Why do you think you are entitled to understand everything you hear?

I was recently asked by a friend if I have ever had, considering that I have attended university for over a decade, a professor whose ‘accent’ was too difficult to understand. I am sure that in my younger years I complained about this. As a undergraduate, I was fundamentally concerned with grades and often just wanted to be given the information I needed to get an “A.” If the way a professor spoke presented barriers to this, I felt frustrated. I do not think this way anymore. I will never forget what I learned, in a class taught by Canadian author Dione Brand, about the privileges articulated in my expectation that I should understand everything I hear. Brand held an endowed chair in the Women’s Studies department at SFU from 2000 to 2002. In a class on feminist creative writing that she taught, we read a short story (in this book by Jean Rhys, called “In the Rue de l’Arrivée”… I really had to dig into my memory and google to find it!) that had, if I can remember correctly, one or two passages written in French. This class was sometime in 2002, well before the existence of google translate. Since I do not speak French, I had no idea what the passages said, but sensed that they were central to the meaning of the story which I would have to discuss in class. During the class, another student raised their hand, asking the meaning of the passages and complaining that the publisher should have included a translation. Brand said (as I remember it), “why do you think you are entitled to understand everything you hear? Or everything you read?” These questions instantiated a shift in my perspective on the privilege of understanding. Imagine the humility behind them. My own preferred languages for speaking and hearing emerge from the sum of my personal experiences situated in larger social, political, and spatial nexuses. Others’ preferred languages emerge from theirs. Neither are “right,” and neither are “accented” – in fact, the idea of an “accent” in the first place marks the erasure of privileges which dictate whose pronunciation is the different, difficult one. It is a privilege not to understand sometimes. I am glad I don’t get to understand everything I hear. It gives me the opportunity to check who I am in relation to others, to be humbled by the experiences of others, and to revel in the space that I do not yet, and may never fully, understand.