural parenting. Before we begin a quick note that some parts of this conversation may be distressing for some listeners. Alright, let’s get into it.
RUTH DE SOUZA (host) — Great to have you here Helen. And I’m wondering if you can tell me why you care about birthing?
HELEN NGO (guest) — Thanks. Thanks very much for having me on your show, which is just [a] truly wonderful show, I have to say. [Both laugh]
So I care about birthing because it can be a really profound and transformative experience, and one where we tend to think of the new relationships and the new roles that come from the birth of a child. But I think at the same time, it also very much presents an opportunity for us to revisit our past experiences, our past relationships and to see them differently, and to reclaim parts of ourselves or experiences—our identity—and to be able to see them through a fresh lens.
I’m really excited and interested in the idea of transformation that you’ve just alerted us to. But there’s also something in there about reclamation. And it kind of brings me to my second question around language. And you’ve written in a piece that you wrote for The Conversation, about language being much more than just a way of communicating or transactional. You said we dwell in language. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, so I guess by way of background, I work in philosophy and I draw from—for that piece that you mentioned—I draw from some philosophers who look at the role and nature of language. And I guess as you say, you know, in our ordinary sort of everyday going about the world, we tend to think of language as a tool that we use for communication and for transaction, but it really can be a lot more than that. And language is really a way that we sort of open ourselves up to the world, or some philosophers have said that language is like a house—we sort of dwell in language. And it’s through language that we are able to express ourselves, or it’s through language that we’re able to create a world. So I think there can be a very profound relationship to language that goes beyond that sense of communication, that’s bound up very much with our cultural identity, if you like.
Yeah. I was just thinking as you’re saying that, about how in my first few years of being a human, I was fluently trilingual—so I spoke Swahili, Maragoli and English. And how I’ve lost those languages, but how central they’ve been to my identity, and how important they’ve been as being part of a family that’s multilingual, you know?
And I’m really very interested in why bilingual parenting is so important to you. And I’m talking to you while you’re in your third trimester [laughs], you’re very pregnant [Helen giggles] at the moment and you’ve got a house for a baby…
inside yourself, as well as, writing about the house of language.
It’s interesting. I think there are some really interesting parallels there to think about pregnancy, or the pregnant body as a kind of first home, and language as a home, and the maternal language—if we want to use that terminology—as a kind of first home as well. I think there are some really productive parallels there. But yeah, I’m a mother to two children, with one joining the crew very soon. And I happen to parent them bilingually. So I guess a very practical reason would be because my parents don’t speak English very well, and so I wanted to parent my children in a language that would enable them to have a relationship with their grandparents, and with the broader community as well. So that’s, I guess, a very practical reason. But I think more than that, as is often the case with people who are parenting bilingually—because it takes quite a lot of effort—I think there’s something about a kind of reclamation that you mentioned. I wanted to impart in them a sense of pride in their cultural heritage and identity in a way that might not necessarily be mirrored to them in the society that we live in. And even personally, I’ve come to realise that through parenting them through Cantonese, it’s really transformed my own relationship to a language that I felt pretty ambivalent about for most of my life growing up. Because as many second-generation migrant kids experience when they grow up in a country like Australia, that’s very hostile to non-English languages, you pick up quite early that it’s something not to be proud of. It’s something to be ashamed of, or, you know, it’s not cool to be speaking a different language at home. ‘Why don’t you speak English, we’re in Australia,’ et cetera. So you learn very quickly from a young age that your bilingualism, your multilingualism, is not welcome here. So I guess part of my parenting bilingually, and wanting my children to speak the language that I speak at home most often, has to do with that: it’s about a sort of reclaiming of this relationship to a language that was at times a very difficult one.
So can you tell me a bit about Her Mother’s Tongue, that project you’ve been involved with?
Yeah. So this is a paper I’ve been writing probably for about four years now, because parenting has mostly gotten in the way of writing about parenting. [Laughs] And I guess it’s a paper that explores some of those questions around bilingual parenting, and about some of the racialised and gender dimensions in particular, about bilingualism, but bilingualism in a very specific context. So we are talking about sort of bilingualism among diasporas. Also to play with this notion of… you know, we think of the activity of mothering as something that’s very instinctive, that’s nurturing and that’s natural, but it actually takes a lot of work. It takes so much labor and it takes such an infrastructure around it and it’s deeply social. And I think the same sorts of things can be said about learning a non-dominant language; to learn a language other than English as a home language here, I think there are some parallels that can be drawn there. So trying to bring to light some of the invisible labor that goes on. And also the way in which, we talked earlier about where we think about language as a kind of home, then it made me wonder: well, what does it mean when one doesn’t speak one’s maternal language very well? What does that mean when your maternal language is not really a home for you? And that to capture a sense of, like dwelling in-between that a lot of people experience and navigate, whether linguistically or in other ways, and I think playing with the sense of the intergenerational dynamics between that. And we tend to think of language… I know that a term that is often used in sociology, something like language transmission as if language is transmitted from one generation down to another generation. And what I have found, in personal experience but also in literature, is the way in like… it really works both ways. The experience of parenting bilingually can really open up your linguistic world for the parent in a way that wasn’t the case previously. And I think there’s something really beautiful about that. And it echoes the… you know, we have sort of a saying when we say that birth is not just about giving birth to a child, but it is also about giving birth to a mother or giving birth to a parent. And I think there’s something like that in the experience of bilingual parenting—you’re sort of giving birth to this new way of being.
I love that Helen, it’s such a beautiful kind of reclamation and I love that it’s so multidirectional. I wonder if you could talk about your critique of white privilege? And specifically you’ve said that it’s sort of a self-absorbed, self-indulgent introspection, that has more to do with airing and owning white guilt and white shame than motivating political action. Can you tell us why you’ve been critiquing the concept of white privilege and some other ways of thinking that you’re kind of trying to activate?
Yeah, so the work on white privilege is more recent work where I have just been wanting to push against this concept a bit—a concept that gets used quite broadly in anti-racist circles—which I have to say can be very, extraordinarily useful. It can be a very, very useful and important concept. So I don’t want to do away with it necessarily, but I just think that sometimes it doesn’t go far enough. One of the basic features of a white dominant society is that white people receive benefits by virtue of their whiteness. And those benefits flow to you, whether or not you want them to, whether or not you signed up for ’em. If we start talking about some of those benefits as privileges, it assumes that that might be something that you can refuse, or you can name, and therefore that sort of solves the problem. Whereas that’s not the case. Our society is organised in a way that certain benefits flow to white people, regardless of whether or not they want them to. And I think that’s where the language, or the concept of white privilege, can sometimes distract us.
So let’s think about the flip side of white privilege, which is perhaps thinking about racism, you know, because they’re kind of two sides of the same coin, right? Almost. Can you tell us a bit about the idea of racism as a habit, which you’ve written about in your book?
Yeah, so I… in my book I was just exploring this idea, as you say that… of racism as something that’s enacted, not just through conscious words or thoughts and actions—which tends to be how we think about racism, as an act or a thought—but something that’s very deliberate and willed and conscious. But it seemed to me that that wasn’t really reflective of how racism is experienced. And starting from the experience of racism, you know oftentimes you talk to First Nations people, people of color, and you… people get this sense of like, ‘Oh that just… that feels racist, or this, you know, doesn’t feel like it’s a welcoming place.’ There’s a sense in which there’s something happening beneath a kind of like explicit level, or an explicit layer. And so I was playing with this idea of racism as habitual, to get at the way in which racism can really become embedded in our bodies, in this kind of non-conscious way. And what I mean by that is the way we orient ourselves so that we might gravitate towards certain bodies or not towards others; we might be suspicious towards certain bodies or smells or sounds, et cetera, in ways that we’re completely at ease—when I say we’re completely at ease, I mean, society at large. And in thinking about it in terms of habit, I was really playing with the concept of habit and thinking about racism, not as even just habit in the way that we think of, you know smoking is a habit, or biting your nails is a habit—something that you do repetitively without thinking about it. But actually how… if you think about smoking, it’s not just something that you do repetitively—and maybe you need to or it feels right et cetera—but you actually orient your world. The world around you unfolds in a particular way as a smoker, or the world unfolds around you in a particular way as a car driver, as opposed to a cyclist. And it seemed to me that that might be a useful way for thinking about racism, as the world you… you orient your world in a particular way, as someone who is white in a white dominant society, or someone who is racialised and who has to navigate a white dominant world. So thinking about racism is actually a habituation, a way of inhabiting the world and actually, to circle back on our discussion on language, really, as a way of dwelling in the world as well.
Yeah. So I’m kind of… you know, like, for me just hearing about racism as habit was just super, super helpful. How does sort of institutional racism come into that then?
Yeah, it’s a really good question. I think oftentimes in anti-racist discourse, we can have too stark a divide between the personal and the institutional, or the personal and the structural. Some people who work on issues for racism say, you know, we’re sort of too misguided if we think of racism as a individual problem or something that happens on the level of interpersonal relations. And I think the way I see it is that I think habit sort of bridges the two. Because I think it is true that racism unfolds through our personal, interpersonal relations, but that’s not to say that it’s individual, because these habits are developed through the institutions and the structures that we have around us. And they continue to be in place because we embody them, and we perform them, and we enact them. So I think there’s a much more reciprocal relationship between the two, and I guess this is where I see habit as potentially doing some of that in-between work.
I want to ask you about embodiment and feminist philosophy. And I’m interested in how this relates to the transition to parenthood and maybe your own experiences?
Yeah, so I think some of the important contributions that have been made by feminist philosophy start by looking at the experience of women in a patriarchal society. And that can happen through many ways.
So for example, there are some feminist philosophers who take up the experience of pregnancy and birth and parenting. And working from the bodily experience of those events, really challenge the way we think about ourselves as humans and who we are and how we relate to one another. So for example there are feminist philosophers who have done some important work on pregnant embodiment and thinking about how pregnancy is this really… it’s one example where you have this kind of fusion of the self and other, for example, a fetus growing inside. A person who is pregnant, who sometimes can… you know, undergoes so many bodily changes, experiences the movements of the fetus, their bodily boundaries et cetera are being blurred. In the way that that really challenges this very dominant orthodoxy of persons as individual, as separated from one another, and uses that as a way to think about how deeply relational we are.
Do you have any reflections on habit in birthing spaces and contexts, or in how habit-based critiques have informed your experiences of birthing in its institutions?
I know that a lot of your work for example, looks at how birthing spaces cater for certain people of certain bodies and not people of other bodies. And I think that’s an example of where some people’s—most often white, cisgendered, abled bodies—experiences of birth and the environment is one where their body doesn’t… it’s not called into question, or their body doesn’t become a problem. So they can interact with medical professionals with a sense of ease. They can interact with medical professionals, for example, with a sense of ease or without this sense of being interrupted by one’s body. You can look at birthing literature or advice and always see your image reflected and feel very much at home, or feel very much at ease in these spaces. Whereas I think that there are some people for whom that’s not true, whether that’s because they very seldom see their image in material that’s there to help support birthing people, and so have to project themselves into it. Or they are working with professionals who don’t know how to cater for their bodies. And so the body itself, even though… if we want to talk about, in the example of birthing, you know, the body is preparing itself to birth, or is tasked with birthing, and yet is kind of confronted with, or juggling all these other additional things that aren’t problems for some people, but are problems for people whose bodies are non-normative.
As a very specific embodied experience, which you are…
living in right this second [both laugh] literally, has birthing or parenting offered you new, kind of, philosophical avenues for insight and knowledge?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think so. So I think, you know, the experience of pregnancy, but also the experience of parenting, especially in the newborn phase, it does… it’s such a rich and fertile sort of period for philosophical reflection. But you’re so exhausted that you can’t quite, [laughs] you’re too exhausted to think philosophically in that period [laughs]—at the same time. But it does! I think, especially the experience of your body and the changes that it goes through during pregnancy, but also in the postnatal period. You know, our bodies are so leaky, our bodies are so… there’s such a blurriness to it, especially for a newborn, the blurriness between your body and your baby’s body and they’re so codependent. And I think that really, for me, just brings home this very fundamental relationality that we have, that we’re so enmeshed in one another. And philosophically that it’s a really profound and simple fact that we are all birthed by another person. I remember in one of my philosophy classes, when we were thinking about life and death and how philosophy tends to have this necrophiliac tendency—we always like to think about death; we think philosophy’s about thinking about, you know, the meaning of death et cetera. And I remember one of my professors saying, isn’t it an interesting thing about how death can be, technically it… theoretically death can be a solitary event. You can die alone, that’s possible, you cannot be birthed alone. And I think there’s something really fundamental in that; there’s just such a fundamental relationality in that, that we are related to one another. But I think maybe through thinking about this in tandem with the work on language as well, it’s not just that we’re related to one another, it’s that that relationship changes you as well. So it’s not just the fact of relationality, but that that makes you a different person, or it makes you a different kind of person.
OUTRO — Helen, thanks so much for sharing your thinking with us. As someone who’s interested in racism and how it’s felt in the body, I’m personally really struck by your work. The point you make about how the racialised body is habitually not at ease and not at home, makes a lot of sense when I think about my own research with migrant mothers, and how pre- or postnatal care excludes some parents. So you’ve given me a lot to think about as far as how language and birth intersect. You can find more episodes, transcripts, and links at ruthdesouza.com/podcast. I’ll add links to more of Helen’s work there too. If you enjoyed listening this week, I’d be thrilled if you could leave a rating or review wherever you listen to your podcasts. Next time on Birthing and Justice:
ELEANOR JACKSON (guest) — One of the reasons that pregnancy and childbirth are such significant life milestones, is that they are hugely social life milestones: they’re life milestones that require other people to participate in them, they bring you into interface with people and communities and families and services in a totally different public way. And to do this now, in a global public health emergency, even in my position of enormous privilege, I have felt a loss around what it has meant to do so much of this alone.
I’ll be joined by Eleanor Jackson, a Filipino Australian poet, performer, arts producer and community radio broadcaster. Birthing and Justice with Doctor Ruth De Souza is written and hosted by me and recorded at my home on the traditional lands of the Boonwurrung people of the Eastern Kulin Nations. Sound design and mix by Jon Tjhia, artwork by Atong Atem, design by Ethan Tsang, theme music by Raquel Solier and produced and edited by Jon Tjhia. This podcast is supported by funding from the RMIT University Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowship Program. Thanks for listening, we’ll be back again soon.
END NOTES — Audio transcript edited and designed by Abbra Kotlarczyk, 2022. Note: the purpose of this audio transcript is to provide a record and pathway towards accessing all Birthing and Justice conversations. Editorial decisions around the omission of certain words and non-verbal utterances have been made purely for stylistic purposes towards greater legibility, and do not infer a desired ethics of speech.