A couple of weeks ago, my mother brought up an interview she’d watched featuring an expert commenting on how someone’s accent i.e. the way in which they speak, can have such an impact on the way they’re received.
Like appearance, and how first impressions matter, apparently first words and their deliverance do as well. While I was not novel to the idea that the first words out of someone’s mouth often lead to a judgment made about their intelligence (or lack thereof) regardless of how accurate that judgement is, I hadn’t really considered how the accent in which the words are spoken are subject to judgement as well. That is, not until I really thought about it.
I realised that over the years, I’d thicken the hint of ‘British’ in my accent when speaking to someone new to make myself appear more…I don’t really know what – more intelligent, more well spoken, more educated? – just more. Then I considered the prejudice dished out to those that didn’t have a Western accent i.e. American, British, European, Australian, etc.
This type of prejudice is called accentism. It’s informally defined as discrimination against somebody based on their accent, i.e. of it not being one that belongs to a group more socially accepted. It is usually accents of people from eastern countries that elicits such prejudice. My parents, both Indian, are a prime example. Growing up in India, my parents were surrounded by adults that raved about the superiority and wonder of the West, and how going there basically meant you’d struck gold. So it comes as no surprise that this mentality stuck, and when my parents migrated out of India (and out of their comfort zone) they adopted accents which they used as a tool to avoid the prejudice they may face as a result, and to help them fit better in a society they subconsciously considered more elite than the one in which they grew up.
I thought back to all the times my parents answered a phone call in front of my sister and I and changed their accents depending on who was at the other end of the line. Other Indians, or people considered having the same social standing as Indians, got the natural normal accent when spoken to – my mother once said this was for their benefit as much as your own, after all you didn’t want to seem like you were showing of – while my parent’s ‘white’ friends got my parent’s version of a ‘Western’ accent. I heard it most when my dad was on the phone dealing with colleagues and clients. I never thought much of it till now, always having grown up considering it the norm.
And now I find myself doing the same.
While my upbringing was different in that I never had to really confront or even fully consider prejudice from my peers based on my nationality or accent, I’ve still been brought up in an environment where Western accents were better than my own, more “employable” some of my high school teachers would say. I then realised just how many times I’d been on the delivering side of such discrimination. How many times I’d mentally dismissed someone with an Eastern accent without knowing them, and how many times I’d thought to myself how grateful I was that I ‘didn’t sound like them’. I didn’t necessarily think they were ‘beneath’ me in any way, but I just knew that I was different than them and from society’s perspective that was a good thing. Saying it now seems so crass, but my intentions were never cruel. It was just the way things were. It IS the way things ARE.
I started to then research this topic thoroughly because, surely if I’d noticed this phenomenon, others had too. And surely then, many had considered what this did to our social systems and what implications this had on our mental health and quality of life. Certainly, I was merely late to a party that had already been on it’s second-to-last leg.
When I proceeded to google research articles to do with ‘accentism’ I found a whopping 22 submissions, most of which were published between the years 2010 and 2016.
And at a glance, many of these appeared to wonder not why accentism was a phenomenon, but rather why it happened to belong in places like Britain.
(As I type this, I still can’t quite believe it).
However, there were a handful of researchers that delved into the nitty gritty of accentism, asking their participants to recall instances where they’d been made fun off because of their accents, regardless of what they had to say and, surprisingly, whether or not they belonged to a minority group. One of these researchers even quoted a participant say that ‘accent is more important than race’. Why then is such little thought given to it? Why then is it still a prevailing problem?
While it exists in Western society, it’s not such a pressing issue. Even so, it’s usually sub-categorised as relating to those individuals with speech or hearing disabilities. Is that the reason literature and action is so sparse? Have researchers just not bothered to consider the dynamic this causes between those with an accent that is prejudiced against and those without?
Its prejudice is undeniable, and while many know of it’s existence, it’s often just assumed as being a part of life. That doesn’t make it acceptable. Discrimination based on accents is still discrimination. It is still a way for human beings to rate each other, still a way for someone to come out on top, and someone else to drop to the bottom of the societal hierarchy. Accents, like race, like sex, aren’t things that can be pre-determined. That doesn’t stop us from using them as a sorting hat.
What then does that say of human beings in general?
Each era of man, as far as we have properly documented, has a form of discrimination predominant of it’s time and region. It starts, gets accepted, becomes the norm, then someone has the courage to speak up about the injustice of it, there is a movement, and the matter rests. Over generations, the issue dilutes. We’ve seen it with racism, with slavery, with sexism, and these are simply a fraction of what is written in the pages of history. It isn’t news, and still here we are allowing yet another form of discrimination to seep into the minds of every generation that is born instead of trying to find solutions to put a stop to it before it turns into the cycle we’ve seen before. Why wait several generations for the problem to worsen into one we simply cannot ignore, instead of dealing with it before that?
What is it about man’s urge to claim dominion over other man that allows such behaviour to reincarnate as different life forms? I cannot understand it, but hopefully I’ve allowed someone else out there to start considering it.