The Netflix reality show, “Deaf U,” captures student life (pre-pandemic) at Gallaudet University, a world renowned school for the deaf and hard of hearing right here in Washington.

It’s a reality show that follows a group of friends as they navigate the drama of college life — from hookups and late nights to activism and awkward dates. For its hearing audience, the eight-episode documentary offers a window into the deaf community, including the divide between those raised in deaf families and schools, and those teetering between a hearing world and a deaf one. Some students have hearing aids or cochlear implants while others speak only in American Sign Language.

We’re joined by “Deaf U” cast member and Gallaudet University graduate Renate Rose, who explains what filming this series has meant for her.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock

Guests

  • Renate Rose Cast Member, "Deaf U"; @RenateARose
  • Elena Lee ASL Interpreter

"Deaf U" Trailer

Deaf U | Official Trailer | Netflix

Deaf U is a coming-of-age reality series following a tight-knit group of Deaf students at Gallaudet University, a renowned private college for the Deaf and H...

Transcript

  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast National Zoo Director Steve Monfort on Kojo for Kids. But first ...

  • 12:00:27

    KOJO NNAMDI... the Netflix's documentary series "Deaf U" captures a semester of student life at Gallaudet University, the renowned school for the deaf and hard of hearing right here in Washington. "Deaf U" is a reality show following a group of friends as they navigate all the ups and downs of college life for its hearing audience. The eight-episode series offers a window into the deaf community including the divide between those raised in deaf families and schools and those teetering between a hearing world and a deaf one.

  • 12:00:59

    KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Renate Rose who is a Cast Member on the Netflix documentary series "Deaf U" set at Gallaudet University, the world's only university designed to be a barrier free for deaf and hard of hearing students. Renate, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:01:17

    RENATE ROSEIt's my pleasure. I'm so glad that I could join with you today.

  • 12:01:21

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Elena Lee, who is an American Sign Language Interpreter. Thanks to the technological wonders of Zoom Renate and I will be talking to each other through the interpreter Elena Lee. A reminder that this conversation with "Deaf U" Cast Member, Renate Rose, is one that you can see with an American Sign Language Interpreter via Facebook live at wamu.fm/deafukojo or head to our webpage kojoshow.org. Renate Rose, when did you first learn Netflix would be filming a documentary series about students at Gallaudet?

  • 12:02:00

    ROSEThis was around two years ago. I found this out through a friend who had mentioned, "Did you know that Netflix is now searching and recruiting people to be involved on a reality T.V. show?" I was like, "Really?" So they gave me the contact information. I reached out. There was an interview and then through, you know, a few rounds of interview processes that actually -- I actually became one of the cast members about a year and a half ago.

  • 12:02:23

    NNAMDIWhy was this something you wanted to be a part of?

  • 12:02:27

    ROSEI felt as though, you know, my experience, my journeys -- I could possibly share with the audience. It's not often, you know, that we're very open and vulnerable to discussing our issues such as domestic violence, lesbianism, therapy, you know, these are very taboo subjects. And I wanted to break those barriers. I feel that being involved in the show I could possibly start to break that kind of barrier.

  • 12:02:55

    NNAMDIWhat was the experience of being filmed like for you?

  • 12:03:00

    ROSEIt was really fascinating and personally I love reality TV shows. I watch so many different shows, and now from a different perspective, it's like, Wow. That's how it works. So it's really been amazing. It's been a fascinating experience for me.

  • 12:03:15

    NNAMDIRenate, some have dubbed this series a docu-soap, a cross between a documentary and a soap opera. How much of the drama on "Deaf U" is real? And how much is like dialed up for the camera?

  • 12:03:29

    ROSEI would say most of our, you know, so called drama was real. I mean, because our lives are very messy. We're still analyzing ourselves, our identities and who we are, how we identify. And in college, I mean, it's a really fast life. There's a lot of triggers. There's school. There's social. There's so many things that, you know, I truly believe that we -- these are true problems. These are real problems, and this might encourage others to be able to share that after the filming. And specifically the real struggle that we face. It is real.

  • 12:04:06

    NNAMDIIt reminded me of the messiness of my own life in college. Is the messiness at "Deaf U" or Gallaudet University typical of the messiness of life in college?

  • 12:04:16

    ROSEYes. I do believe that if you go to any university, you know, in the country or in the world, you would find the same similarities where all young people, who are finally independent we're out of, you know, out from under our parents roof and we're searching for ourselves. So those tend to become messy.

  • 12:04:37

    NNAMDIYou grew up in a relatively small community in Kansas. And you attended Kansas School for the Deaf. How did that upbringing involve your experience as a deaf person -- or inform your experience as a deaf person?

  • 12:04:53

    ROSEI was very fortunate to have a deaf family. I had access to language from birth. And I went to a really good deaf school with a lot of great deaf staff who, you know, were great mentors and great influences to me growing up. They really taught me strong, you know, intuition and my deaf identity -- my deafhood. And I'm very strong in it. My deaf experience has been very different than many other deaf people. So I'm very fortunate to have that experience. However, you know, going into Gallaudet is a huge difference because, you know, we're very small. It's very typical, a small community and it's hard to meet new deaf people. I never really hang out with the same deaf people. So it was a new experience for me.

  • 12:05:40

    NNAMDIWhat did you think of it at Gallaudet when you first arrived?

  • 12:05:44

    ROSEWow. I was very nervous, and it was kind of a culture shock in relation to how there was so many different people from all walks of life, and finally all the different activities that I could join. Coming from a small deaf school meant that my activities were very limited to sports and student government. So that was very limited. And now going into Gallaudet, I had so many options and so many opportunities to kind of take those journeys. So I really enjoyed it.

  • 12:06:18

    NNAMDIOne of the things this series does is illustrate the divide between those who come to Gallaudet from deaf community schools and families and those who are raised in families and communities that are, well, primarily hearing. How did you see that division play out at school?

  • 12:06:39

    ROSEIn the classroom setting, I didn't see that division very often. It wasn't very obvious. With the understanding of being out in the social, you know, aspect, I could see the cliques. I could see the people who would typically hang out in their own circles. I do believe that it's very nature for, you know, any school or any organization to have their own sort of cliques with the understanding, you know, hoping that it's not harmful.

  • 12:07:07

    NNAMDIWell, I was fascinated by a discussion in the series. Who are the deaf elite? What does that mean? And how does that play out in your social lives?

  • 12:07:19

    ROSEWow. The deaf elite, you know, it's a very heavy topic, and we in the deaf community are still struggling and communicating. We have yet to really figure out what the intension is. Some people feel that they may not diverse the definition or that it's not an appropriate interpretation, because, you know, there's the integration of possibly, you know, white supremacy and audism. So it's a very heavy subject and we have really yet to unpack that. There's certainly more, you know, research to be done, and it's something that we're still figuring out. And we're in that process.

  • 12:08:03

    NNAMDIWhat is audism?

  • 12:08:06

    ROSEAudism is the oppression based on our abilities to hear or speak, you know, being involved in a hearing world. So that could be done by a variety of people. You could be hearing looking down a deaf person based on their ability to hear or speak. Or it could be, you know, a deaf person oppressing another deaf person based on their ability to hear and speak.

  • 12:08:29

    NNAMDIThis series does not paint the capital D, deaf elites, in the most flattering light particularly with the bullying of one student, Cheyanna Clearbrook, who makes social media videos, which some of the so-called elites say cater to a hearing audience. How much do these so-called elites have on the community?

  • 12:08:52

    ROSEOften we'll look at people, who are deaf elites and feel that they come from a strong deaf community. Their signing skills are amazing. They're very fluent. So others may want to be involved in a hearing world. So with that -- I'm sorry. Could you ask me the question again?

  • 12:09:18

    NNAMDII was talking about the series not painting deaf elites in a flattering light, and the bullying of Cheyanna Clearbrook. And some of the -- she makes social media videos and some of the elites say that those videos cater to a hearing audience. How much influence do the elites have on the community?

  • 12:09:41

    ROSERight. Right. Okay. So that brought me back to my point. So they may typically, you know, advocate for each other who, you know, they have very strong identities, very strong sign skills embedded with deaf culture. They seem to be the gatekeepers. So not advocating others who are not, you know, actually involved in deaf culture or raised in a deaf family or strong signers, those tend to be dismissed. And the gatekeeping has a strong influence on the deaf people, who were not raised or immersed in deaf culture. So they may feel more of an outsider and sometimes even alone.

  • 12:10:23

    NNAMDIWe got a listener email who says, "What are your thoughts about the underrepresentation of women of color on the series?" What has been the feedback regarding the -- among women of color in the deaf and hard of hearing community? And you only have about 30 seconds to respond unfortunately.

  • 12:10:43

    ROSEYes. I do agree. I do agree. You know, there's really no excuse for them not to have recruited any women of color to be involved in this show. I'm hopeful that on the next season we'll be able to bring on more women of color because we have so many that are on campus.

  • 12:10:58

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll be continuing this conversation about the Netflix documentary "Deaf U." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:11:46

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the Netflix documentary "Deaf U" with Renate Rose who's a Cast Member on that documentary set at D.C.'s Gallaudet University. Elena Lee is an American Sign Language Interpreter, and thanks to the technological wonders of Zoom Renate and I will be talking with each other through our interpreter, Elena. Renate, in all eight episodes there does not seem to be a single scene shot in a classroom. Was that a choice the filmmakers made? Did they follow you to any classes?

  • 12:12:21

    ROSEYes. I do believe that they did some shooting in some of the scenes in classrooms. It seems maybe they didn't make the final cut.

  • 12:12:29

    NNAMDIOh, I guess the classroom scenes were not as important as the social life, which is what they really wanted to show, right?

  • 12:12:37

    ROSEOr possibly there wasn't actually a lot of drama as there is out in the social -- in our social lives. You know, in our classrooms we tend to focus on our studies and the topics at hand. So I don't know.

  • 12:12:51

    NNAMDIWhen I first moved to Washington, I lived in a house with a deaf couple, who both attended Gallaudet University. It was an interracial couple, Black male, white female and they played a lot of music. And when I watched this documentary it seems that music is a very important connection in the deaf and hard of hearing community; is that correct?

  • 12:13:18

    ROSEYes. It definitely is. I mean, we love music. The feeling, the vibrations, it's really -- yeah, absolutely love music.

  • 12:13:27

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Elliot in Southeast Washington. Elliot, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:35

    ELLIOTHey, Kojo. I didn't really have much to say other than, you know, I go to Union Market quite a bit. And, you know, being around -- shout out to Peregrine Coffee by the way, which is for people who are hard of hearing as deaf. But I just wanted to say it makes you conscientious being around Gallaudet University near markets nearby. If you don't know for listeners, being around people, who are hard of hearing slash deaf it makes you more conscientious of the hand motions you make. And I'm the type of person who likes to speak with my hands. And I felt like I was, you know, being ablest almost. So it's just, you know, makes you more conscientious being around people, who you don't spend much time around them. And your show like this is great.

  • 12:14:24

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Renate, you moved to Washington from Kansas. What's it's like living in this community and running into the kinds of people in the city that you would not have run into in the area that you grew up in?

  • 12:14:41

    ROSEYeah, completely different. I'm certainly used to suburban life and the community, but this is different. This is my first real experience living in a metropolitan area. It's really nice, because there's so many free and fun things to do in comparison to Kansas. So often things that we wanted to do have to be paid for or you had to take a long drive to get there. But here, it's just right here, right there. There's the Metro. You can go to Chinatown. You can just, you know, take a leisurely walk or eat. It's really nice. I really love living in Washington D.C.

  • 12:15:18

    NNAMDIHere now is Nancy in Chevy Chase. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:23

    NANCYOh, hello. I've been tangentially involved with the deaf community since 1993 when I started to work at the Maryland School for the Deaf where most of the faculty were deaf people, who had graduated from Gallaudet. And I'd just like to -- can you -- so there's a fascinating interaction among -- that I've noticed at Gallaudet among deaf faculty, who have generations of experience in the community and the new students, because as you just mentioned, students come from everywhere where they may or may not have been really involved with older deaf people. And how does that influence your experience and your personal growth?

  • 12:16:13

    ROSEReally I have met -- I've met a lot of people that come from different backgrounds. My growing up, attending a deaf school, I did meet some students, who came in later. They came from a mainstream environment or they were the only deaf student in an entire hearing school. It varies and I have met with those students. And now, you know, I'm actually meeting people who for the first time have been exposed to sign language when they've gone into college. So that is so courageous and they just jump in. They're involved with the culture. They, you know, are taking classes at the same time while learning sign language. I really never met people like that until I actually enrolled in Gallaudet.

  • 12:16:53

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nancy. Renate, we need to talk about Taylor your girlfriend, who is also featured in "Deaf U." What can you tell us about her?

  • 12:17:06

    ROSEWell, she really is very friendly and sweet. She always sees the good in everyone. She's very brilliant. She's amazing in linguistics and she loves to talk about ASL and how fascinating it is and the structures. You know, all language has it's structure, their rules. And she certainly dives in and analysis linguistics. And she'll say, "Wow, that's beautiful." And I'll ask for an explanation and it's just, you know, I'm learning something while enjoying something at the same time. So I really love her.

  • 12:17:39

    NNAMDIThere's a scene at a poetry slam in which you get up on stage and share a poem about your girlfriend in American Sign Language. You were clearly nervous about performing, but it was really beautiful. What did it take to get up and do that?

  • 12:17:57

    ROSEI had already been involved in theater when I was in high school. So I already had a lot of, you know, stage experience. I always had that, you know, anxiety, the insecurity right before a performance. And then when it's time to perform, everything just fades away. So I'm able to continue with the performance, finish and I just feel like, wow, you know, I did it. So I really love that feeling of the -- you know, the nerves right before the stage fright. I think it's addicting.

  • 12:18:26

    NNAMDIHere is Alex in Silver Spring. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:31

    ALEXHi, there, Kojo. Thanks for doing this. Yeah, I was deeply touched when I went to my first Sweet Honey in the Rock concert and couldn't stop watching the sign interpreter. And I'm a real physical person as a carpenter. So I guess the physicality of the language connected with me. So I started hiring people. And I'm a contractor, to work with me that were deaf. And so it was a real blessing for me to meet these people. And one of them ended up being someone that was close to me and my family, is the most gregarious and social person. And he reminded me how they say that words are only seven percent of human communication. That there's so many other factors. I might have that percentage wrong. But he could communicate with anybody whether they knew sign or not.

  • 12:19:35

    NNAMDIIntroduce you to a community and a life that were not familiar with before. I only interrupt you because we are almost running out of time. But, Renate, "Deaf U" was filmed before the pandemic hit. What has life been like for you since then?

  • 12:19:51

    ROSEReally crazy. We had to, you know, move out dorms. Move out of our dorm rooms at the last minute. Fortunately we did have one friend, who actually lived in Washington D.C. in the area. They offered a place for us. So we've been staying there. And we're currently looking for a place to live for temporarily. So now I'm just focusing on graduate school, work. You know, just taking these opportunities. Staying home, staying safe.

  • 12:20:19

    NNAMDIWell, indeed, you graduated in May. So now you're looking at graduate school. What's the next step for you?

  • 12:20:26

    ROSEWell, I don't have any specific plans. I really like to just go with the flow. I'm going to be focusing on finishing graduate school. See what opportunities arise. And then we'll see where I go from there.

  • 12:20:40

    NNAMDIRenate Rose is a Cast Member on the Netflix docuseries "Deaf U" set at D.C.'s Gallaudet University. And Elena Lee is an American Sign Language Interpreter. Renate, Elena, thank you both for joining us. This has been a complete pleasure for me. And I hope for our listeners too. Going to take a short break. When we come back National Zoo Director Steve Monfort on Kojo for Kids.

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