Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought for a while, not only because of the observations I’ve made from white and people of color friends and allies, but also because I, too, have been guilty in mocking the “accented” English of people in my community and other communities of color. The imitation and mockery of these “accents” are sometimes conducted for seemingly “harmless” comedic purposes, but nonetheless those of us who speak the colonizer’s language in any form of what is commonly defined as a “Standard English” accent in white English majority-speaking countries tend to overlook our privilege and complicity in attributing stereotypes to bodies of color and perpetuating the harmful racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”

Being raised in the United States and attending a predominately white public school was never devoid of racism, but it is important to note how my white friends, classmates, and teachers would frequently comment on how “amazed” they were that I “didn’t have an accent” (remarks that I still get). Since a “Standard American English” accent is not regarded as an accent in U.S. mainstream media and society, sounding like all the other white kids and the white people I watched in popular film and television meant that I spoke “normally.” While I faced racism throughout my public school years, my being brown yet “sounding white” definitely made some part of me, no matter how small, feel like I “fitted in” or “belonged” to mainstream white America. It also made me feel superior to the (few other) South Asian students who, unlike me, spoke English “differently” and were more Otherized because of it. Even though I was racialized like them through the lens of the white gaze, my “non-existing accent” gave me an unfair advantage and created a dichotomy which I participated in, too: they were “FOBs” while I was at least “Americanized.”

At a previous workplace, I recall the difficultly one of my Indian co-workers faced due to his accent. He was explaining a transaction to a white customer, but she grew impatient and shouted, “I can’t understand you! I can’t understand you!” I stepped in and explained verbatim what my co-worker said and the woman understood and thanked me. I couldn’t help but notice what had just happened. My co-worker, although perfectly understandable and far more knowledgeable than me with regard to the work field, was yelled at because of the way he spoke, while I, a fellow brown man, was treated respectfully and as more “competent” because of my white suburban American accent. Interesting enough, we had a white co-worker who received compliments daily because of his European accent (I won’t disclose the exact country for privacy reasons). I lost count of how many times customers commented on how “attractive” his accent was, whereas our Indian co-worker was treated as “unintelligible.”

The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).

Unlike “Standard English” accents and various dialects of the language in North America and other English majority-speaking nations, stereotypes of accents described as South Asian, Arab, Iranian, African, East Asian, Latino, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American, and so on, are racialized and mark bodies as “incompetent,” “backwards,” uncivilized,” “subordinate,” “goofy,” and even “threatening, “sinister,” and “evil.” As noted in the example from my workplace, South Asian (or “Desi”) accents are not considered “desirable,” “cool,” or “comprehensible,” while British, Australian, or New Zealand accents are. In American TV shows and Hollywood films, there are countless examples of how Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color with accented speech are demonized, ridiculed, degraded, and/or used for comedic purposes. These media representations have a real impact on society, as Carla Chamberlin-Quinlisk (a former professor of mine in undergrad) explains below:

Accent, however, is more than a theatrical device and has also been linked to real life perceptions of competency, intelligence, and credibility.  In educational contexts, including language learning communities, non-native speaking students and teachers face judgments of academic or professional incompetence based on their language status (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Kamhi-Stein, 2004; Liu, 1999; Thomas, 1999).  Moreover, decades of studies on language attitudes confirm that linguistic variation (accent and dialect) filters listeners’ perception of speakers’ intelligence, socioeconomic status, competence, education level, and attractiveness (Cargile, 1997, 2000, 2002; Cargile & Giles, 1997; Edwards, 1982; White et al. 1998).

As I continue this discussion, it is important to be conscious of how intersecting factors like whiteness and maleness play significant roles in giving people racial and gender privileges over others, despite sharing the same accent. Furthermore, what I want to focus on primarily in this post is how white people and people of color like myself, who speak with white or “Standard English” accents, participate in mocking so-called “foreign accents” and reinforce demeaning stereotypes about communities of color. When I and other people of color imitate these Otherized accents, we do so for a number of reasons – for laughs (especially around white people), for dramatizing stories we recount, for mockery of people we may know, etc. What we fail to see is how imitating these accents serves the purpose of disassociating and differentiating ourselves from non-native English speakers of color, as well as making strong implications that they are “backwards,” “silly,” and most importantly, forever stuck in the “pre-modern.”  In other words, we characterize them as “FOBs” who will always be sexist, illogical, violent, barbaric, and uncivilized because of their non-western cultures (as if white people with their “normal” and “civilized” accents cannot be sexist, violent, barbaric, illogical, etc.).  They, unlike us, are not “modernized” and can never assimilate “properly” into western society or be compatible with the west’s “superior” values. White supremacy undeniably marks all people of color as inferior, but when we reproduce these narratives of “modern” versus “pre-modern” in our own communities, we become complicit in normalizing the logic of white supremacy.

Additionally, we make spaces of exception for certain “FOBs.” That is, even though these individuals have accents, we don’t regard them as real “FOBs” because they are our friends, they live in the west, study in western universities, dress western, have “progressive” feminist politics, and so on. The real “FOBs” are the ones who, in addition to having accents, are bound to their “foreign” cultures and therefore must have “barbaric” and “oppressive” values.

Even in these spaces of exception, people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having “less credibility,” regardless of their education status. This is especially true in educational and workplace settings.  It’s upsetting how such hostility towards people of color with accents come not only from white people, but also from people of color who have white accents. I have consistently heard white people who self-identify as anti-racist and feminist refer to people of color with accents as the “immigrant generation” – a description used as code for “FOB,” and therefore “sexist,” “regressive,” “morally and intellectually inferior,” etc. Admittedly, I and other people of color who sound white participate in maintaining these gross generalizations and stereotypes.  In our discriminatory attitudes and jokes about the way they “mispronounce” words, we fail to take into account the struggles they face daily due to the racist perceptions of their accents. We fail to see how women of color with accents, for example, are further racialized and exoticized in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture and seen as more loyal to cultures, tribes, or countries that are marked inferior, savage, and uncivilized.

Some people of color mock the way other members in their community speak as a way of gaining “acceptance” by white people. For a long time, I imitated Desi accents around my white friends, classmates, and co-workers who would burst into laughter every time.  I decided to stop when they thought it was “ok” for them to mock the accents just because I did it.  While it’s certainly not the same thing when I imitate the Desi accent around only people of color, the privilege of not facing challenges because of our white accents rarely enters the conversation. I have heard others say things like, “I can’t stand the Desi accent, it’s annoying,” or “I hate the way Indians/Pakistanis talk,” or make innocent-sounding statements like, “Desi accents are hilarious!” These comments don’t take into account that there are real South Asians who actually live with the reality of racist remarks, angry looks, discrimination, and harsh judgment due to the stereotypes linked with their accents.

As many anti-racist feminist writers and activists emphasize, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and complicity. Although, for example, people of my skin color and religious background are demonized, discriminated against, and victimized by racist laws, there are certain advantages I have as a U.S. citizen and heterosexual male who speaks with a white suburban accent. If I apply for a job, my name, skin color, and religion are clear disadvantages, but my white accent will open more possibilities for me than for South Asians who “sound foreign.” When white classmates poked fun at me with “Apu accents,” they got more of a kick out of it when they did it to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students who, in their minds, “spoke like that.” I had the advantage of saying, “I don’t speak that way,” which also served as a way of stating, “I’m not like them, I’m more like you.” I didn’t have to worry about being laughed at or feeling ashamed every time I opened my mouth. This does not dismiss the fact that people of color face racism on the basis of their skin color alone, but rather highlights on how we should recognize the different yet interrelated ways racism impacts us all.

I don’t deny that people of color with western accents are sometimes perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them. In 8th grade, my English teacher sent me to an ESL class simply because I failed one test (I didn’t read the book!). Last summer, I interned at a counseling center and was told by the office manager that I had “a bit of an accent” after I told her I was born in Pakistan. I felt insulted and offended by both of these incidents and I would think to myself, “How could they say I have an accent? I don’t!” Until I was called out on how problematic my framing of these experiences with racialization were, I didn’t realize that my anger implied that there was something wrong with having a South Asian accent.  What I later addressed with my internship supervisor was not so much about whether or not I had an accent, but rather, what does it mean to have an “accent” and how are real people of color, who don’t speak English with “general” or “standard” western accents, perceived and treated? Instead of distancing ourselves from people of color who speak English “differently” and trying to make ourselves look more “acceptable” or “assimilated,” we should be confronting racist stereotypes and attitudes that are associated with “accents.”

As people of color who have the privilege of “sounding white,” we need to challenge the ways we imitate the accented English of people in racialized communities. White people, especially those who claim to be anti-racist allies, should never imitate these accents or feel that it is “ok” for them to do so.  I’m sure others can relate to these stories, but my parents and other family members constantly faced discrimination not only because of their skin color, but also because of their language status. When I taught English to immigrants and refugees two years ago, one of the things that stood out to me was how the students wanted to learn English so that they could be understood at their jobs, apply for jobs, or not feel ashamed in front of their children.

In white-majority societies where the “speak-English-or-get-out” culture is very hostile towards non-English speakers, we need to take responsibility for our privileges and complicity seriously and stop stereotyping people of color with so-called “foreign accents.”  What does it say about the power of colonialism and the settler-state when people of color deserve mockery, shame, ridicule, and vilification for the way they mispronounce words in the colonizer’s language?  When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” We also need to challenge ideas about what it means to be “modern” and how stereotypes about “accent,” like race and religion, serve as markers for those who are cast as “pre-modern” racial Others.

109 thoughts on “Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

  1. I speak english with “ze very stronk german accent”. You would not believe how often the Nazi stereotype is thrown at me. Not in the professional environment, but regularly after-hours.

    The funny thing about it: I do not think the people doing this want to be offensive. Here in Germany, “Nazi” is about the hardest insult you can imagine, but in other western countries ist more like a pun, hahaha, lets get the german mad. Hahaha, but dont overdo it or he will invade you, hahaha.

    I have worked with several “foreigners” in my career(among them an arab from jerusalem, indians, koreans, japanese). They all had more or less “funny” accents. And I can not remember that me or any of my colleagues ever tried to mock them or make fun of them.

    From your experience, the problem seems much more common. I wonder why.

    1. The problems are more common, which are not just evidenced in my experiences, but in the countless research that has been done on this topic. A lot of people of color have witnessed their close friends and family members face these struggles due to their “accents.” That’s great you didn’t mock any of your Arab and Asian co-workers, but the problem exists systematically. Look in the media and you’ll find plenty examples of characters with these accents being ridiculed, vilified, and degraded. As I pointed out in my post, these stereotypical representations have a real impact in the world, particularly in the way people are perceived and treated. People who say they haven’t witnessed this type of racism in their real lives doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

      1. and it’s a privilege to be sheltered from witnessing/noticing
        this type of racism and pattern of racism in action. most people of color growing up in america do not have the privilege of not seeing it.

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  2. I’ve experienced this issue too and in some ways, it caused me to be otherize not only by whites but my other blacks. I’ve heard from both whites and blacks that “I don’t sound like other black people” throughout my entire life. Of course, when whites said it, they usually said it as a “compliment”. The implication, of course, being that I wasn’t like all the “uneducated”, “ghetto” people that most black people are. :rolls eyes: I didn’t join in when I saw whites teasing how they thought blacks spoke because even when I was young, the implication was so obvious. This stereotyping based on how one talked was insulting but of course, it also opened doors. I even had a former supervisor (who I consider to be a good friend) tell me that when she first spoke to me on the phone, that she assumed I was white.

    However, when I heard it from other blacks it was usually said as an insult at the worse or as a mild curiosity at best. “Why do you talk like a white person?!” “Do you go to private school because you sound like a white person?” As a kid and adolescent, I often felt out of place with peers who looked like me and came from similar backgrounds as me. It was as if the way I talked was an affront to them; a rejection of being black. When I was young, I use to wish I could “talk black” just so I could fit in more.

    Even now, I wish people wouldn’t make snap judgments about me based on how I talk. I know this is a pipe dream but still, I would like see a day when this happens.

    I’ve just gotten to a point where I accept who I am (including how I talk) and try to speak out when people try to reinforce their stereotypes of me and other black people (which is hard because I’m a very introverted and passive person-which is also something that black people “aren’t suppose to be”).

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Sharon. It’s really important for more people to know about the impact language and the perception of language has on people. Stories like yours are important for all of us to read, especially those of us who have been guilty of stereotyping others based on how they speak.

  3. Gosh, this is really a brilliant piece. A definite privilege check for me, as I am particularly apt at imitating accents and have used that as a form of humor in ways that you have described above—in ways which are both classist and racist. This is something I see very commonly in the American Muslim community in lectures and so on, white and black native English speakers and also sometimes brown native or native-like English speakers putting on “arabi” or “desi” Uncle/Auntie accents as part of schtick. It seems harmless enough but you point out precisely why it is just racist and wrong and supports white supremacy.

    So true about the over arching white supremacy when people of color mock each other for Anglophone status. The same issue exists within S. Asia where polished (yet clearly South Asian, dialectically) English is a status marker and less polished English is lampooned…it seems superficially like pure classism, but actually the racism and white supremacist angle come out when you acknowledge the framework working above the polished desi varieties of English—how they are hierarchically below the native Anglophone so-called standard dialects and mocking in this way locates the writer/speaker/audience “above” those being mocked, the above position not only more elite, but closer to whiteness.

    As a long time user and abuser of this type of humor among close friends, I am going to make a conscious effort to stop. Thanks for parsing this out, it really is clear to me now just how sinister and un-funny it is.

    1. It was really nice reading your comment, Fatima! Thank you for your understanding and solidarity! As mentioned in the post, I have been guilty too of using this type of “humor” without understanding my privilege and complicity in perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

      Thank you for bringing up those points about classism, especially within South Asian communities where English is treated as a marker for education and high class status. It just points to how powerful the impact of colonialism has been.

  4. Very insightful. My husband speaks English beautifully, but with an accent as he is a … grits teeth… “FOB”. This point you’ve made so eoloquently was brought home to me several years ago by way of forced empathy. Sitting at a table as the only American born desi, I was shocked when one of my table mates (all “FOB” — did I mention that hate that term?) did an “American accent.” I didn’t say anything at the time, but it gave a small taste of what it feels like to be on the other side of the accented coin.

    1. Thank you for sharing some of your experiences, Faiqa. I know, I really don’t like the word “FOB” either. When it is used by privileged people of color who don’t have to worry about their “white accents” being mocked every day, it carries very strong connotations of “superiority” and easily fits into the racist narratives that exist about people in our community and other communities.

    2. Good point. I have long felt that there should be a Muslim comedian who has the guts to mock the heavily American-accented Urdu and Arabic of the haughty “American Muslim” crowd.

  5. My parents seem to have a much harder time understanding various
    accents than I do – I don’t know if it is a generational thing or has
    to do with their early education, etc. But my parents will frequently
    get frustrated with someone speaking with, for example, a German
    accent, at a local store. I find myself having to interpret for them.
    Then they get angry, saying the person is in the U.S. and should
    learn how to speak so that he/she can be understood. I try to explain
    that it isn’t as easy as it sounds, but they just don’t understand. I
    try to get them to imagine if they moved to another country, they
    would hang around with people from America while there and even if
    they tried to learn the other language they would probably have an
    accent, but that doesn’t mean they’re rude or stupid or trying to keep
    themselves separate from the larger culture. But they have a hard
    time putting themselves in someone’s shoes in this way because it is
    so far removed from their own experience.
    It is interesting how some accents here are perceived as ‘uneducated’
    – such as British Cockney, certain version of the southern U.S.
    accent, and certain urban accents like the Brooklyn accent. But
    others are seen as attractive or educated – like the ‘higher’ British,

    1. Southern accents in the United States may be perceived as “uneducated,” but it is not the same as being judged as “uneducated” when one has a South Asian or Arab or African accent. The experiences are quite different.

  6. Food for thought, definitely.

    In England, it’s almost reverse in job prospects. Certain jobs value accented speakers, my dad’s friend has a heavy Indian accent & he snagged a high position at the BBC. It was thought to be ‘cultural’ & ‘exotic’, of course that is problematic as it is Othering too, but in a positive way?

    1. Yeah, positive stereotypes are still problematic and offensive. For instance, the stereotype that all Indian (or “Indian looking”) people must be computer geniuses is racist. I have been asked by some white people in certain settings to fix their computers or printers because they assumed I was a “computer guy.”

      I’m aware that Asians and Africans in England face a lot of racist discrimination in the workplace. Jobs at larger companies like the BBC aren’t going to be the same as average jobs in smaller companies. There may be rare exceptions like that, but by no means is having a non-white accent advantageous in the larger scheme of things.

  7. Admin Note: Your comments were deleted because this hasn’t been the first time you came to this blog with highly offensive “reverse racism” arguments. It is nauseating and exhausting to deal with such attempts to derail conversation and suddenly characterize it as “people of color being racist against white people.” That’s not what this blog is about, that’s not what this post is about, and that is not what challenging white supremacy is about. I had responded to a similar comment you made on a previous post, but never received a reply. If you read the comment policy of this blog, I state that “reverse racism” (as well as “reverse sexism”) arguments will not be tolerated here. Please stop victimizing yourself by saying you are being “blamed” for all the racism in the world because of being white. This is not about you and don’t make it about you. There are so many amazing anti-racist feminist writers, bloggers, scholars, activists, etc., who have written extensively on how problematic, offensive, and so dismissive those “reverse racism” arguments are.

  8. One thing I find particularly terrible is when other PoC (and of course white folks) engage in anti-black racism by mocking AAVE. Somehow I get more annoyed with first generation suburban-raised Muslim folks on this point than white folks. I guess because I grew up in the city and my sister tried to train AAVE out of me from a young age so that I could move in “professional” circles. It’s usually so clear too that they have no actual knowledge of AAVE and didn’t understand certain words or phrases. It’s a caricatured idea of how black folks talk gleaned from pop culture.

    1. Thanks for bringing up the topic of mocking AAVE. That is something I noticed a lot among the white people I grew up with. I’ve seen it done by people of color, including fellow Desis.

  9. As a half-desi, half-white kid raised in the US but partially schooled in Pakistan, I saw this issue from two different ways. I have the “Standard American” accent and can pass as white, until people see my name and then tell me I have “…wow, almost no accent!” I tell them that’s good, since English is really the only language I’m fluent in so I’d better not have one at all.

    While living in Pakistan and struggling with stilted Urdu, I was mercilessly teased for my “Gora-Saab” Urdu, something that I am self conscious of even to this day. The experience was useful though in that I learned as a child how very painful it is to be made fun of for your accent, and I have rankled at accent humor ever since and such ‘otherisms’ ever since. Thanks for posting this.

  10. This was SO interesting! As a Persian woman that doesn’t have an accent (although I should, as I didn’t even grow up in the U.S.) I have been guilty of feeling superior to others (including my parents) who have accents. I’ve felt like I’m normal, more accepted, etc etc. At the same time, every time a friend or I jokingly used accents, I felt guilty, not knowing why! But for the past few months that I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that “sounding white” is a privilege and although a lot of Americans consider accents to be cool or interesting (I’ve heard some people say that even about POC’s accents), I know way too many POC that feel ashamed for having these accents. We cannot make light of something (i.e. the “sounding white privilege”) that is exposing people to ridicule and racism. Thank you for posting this!!!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! I agree, it’s important to be conscious of our privileges and understand the kind of racism that POC with otherized accents continue to endure.

    2. I understand you! But I was born and brought up in India and moved to US two years ago. It has been a hard experience because people can’t say my name and they just skip me and it hurts because I need to have a nickname that I don’t like because I am proud of my name. People start saying beta which is Hindi for son at random times and we were learning about the Ganges river and the pollution and even though it is polluted, it has reaons for being so polluted and people don’t understand that. The world is not perfect and people are different and unique. It hurts me to see people make fun of cultures the way they do.

  11. Admin Note: Your comment was deleted because it was making personal attacks against the author. Where was it said that the author is looking down on American or European culture? Please review the comment policy before resorting to “reverse racist” arguments again. Thanks.

  12. In my opinion, you are completely missing the point here.
    Accents, as you implied many times in your article, are not related to a particular race. Even though it might be tempting to generalize and say that most Chinese people sound the same when they speak English, this is obviously wrong. I have met many people of diverse origins speaking with a variety of accents. (Examples: a Chinese friend speaking English with a German accent, a French with a South African accent, etc.) The correlation between accents and races doesn’t hold close scrutiny.
    Even if that was the case, you overlook the fact that a lot of people can (and do) navigate between different accents depending on the context. A slight accent might be intensified or cancelled depending on the situation. People instinctively adopt the most appropriate accent for the situation. The norm is a relative concept.
    You’re saying that people who “sound white” will always be better considered than those who don’t. Someone speaking with a Cockney accent at Oxford will be rejected and ostracized. So will someone speaking BBC English in a rural southern American town. I moved from one region to another within the same country and I’ve been ostracized until I had adopted their regional accent. You’re creating a dichotomy between White and Non-White accents instead of considering the complexity of the situation.

    1. Um, how did I imply that accents are related to race? You seem to overlook the fact that I am South Asian and have a suburban “white boy” accent. That’s kind of like written throughout my entire post. Sounds like you’re the one who created the dichotomy.

      What do you mean an accent can be “cancelled” depending on the situation? Yeah, growing up, I’ve constantly watched my parents being stereotyped, laughed at, and discriminated against because of their accents. There were so many times when I would also participate in this and make fun of their inability to pronounce many English words the “correct” way. It’s insulting that you think they can change over to a white American accent.

      Also, if you read my post, you would have noted that I do recognize how various western English accents are stereotyped, too – some more positively than others. And there is no denying that attractiveness is associated with British, Australian, and New Zealand accents. What I said in my post was that white folks with these accents won’t be *racialized* in the same way people of color with non-western accents are. You seem to have missed the main points here: racialization, privilege, power, and accountability.

      1. Admin Note: Ok, wow. First, you tell me to remove you from receiving updates on this list (which, by the way, I do not have any control over because WordPress doesn’t allow me to manage my subscribers. Unsubscribing is something you have to do on your end. Perhaps through your e-mail?) and then you leave such insulting and racist comments. Do you really expect me to have them posted. You are making this about you and also about “people of color being anti-white” which is totally insulting and not appreciated here. I really have nothing else to say.

  13. “I don’t deny that there are anti-racist ways in which people of color imitate the accented English of their communities. There have been times when I used a Desi accent in ways that I felt were empowering and a form of resistance against racism.”

    Can you give any examples of when this would actually be the case?

  14. You know it’s interesting that AAVE is brought up, many African Americans discourage it’s use. Due to the fear of not wanting want to sound “ignorant” or “uneducated.” From a young age I was taught to not to speak in AAVE. But the reason why there’s even a such thing as this is back then many African Americans had create their own language, in a way it was kind of like an act of resistance. In other words, it was rejecting the “white man’s language.” But I think somewhere along the lines that changed, nowadays some black people are accused of “talking white” but the issue is, many blacks are glad they “sound white” because it’s viewed as being superior while AVVE is seen as inferior. The interesting thing though, is many African Americans would be insulted by people saying “you so sound articulate.”

    Anyways, back to the topic at hand. I remember when I was taking a Sociology course back in college there was a classmate who was a second generation Indian American and she describe that whenever she goes out with them say for shopping or a restaurant would always speak with her or direct whatever questions they had to her. She pointed this out because people automatically assume her parents could not or speak English “properly” or clearly.

    Even if that was the case, you overlook the fact that a lot of people can (and do) navigate between different accents depending on the context. A slight accent might be intensified or cancelled depending on the situation.

    Well I don’t know how many people you’ve met like this, but for the most part I don’t believe people can or do switch over like that. If so, what would the reason for doing so?

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, RenKiss! I’m glad more people are discussing AAVE here and that’s an important point about how it was created as resistance to white English.

      I’ve had those experiences too when people would talk to me directly instead of my parents, assuming that my parents couldn’t speak or understand English. It’s so insulting.

      I don’t believe people can switch over their accents like that either. I think it’s awful how there are classes that teach people to lose their accents. I think some people would take those classes to avoid shame and stigma, which is understandable and I I certainly don’t shame people for making those decisions. The problem lies with the oppressive social norms. We live in a society where it’s ok for people to wear shirts or have bumper stickers reading “Speak English or Get Out!” or “This is America! Speak English!”

      1. Funny enough that English is not an official language in America. Because America has no official language. It could be perfectly required to speak Spanish or Vietnamese in this neighborhood or get out.

      2. But English is the dominant language and it is imposed upon people who do not speak it. There is no denying that. It could not be “perfectly required” to speak Spanish, Vietnamese, or any other language. The hostile climate towards those who cannot speak English fluently is immense. Non-English speakers do not have the power to oppress people whose first language is English. It’s the other way around.

  15. In reference to the point about changing over or intensifying an accent; it’s true, I know people who do this, I’ve seen them do it! They seem to have a “home accent” (Indian/ Pakistani) and an “outside accent” reserved for American people. I find it quite amusing actually and I wonder if they’re aware of it. I pointed it out to one of them, and they got pretty defensive and denied it but ever since then I’ve noticed an attempt to abandon the “home accent” which shows it can be done.
    I do agree with you on challenging negative attitudes and stereotypes, while I also believe no one is obligated to mimic a local dialect in order to integrate, but a clean, “non-accent”, much like a stage actor’s if you will, I find, helps. I’ve lived in three different countries so I have an ambiguous accent and luckily I’ve not encountered any problems.

    1. I think that’s the impact white supremacy has on language and how people of color with non-standard English accents try to fit in and avoid stigma. However, most people cannot change their accents and continue to show their strength and perseverance through stereotypes and judgments made upon them.

      1. Yes, the motivation to avoid stigma is true, but it also demonstrates the human ability to adapt to and the subtle instinct to mimc one’s environment.
        Like all languages, there is a proper and improper way of pronunciation; you emphasize certain letters, while you’re more gentle with others, and so on. People from South Asia, for instance, often emphasize their Ds, Rs, Ts and mix up the use of their Ws and Vs, but it’s not impossible to correct this (nor should the issue of speaking correctly and clearly be something we get defensive about). Generally speaking, it’s more difficult for older people but I don’t consider that to be most people.
        I appreciate your sensitive feelings on this topic, so I really hope I’ve not caused offense in any way!

      2. I think it’s really important that we challenge the idea of what it means to have an “accent.” It’s oppressive when a white suburban accent like mine is never regarded as an accent, but seen as the norm, whereas accents that people like my parents have are.

        I think it’s really problematic to frame this as humans having the ability to “adapt to and the subtle instinct to mimc one’s environment.” This not only centers a standard English accent, but also carries strong implications that one must adapt and if they can’t mimic a standard accent, they don’t have the “skills” to do so.

        I have mentioned my parents several times in these comments, as well as in the blog post. I find those comments quite judgmental, not only of them, but also of the young people I know who will never be able to speak English the way I do. What’s to stop people from telling my parents or others I know that, “Hey, I changed my accent, you should too. I guess you can’t adapt as well as I can.” (See, that’s condescending)

        What we need to focus on is that there is NOTHING wrong with the way they speak and we need to express our anti-racist solidarity in challenging these stereotypes that have a real impact on their everyday lives.

      3. I don’t believe I recommended anyone changing their accents into a “white suburban” accent on pain of being considered inferior or incompetent. In fact, I mentioned I feel it’s unnecessary for non natives/ ethnic minorities do so, particularly if you haven’t been raised in this country. The issue of speaking english correctly is separate to adopting a “valley girl” or a “white suburban” accent. Please don’t take this remark to mean I’m implying your parents don’t speak english correctly – obviously I have no idea who they and for all I know, they sound completely fine. We’re all simply making general observations here.
        The issues your brought up in your essay extend to more than just accents – I see them as the complex consequences and reactions of diaspora, some sections of which, hold on feverishly to nationalistic ideas and traditions. Anyway, that’s a different topic for a different time.

      4. I’m glad we are in agreement. I think it’s so awful how ridiculed people of color are on the basis of their accents. I don’t think people fully appreciate the struggles they go through and I think it’s important to express anti-racist solidarity against these stereotypes. There is nothing they need to change about the way they speak. What needs to change are the perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes projected onto bodies that are racialized and unfairly discriminated against, ridiculed, and degraded.

      5. Hi, thank you for your insightful blog about the power of accents and the privilege that the ‘right accent’ can provide in a predominantly English-speaking environment.
        I do want to point out that there are some people, due to the fact that they are more perceptive and skilled to being linguistically adaptive, who can alter their accents according to the audience. As a young child growing up, my parents, who were from two different parts of my state, I was exposed to two different dialects of my mother tongue. Both sides of my parents’ families spoke the same language, but the intonation, expressions, some vocabulary etc were very different Having to speak to my family members from both sides, I noticed that I would mimic the lingo, tone etc of the side I was speaking to at the time. It is not at all easy and since I was born and brought up out of my home country, English was my first language and I just came ‘home’ for a month or two of summer vacation, it was really difficult initially to be understood. I completely relate to an earlier comment posted on this blog about how their ‘Gora-Urdu’ was mocked. However, picking up the local lingo and style, helped immensely and I must admit, improved my relationship with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins back home. Interestingly, after coming to the UK, my English has also changed a bit- I find it rather funny how many times I now use the world ‘Brilliant’ when I used to say ‘Awesome’ before! My children, who live in India, have also noticed how the accent has changed.
        The ability to change accents and be linguistically adaptive, I presume becomes easier when you’re younger and are exposed to different languages at a younger age. I don’t know the research on this, but there is a paper about bilinguals levels of higher cognitive abilities due to exposure to more than one languages even in infants as young as 8 months. I know for a fact, that my parents, who speak flawless English and are professionals (a geneticist and a financial adviser) do not change their English to suit the audience. But then they speak pretty clearly and articulate well.

  16. I really liked your piece but I felt that you ignored the topic of undesirable “white accents”. When was the last time you saw a “Russian good guy” in a movie? How about all eastern European accents considered Russian? Or telling people you’re from Belarussia/Bulgaria/Slovakia/Ukraine and them thinking that you don’t have your own language? As for white people having trouble understanding accents, it all depends on their exposure to the language. Before I met my Desi best friend (who speaks “white” English), I had the hardest time understanding south Asian accents. After hearing her speak in Hindi and other regional dialects I finally started getting a better grasp of what was being said to me by someone with a south Asian accent. Just because I can’t decipher an accent doesn’t make me a racist. I likewise had the toughest time with a customer service representative with a South Asian accent, she spoke too fast for me at times, slurred endings but I was patient with her and just reconfirmed constantly what she meant so that there would be no misunderstandings. It’s frustrating on both ends of the stick at times. A lot of people in my family have accents and I find them wonderful but knowing that people make fun of accents should be a push to improve language skills to avoid misunderstandings. It’s hard but I’m a US citizen now living in Sweden and people do make fun of my accent and mispronounciations in Swedish but I don’t take offence. I take note and improve. I wear my accent with pride. I’m glad to have found this article and to see people defend the differences that make us so amazing!

    1. While you may have had frustrations with a South Asian customer service representative, pause and think for a moment about your own privilege and how that person on the other end constantly gets judged for the way she speaks. I don’t see how these frustrations are equal on “both ends of the stick.” The most difficulty you experience is trying to understand South Asians with accents, which is nothing compared to the stereotyping, ridicule, and judgment they face daily. Something to think about.

      I couldn’t cover everything in this post, but I did mention that accents aren’t the only factors that contribute to stereotyping and discrimination. There is a lot of intersecting with race, gender, and class. Light skinned Russians, for example, are no doubt stereotyped if they have non-standard English accents, but the racial privilege is always there, just like the heterosexual male privilege is always there for me.

      It’s important to take whiteness into account. Your not taking offense to people making fun of your Swedish mispronunciations is not the same as people of color with accented English being made fun of for their mispronunciations. The people of color I know who have accents do take pride too, and this pride comes through many, many years of struggle, courage, and strength.

  17. I know you’re clearly a US citizen, but you fail to appreciate the complexity of how many British accents can affect how a person is seen. To give but a few examples…
    Essex accent – seen as stupid, shallow
    Welsh accent – nice but not the brightest; sheep-shagger if you’re being offensive
    Scouse accent – tough guy/girl, don’t mess with him/her
    Geordie accent – Talk to me. More.

    There are so many more accents that affect how people view you, and any of them can be a disadvantage to a person. I’m never going to be a TV presenter in the US, with my middle-class Midlands accent. Similarly, no-one with an American accent is ever going to play Doctor Who.

    1. 1. Read my reply to Vincent.

      2. In my post, I mentioned that intersecting factors like race, gender, class, religion, and other positionalities play a significant role in how certain accents are perceived as well.

      3. Hey, if Kevin Costner can play Robin Hood without an English accent, then anything’s possible for white folks, right?

    2. I agree, I found this issue to be of a more negative and sometimes dangerous consequence in Britain. The prominent hooligan culture doesn’t help matters either.

  18. Hi, I’m so glad I happened to stumble upon this post. Not only do I teach ESL classes in San Francisco but I also grew up with immigrant parents who learned English as their second language so this topic is definitely of particular interest to me.

    If there’s anything that I’ve learned about language is that it is very closely tied with power. It’s always interesting and slightly heartbreaking when I hear international students studying English in America tell me (as their teacher) that they would much rather know English than whatever their own first language happens to be. I also have students telling me how lucky I am to have grown up in America and to speak English as a naive speaker. I also have students asking me how they can get rid of their foreign accent and sound like an American. I can understand where these ideas come from. If there is any language in the world in this era that grants an individual power and opportunity, it is English. And like you said, we need to challenge that.

    I can relate well with what you’ve said about “people of color with western accents…perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them.” I remember while working at a coffeeshop, I met someone who taught at the same school that I’m currently teaching and taking graduate classes in. Once I introduced myself as a student of that university, she asked if I was taking English classes, even after having been in a clearly fluent English conversation together. In another incidient, many of the teachers who look Asian in my program, some of which are from Asia while others are from America, share the experience of students not being able to tell if we are native or nonnative speakers of English. While that is in part due to the student’s unfamiliarity with how different accents in English sound like, it is also due to their assumptions that someone who looks Asian may speak nonnative English (a White teacher probably wouldn’t be questioned in the same way). Strange how people in judging another’s linguistic competence can completely disregard one’s actual linguistic competence in favor of appearance.

    As a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, and in particular, teaching listening, speaking, and pronunciation classes, I am particularly torn with some of what I need to do. In a way, I’m so used to hearing various strains of English that when a student wants me to give them to real or correct way of saying the word, all I can really do is say it the way I would say it, even though their pronunciation may be perfectly understandable (of course, if it is incoherent, then it should be adjusted).

    Lastly, I want to say that I love your concluding statement that: “When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” I think particularly in my field, where we do try to be aware and sensitive towards cultural diversity, we have yet to discuss such issues about language as a form of power and also what it means to have an accent. And this becomes particularly obvious when we lack the language to talk about it and refer to it in more sensitive ways.

  19. What you do is certainly commendable and I greatly appreciate your efforts in writing about all these issues immigrants struggle with, but I feel there’s something major you’ve left out of this piece: human nature. I think what you describe has less to do with ‘white supremacist power’ and more to do with human nature, especially nature that hasn’t been refined. Who are these people discriminating against immigrants because of their accents? Rude and ignorant people I’m sure. No learned respectable person would discriminate against another because of matters of race, religion etc.
    But it’s the baseless mind that does. If you were to go to France and speak French with an American accent, you’d be laughed at. But who would do the laughing? The idiot who doesn’t understand that your accent is the way it is because you know and speak another language.

    And just as you find ignorant bigots with ‘learn English or get out’ bumper stickers, you also find those who are aware and realize we live in a diverse multicultural environment who teach their children that just because a person speaks differently doesn’t make them less American. I once overheard a mother tell her child who had asked why a man was speaking differently, that it was because he knew an extra language, and that was something the child would do good to look up to!

    Also, the standard ‘American’ accent is not considered an accent over here because that is how the majority speak. It’s normal for it to be viewed that way. Outside the country, the standard American accent is actually called an ‘accent’.

    I look different but speak with a standard American accent as well, and whenever people speak with me they always comment on how ‘good’ my English is. It doesn’t bother me because I know it’s normal for them to have that thought. It’s like how you would be surprised if you met an Italian in Pakistan who spoke Urdu with no ‘accents’.
    (Although perhaps your argument could be that Pakistan doesn’t claim to be a multicultural place or one that welcomes all people)

    I do agree with you 100% that ridiculing immigrants accents is also contemptible even if/when done by immigrants themselves (or their children). I’ve done it myself (although when younger and less aware of its consequences) and I’m truly sorry to anyone I’ve ever hurt.

    Thank you once again for writing about important issues, if we never open paths for debate and communication we’ll never get anywhere. Looking forward to your next piece.

    Wish you all the best,
    A devoted yet silent reader : )

    1. Actually, it’s a huge mistake to think that only ignorant and narrow-minded folks are racist. This is something that so many brilliant anti-racist feminist writers and activists have been addressing for a very long time. It’s actually quite harmful when people think of themselves as not being racist. We live in a racist society – all of us internalize racist socialization. Believing that racists are only the KKK folks and not the everyday “nice” person is part of that socialization. People shouldn’t worry about being called a racist or not, but rather the concern should be about ending the perpetuation of racism through our words, actions, perception and treatment of others. There’s a lot of unlearning that people need to do, not just in regard to racism, but sexism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, and other oppressions.

      The fact that you are dismissing the reality of white supremacy just exposes how problematic your framing of this problem is. It is not human nature to be ignorant and racist towards each other. These are all things learned. The white accent that I have is treated as a norm because that is learned.

      There are plenty of nice and well-meaning people who don’t see themselves as racist nor do they intend to be racist, but they nevertheless commit racist acts. There are countless examples of this that many people of color can relate to. Stereotyping people of color based on their accents is a racist act – the concern should never be emphasized on whether or not the person themselves is a racist. That’s not what the discussion is about; it’s about their actions.

      Some links to help you understand this better:

      1. What is White Supremacy?

      2. How to Raise Racist Kids

      3. Fourteen Ways Your Racism is Showing

      4. “I don’t see colour, I just see a human being.”

      5. For Whites Who Consider Being Allies But Find it Much too Tuff

      6. Watch this: How To Tell People They Sound Racist

      7. These folks clicked “like” on my blog post and I just discovered their blog today. Check it out!

      Whites Educating Whites

      1. I agree with you on many points, and I’ll read those articles the first chance I get. However, I believe human nature (in a defensive mode) plays a major role when coming across people ‘different’ than you. If a community here in America was comprised of only first generation Polish immigrants, a third generation Polish would be out of place. Not because our supposed recent immigrants are racist or they learned in their schools or societies to think racist thoughts but because of their ingrained human bias. It is only natural for me to think of what is different between you and me as well as to think of what we have in common. None of that causes me to commit a racist act. The 3rd generation Polish could face discrimination because he’s seen as different from the rest, but mostly by the ignorant. And please allow me to clarify that by ignorant I do not mean uneducated or illiterate. You could be highly educated, yet ignorant. You could hold many university degrees yet not have an ounce of humanity within you.

        I am not dismissing the existence of white supremacist power, but I do not think that when a European American who speaks ‘standard American’ can’t understand an Arab American because of their accent that it is because they are racist. It may very well be because they do not understand what is being said because of the mispronunciation of words. And the opposite is also true. My own mother would initially be overwhelmed when speaking with people (even though her English is good) because she would say they speak too fast and she can’t understand them!

        And about your ‘white accent’, I don’t think that’s considered the norm because it is ‘learned’ but because the majority of people speak that way here. (Unless that’s not true).

        I also have a question for you. If you were in Pakistan, and you met a European American who spoke Urdu with an American accent, and you thought to yourself, ‘wow what a weird sounding fellow’, would you call this sort of thinking as being influenced by white supremacy?

      2. Yeah… Read the articles, especially the one about white supremacy. You’re coming at this from a “human nature” angle, which essentially tries to rationalize and make excuses for prejudices. You need to go beyond that. Yes, differences are a fact of life, but what I’m addressing in this post are power relations, particularly in relation to language and linguistic variation.

        I do not think that when a European American who speaks ‘standard American’ can’t understand an Arab American because of their accent that it is because they are racist.

        Ok, where did I say this? I’m really baffled by many comments I’m getting (many of which I deleted and did not approve) that are more concerned about being called a racist rather than being concerned about ending racism. As I told another person who left a similar comment, take a moment and step back to reflect on your own privilege here. The worse you get from that experience with the hypothetical Arab American you mentioned is that you don’t understand him/her. Meanwhile, he/she is dealing with being misunderstood, ridiculed, misjudged, and stereotyped because of his/her accent. That is a daily experience. Privilege checking here means that we challenge these stereotypes that exist about such people. It doesn’t mean we should make this about us and say, “Oh my God, it’s so hard to understand them!”

        My own mother would initially be overwhelmed when speaking with people (even though her English is good) because she would say they speak too fast and she can’t understand them!

        Wow, that is so oppressive. I mean, those people really need to fix their English, don’t they? Forget about South Asian women who came to the United States, had to learn the English language, and started to work jobs where they would be constantly ridiculed, harassed, exoticized, and stereotyped because of their accents. But gosh, I guess not understanding them is so much more oppressive. Can you imagine the trauma of not understanding brown people not speaking English “correctly” enough?

        Let’s stop derailing the conversation here. Let’s start working in anti-racist solidarity against these stereotypes and how they have serious impacts on real people.

  20. 1. something i’ve been thinking about in this discussion is “code-switching” — a term grown out of Black people who speak both AAVE and white middle-class/ “professional” speak, but has been extended to other countercultures of PoC. i think this is probably a distinct thing from what you’re talking about here, since its not a matter of mocking or appropriating, it’s kinda like being bilingual (as RenKiss mentioned about it being a counterculture/ resistance to white culture).

    2. the other thing i’ve been mulling over — being real influenced by other people. i’m struggling with how that fits into this. as a child i spoke AAVE since thats what i was surrounded by, but i have heard real convincing arguments about PoC who are not Black lapsing into AAVE both bc of appropriation issues and antiblackness among PoC. also, i have definitely lapsed into a southern-coded-as-Black- accent after organizing heavily with folks with thick southern accents. i havent viewed that as mockery/perpetuation of white supremacy (since it hasnt been intentional, and i think subconsciously part of identifying with folks around me)– but that may be my privilege showing. i’m not sure and am wrestling with what that means.

    i hope this wasn’t a derail from the original point.

  21. Admin Note: Your comment was deleted because it doesn’t fit within the guidelines of the comment policy. I don’t engage in cyclical debates on this blog. You brought up a problematic and offensive “human nature” argument and I linked you to articles. You clearly did not read them, but insisted on commenting and derailing with the same narratives anyway.

    Also, read this post:

    It is not my job to educate you on anti-racism 101. Oh, you pulled a flying carpet fallacy in your comment, too. Look it up. That is all. Peace.

  22. Admin Note: LOL, how could you be a “potential partner” against discrimination when you don’t even listen to what people of color have to say? I took the time and energy to look up those links to you because I thought you were genuinely interested in learning, but instead of taking the time to read the posts, you persist with the same problematic narratives and misunderstandings about what white supremacy actually is. No, I don’t have a problem with open discussion, but if you’re going to persist in derailing and making everything about you (and how oppressive it must be to not understand South Asian accents) – all in the name of “healthy debate” – I am simply not interested.

  23. Salaam, JZ! I’ve commented on this post on FB, so I won’t say too much more – BUT I wanted to suggest that you let the ignorant comments of some of the ignorant commenters here stay instead of deleting them because 1) it’ll give others a chance to respond to them as well–and they’ll see how stupid they’re really being and how wrong and backward they are; 2) sometimes it takes reading and re-reading one’s own posts to realize how stupid one is really being, and, being the optimist that I am, I like to imagine that people re-think everything after allowing their stupidity to be publicized, which is really humiliating only for themselves. And maybe they’ll feel the urge to be more educated? 🙂

    But, yeah…

    Again, as always, an excellent piece! I’m going to reblog this, with a link to this page. You don’t blog very often, but when you do … man, it’s brilliant stuff! MashaAllah. There’s always so much to learn from you.

    1. Wa salaam! Thank you for your supportive comment! I’ve actually decided to take the advice offered on “Black Girl Dangerous’s” blog and not waste my time and energy on comments that are insulting and have no regard for the comment policy at all. I let a lot of problematic comments go published (even death threats, which I received recently on another post), but I think it’s important for me to stress that this is safe space and prioritize my own well being as well. When one is constantly being attacked with racist comments, it is understandable to want to maintain that safe space. Her post really made me reflect on this a lot, especially this part:

      More importantly, engaging with strange white people about race feels incredibly unsafe. If I do it anyway, because, after all, they just want to “understand” my position, then I am putting their need to “understand” ahead of my own need to protect my psychological and emotional well-being. And why on earth should I do that? Especially when the likelihood of that understanding actually happening is slim to none? And the likelihood that my position will be mocked, dismissed, or attacked is very high?

      Thanks again for your kind words and appreciation! 🙂

  24. Brilliant! Also worth mentioning: I’m an Indigenous North American (NDN) who doesn’t have a “Rez” accent, and I can’t help but notice that people with Rez accents are stereotyped as being endowed with some sort of inscrutable knowledge about nature and Mother Earth, which denies them opportunities to interact as equals with others at the university, in the workplace, and other spaces which are non-Native dominant. People who don’t speak with a Rez accent, like me, are treated as being some sort of bridge between colonizers and people who do speak with Rez accents, as if the two are mutually unintelligible to one another. It’s intensely frustrating. And I also remember being teased with “Me heapum like you” broken English in a pseudo-Rez accent as a child… It’s not a foreign accent, but colonialism has the ominous power to write us and our languages off as strangers in our own lands.

  25. Another excellent post!

    I had so many thoughts come up while reading it. The prodominent one was around the expression “audible minority” by analogy to a “visible minority”. A woman who was visibly part of the white majority in Canada used it in conversation to describe how her accent set her apart, negatively in the sense that she was constantly asked to repeat, and treated as a foreigner even though she had lived her a considerable time (I think the accent was a variant of a British one, English was definitely her first language).

    About the toxic comments, vile commentators, as you know I am a fan of deleting. There are ways to engage in a broad range of viewpoints, disagreements, controverseries without being obnoxious and obtuse. Perhaps deleting inappropriate is the most effective teaching tool in this regard.

    A propos, I have nominated you for a Beautiful Blogger Award. You can read the details on my blog post. Congratulations!

  26. Hi – I’d like to nominate you for the One Lovely Blog Award.
    Do pop over and check out my Fluffy Moments Page tomorrow and you will find the details.

  27. An interesting flip side to this is a phenomenon I’ve noticed among American converts to Islam who sometimes cultivate a vaguely foreign-sounding accent. I suspect that, in addition to an attempt to “fit in” with immigrant Muslim communities, there’s perhaps a bit of an unconscious attempt to distance themselves from their white and/or American-passport-holding privilege.

  28. It sounds incredibly racist to me when someone tells me that my accent doesn’t sound latino or that I sound white. Speaking with an SAE accent in no ways negates my identity as a person of color, nor does it express a desire for whiteness.

  29. Hi, I’ll be honest and say I sped read through your piece but it struck a chord within while reading. I am South Asian (Bangladeshi to be exact) and I have never lived in the western world. I grew up for the better part of my life in Bangladesh yet possess a ‘trans-atlantic’ accent. Benefits of growing up on Nat Geo, BBC and the likes i guess. My sister and I (who has the same accent) have frequently come upon the comment:” Oh you have very good English!” this has mostly come from ppl who are westerners. It used to be a source of quite pride, for me at least, but I honestly do not have an alternative accent. I have been criticised for my Englishfied Bangla quite contemptuously by fellow Bangladeshi’s and been accused of pretentiousness due to my English medium schooling background. but now when i stop and think about it: do we put on or adapt to accents as a defensive mechanism? why do we treat the english accent as ‘superior’? why is it so incredulous that i, from a 3rd world country, might actually have access to an English based education?

  30. I’m a white American who grew up in the suburbs too, so I have a standard American accent, and that’s completely true, about the double standard around European accents — if you speak with French or British-accented English, you’re admired for it.

    There’s a book you might like – English With An Accent by Rosina Lippi-Green. She makes the point that accents we grew up with are EXTREMELY hard to change/lose, even if you want to do so for whatever reason. Some people are able to change the way they speak more easily, but that’s an ability we don’t all possess — some actors whose put-on accents really don’t work in productions prove that, and we all know it, so making fun of accents makes very little sense.

    When I was in the UK, I got a lot of “I like your American accent” comments, which seemed weird to me, since I talk…like people on American TV shows, which is to me pretty boring and straightforward, but no, “some Americans are hard to understand/talk too fast/have odd accents (by which I think they meant “have regional twists.”) But that was kind of interesting, that having a standard accent was even an advantage in a different English-speaking country.

  31. I experienced a version of this phenomenon as a white English-speaker living in French Canada. I initially spoke textbook French, which no one in the world speaks. The moment I started to use local colloquialsms and pronounciation in my speach, my acceptance was instant.

    Ultimately, the associations people make with accents is due to ignorance and insecurity. I understand the notion of holding oneself accountable to the perpetuation of stereotypes, yet at the same time, I don’t like my own actions to be shaped as a compensation for the ignorant/insecure segment of the population. Perhaps this is irresponsible, but my approach is to leave them in the dust.

    The sad effect to me is when a person conforms in order to eliminate their perceived differences (i.e. accent), which leads to a homogenous society lacking in potential richness.

  32. As a white middle class American, who speaks standard American english, this post makes me appreciate my “white privilege”. I love languages. I’m studying Mandarin, Hindi, and Japanese. I also study regional English dialects. When I was at work yesterday, an hispanic man, asked me a question I couldn’t understand. I wasn’t angry at him. I felt akward. I didn’t want to offend him, and I knew re-asking him what he said over and over would make him feel bad, so I simply said yes, and walked away. I don’t think I handeled the situation correctly, but it wasn’t because I was racist. It was because I didn’t understand him. Trying to soften an accent isnt a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean your ashamed of your heritage. Obviously most people with foreign accents can’t erase them. But taking dialect classes to be more understood can make life easier for you and the people you interact with. If your going to learn a new language, at least TRY to do it properly. I’m consistently working on my Mandarin to sound more Native. And whenever I visit my family in the south I adopt a slight southern accent. However I understand what you mean about people with accents feeling shame about not being understood, or sounding foreign, and how we need to accomadate these people. When Chinese people don’t understand my Mandarin, its embaressing. On a side note have you ever seen the movie “My Fair Lady”? The subject matter deals directly with the correlation between class and speech.

    1. You trying to learn Mandarin and “sound more native” is not the same as a person of color being coerced into taking “dialect classes” so that they can survive the hostile climate of white supremacy.


  33. Another manifestation of this issue: I am a white person who speaks and has taught Hindi-Urdu. I have had many classrooms of almost all Desi American students. There was an intense fear in that atmosphere of being seen as a FOB even though they had voluntarily signed up for the class. In some the fear was so great that it created a barrier to pronouncing certain typically South Asian phonemes properly, such as the ‘r’ sound, or retroflexes (such as ‘t’ in ‘tamaatar’) because these had been wiped from their linguistic repertoire at an early age so as not to sound like a FOB or like their parents. People who had too easy of a time were sometimes defensive. The classes often became a very emotional environment for these college-aged kids and I felt like I was leading a group therapy session instead of a language class. For better or worse, the fact that I was white seemed to facilitate the process because I was making these sounds (to the best of my ability) but clearly had taken considerable trouble to learn them for more than the purpose of imitating desi accents.

  34. There are many facets to this issue. I grew up in the rural Ozark Mountains. Because most people in my family were educated we (mostly) spoke standard English at home, but many of my friends spoke the local dialect that is quite different (or, as we’d say, “differnt”), and not just because of the accent; grammar and syntax are different, also. An inability to speak standard English makes even white people unemployable in some parts of the country.

    Regarding the problem of understanding accents — .I used to work with a fellow who had grown up in northern Ireland. For some reason, I could understand him when some of my co-workers couldn’t. We used to joke that I was his translator.

  35. Thanks for raising this issue. I can’t stress highly enough how damaging the problem of accent can be among working class immigrant communities. I haven’t read all the comments, so this might have been addressed earlier but the most unfortunate byproduct of accented English is class distinction. I grew up in Pakistan and moved to USA about ten years ago. Having studied at a Catholic school where speaking in Urdu was looked down upon, I’ve always been intensely aware of accent prejudices. I can’t recall the number of times I noticed people, desis both in Pakistan and USA, switching from English to Urdu just because the other person did not look like he belonged to the privileged monied class. People with darker skin, a beard, or less than fashionable clothes are automatically judged as less that highly educated, and therefore improficient in English. In many cases, the person switching might consider this to be the right thing to do. And it becomes merely yet another unfortunate residue of colonialism. And when instituted in schools, where many parents of underprivileged classes send their children in hopes of better future, the distinction can be highly damaging. It is no different among desis in USA. A ‘proper’ American English brings enormous privileges -unless you’re Deepak Chopra. If you don’t look, dress, act like an American born, you’re almost always addressed in a patronizing manner. How many of us greet a Hispanic guy at a gas station, or delivering pizza, with a hola and later gracias, with a stupid patronizing smile on our faces? I’ve always disliked comedians like Russell Peters who’ve turned accent prejudices into their sole financial resource. They don’t understand, or don’t care about, the damaging effects of the stereotypes they perpetuate. The worst of it is in schools and colleges, where young students usually group themselves not only among racial lines, but more so with an American-born or immigrant distinction.

  36. Shouldn’t we be accepting these differences and utilizing oppressive gestures or comments as fuel to disprove them? I am a mixed American and spent several years living in Malaysia, where my attempted accent was, in fact, strange and unusual, and the source of many laughs for the class. I didn’t see this as a negative, however, because it was a fact. I spoke the language in a strange way. Concurrently, my American accent was mocked, even by my own cousins! No big deal though, ’cause it’s just how I talk.

    We shouldn’t expect other people to change for us, but rather us provide them with a reason to change. Everyone has their luggage, such as mine being underweight and constantly being called out on it. It is, though, a fact! Why should people adapt to me when it’s me that’s different? Embrace it! If a person were to treat you as a lesser person due to an accent, prove them wrong! If an employee adresses you instead of your parents, your parents should speak up! Interrupt them! Change their opinions right there on the spot. All I’m sayin’ is we shouldn’t wait for other people to change, but rather do our best to prove a counterargument to their stereotypes.

    1. Your American accent getting mocked in Malaysia is very different than a Malaysian accent being mocked in the United States.

      Yes, people do speak up and they do bring about change. It was never suggested nor implied in this post that people mocked or judged for their accents are “helpless victims.” At the same time, when people speak up and defend themselves (in workplaces for instance), they also put their jobs in jeopardy. Some folks struggle to stay quiet because they don’t want to get fired by their racist employers and because they know that if they get fired, they won’t have a job to support themselves and/or their families.

      It’s important to keep that dynamic in mind, too. It doesn’t mean that people are less courageous. In fact, in these circumstances, I think it takes a lot of strength and courage for people to stay quiet and endure these challenges, despite all of the racism and mockery they constantly face. Similarly, it takes a lot of strength and courage for those who *do* speak up, despite getting accused by others for “playing the race card” or “making a big deal out of nothing.”

  37. I have the privilege of looking white, but I’ve only been speaking English for the past decade. And there is nothing more frustrating to me than this accent thing. I get one of two reactions: The first is a complete dismissal of my person (accomplishments, personality, what have you) because I have a slight accent. You have no idea how often my comments/contributions are dismissed because of this. This has evolved to the point where I don’t speak unless absolutely necessary because I know I will be ignored. The second reaction is ‘oh you’ve only been speaking English for x years? You barely have an accent, unlike all other Mexicans I know! You pronounce things correctly’….Of course this reaction comes with the unspoken requirement that I should be oh so thankful that these white people are telling me I’m not uncivilized/barbaric/what have you….I’ve sometimes felt that my experiences with racism through my accent are invalidated because I can pass as white, even though my name and my accent are clearly ‘foreign’…. So, I really hate that Accents are never spoken about in the context of racial prejudice or of the experience of my fellow immigrants. But anyways, great article. Seriously loved it!

  38. Brilliant. Like you, i’m a desi born/raised in the West, and I speak English without an accent. But I live in the East now and I’m noticing my children are speaking with an accent. It bothered me until I wondered one day “WHY is this bothering me? As long as they speak and write well, what does it matter what accent they speak in?” That’s when I realized how racist I was being. You articulated my thought process so well, thank you.

  39. This is so interesting to me right now!

    Since I’m white, as someone who has lived abroad in both French Canada and Germany, I don’t have to deal with silly comment. I had a similar experience in Germany (also speak German) — I mostly got praise for my good German, and didn’t have to deal with the baggage on “not looking German.” I know native German speakers who are of Turkish ancestry that are not perceived as being German. Yet I mostly got good feedback for having learned the language, one i speak far less capably than those “Gastarbeiters.”

    My accent is called “cute” — probably because it’s identifiably English. Honestly, I can brag about enjoying my time in cities like Cologne and Paris not only because i speak the languages — but because my white appearance gives me privileges that native speakers of German and French don’t get, because they are brown.

  40. Thank you so much for this thought provoking post. As a white American woman with a mostly suburban accent I have never experienced the kinds of situations that you and others relate here but reading about them helps me realize that there are a lot of aspects of discrimination and bigotry that are not widely address or acknowledged in our society. The issue of white supremacy in US culture is not something that I know much about but after reading this I am going to try and learn more and also make an effort to be more aware of it’s effects in my day to day interactions. In reading through the comments I saw that many were aimed at how you didn’t address stereotypes associated with white people who speak with different accents. It seems to me that the people who posted these comments missed the entire focus of this post, which as I understand it is the association between certain accents and damaging racial stereotypes and how imitating them can perpetuate “the harmful racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”” It is true that many different American and British accents have certain stigma associated with them, however that stigma lacks the racial component on which you are focusing here. While I as a southerner with a slight accent may be perceived as less intelligent than someone with a pure suburban accent, I am still a white woman and therefor I am automatically accepted as part of white America. Although the stigma I face from my accent can be damming it is nowhere near the bigotry and racial stereotypical that people of color must face on a day to day basis in our society. I think the trap that many white people fall into is that in their attempts to relate to and empathize with people of color and the hardships that they face they attempt to interpret beyond their means and emphasize similarities between situations that are in reality not so similar. I hope I have not fallen into this trap myself, thanks again for the post!

  41. I tend to confuse people out because I look like any other white American but speak with a “foreign” accent. My parents are Eastern European immigrants and I grew up in a bilingual household.
    In my case, my accent was viewed as a cognitive/intellectual disability (this was in the mid-nineties). I didn’t speak until I was four; when I did, I sounded like my “fresh-off-the-plane” parents. My parents were told by doctors to speak only in English, because they thought a bilingual environment might slow my English acquisition (when, to the contrary, it made things worse). I wonder if things would have been different if they spoke a “useful” and more civilized West European language, like French?
    In the first grade I was placed in a special education classroom, for my accent and for other presumed learning difficulties. I would later occasionally get placed in speech therapy lessons. This only increased my anxiety, as did the teasing.
    I still have an accent, and still cannot consciously control it without sounding false. Sometimes I would have xenophobic comments thrown my way, and would be treated as a foreigner despite my citizenship. Yet because I am white, my “foreignness” is not held up to scrutiny nearly as much. It boggles me how it is so much more acceptable to belittle, criticize, and police the accents of people of color, foreign-born or not, in this country.

  42. Hi,
    I came across your blog when I was trying to find out if mocking an accent is racist or not. I was brought up in India. I moved to London just recently. I do not have any English friends. I just know two people in office who are grew up here – the British Indians. One of them mocks my accent every now and then. I feel like he picks on me for no reason. I called him racist once and he said he cant be racist because he’s Indian too. More often than not I feel like there’s really nothing I can do. The feeling of helplessness is worse than any feeling.
    I feel like I have started hating all the English. I nag my husband all the time for moving to London. I know, for sure, that I’m not going to bring up my children here.

  43. I hope you don’t mind me referencing your article in an essay that I am doing. This has given me a lot of things to think over. I have seen in the workplace that people tend to be very racist when dealing with international call centers and categorize people due to their accents. I sometimes wonder what it is like on the other side having to call in to the US or anywhere else from the international call centers knowing that the moment the call connects that the person is going to make assumptions based off the way you sound.

    1. Hi Beth, I don’t mind at all. Thank you for your comment, I’m glad you found the post helpful! I hope it gets more people to reflect and challenge their assumptions/stereotypes.

  44. Hi,

    I just came across this article and wanted to thank you. As someone who moved to the U.S. at the age of 14 (now 22) and still has an accent, I’m constantly being told “OMG you’ve been here for so long? Why do you still have a Puerto Rican accent?” As if I somehow made the choice to “keep” my accent; god knows all the times I prayed to sound more “American” (meaning standard white accent). I recently met someone who came to the U.S. at the age of 10 and still has an English accent. We’re good friends now and I noticed that people never even question why she still has her accent. It’s always “Omg your accent is so cute. I love British people!!!” while they tell me “Omg your accent is so thick? You must only hangout with Latinos then.” I feel specially bad because both of my parents rely on me for translation and I’m always so self conscious of the “lazy immigrant who doesn’t want to learn English” stereotype. I remember once I was translating for my mother at the doctor’s office and he cut me off half sentenced to call a translator because he thought I wasn’t fluent in English.

    I read some of the above comments about how some accents are difficult to understand and wanted to note that pronunciation is the problem not the accent. Pointing out someone’s accent won’t make them change, in fact it will probably make them feel horrible and give up English. I’ve been in that position before. However, working on my pronunciation has helped since people have stopped asking me to repeat myself. I still get comments on my accent, but I don’t really care as much anymore. If you are able to understand me, what’s the problem?

    One thing I find very interesting is how my accent is position in different contexts. I live in NYC and go to college, so generally people tend to be more open minded, but as soon as I go to other states it’s when I really stand out. Yet, because of the way I look (white passing; nerdy), I’m always position as the “smart” person in the room in contrast to my sister who is brown skinned. I’ve had surprised peopled because they thought my accent was French, German, or Russian despite others (typically blacks and Latinos) immediately recognizing the fact I sound very Puerto Rican. Thus, intersections, as you pointed out, are so important. In my case, because of my white passing and nerdy look, I haven’t experienced that many nasty encounters compared to other people I know. Nevertheless, reading your post has really inspired me to become more critical of my desire to sound more American. So thank you!

  45. “The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).”

    Yes and yes. This is an old post, too, but I particularly like it. I remember reading an advertisement for a job in a newspaper, which asked for native speakers of the English language. But it specified: “American, Canadian, Australian, Scottish, Irish, New Zealandian accents only.” (That really tells all, doesn’t it?)

  46. And the most stupid thing of it all is that when white folks imitate our accents, they don’t even come close to our REAL accents. And it is also idiotic to persume that any person (read: white folks) don’t have accents. Everyone has an accent. And in most countries, also in my native Surinam/Dutch Guyana that consists of only 600.000 people, there are myriad different accents. But hey, who cares! Because THAT would be too complicated for a racist to grasp anyway…..

  47. I know this issue well, because of the way my name is spelled. When I was born, my uncle chose my name. Both my parents were illiterate in English. So he spelled it HASAN. That’s how it is on my birth certificate. So many people told us later that it’s spelled Hassan not Hasan. Until recently, I used to use the “correct” spelling. But then I thought, my name is Arabic. There is no correct spelling, all spellings in English are incorrect. So I started to spell it like my uncle did.

    This embarrassed him, he didn’t want me to continue his mistake. He felt like he kept remembering that it was HIS mistake. But it’s not a mistake. That’s what I think about whenever people make fun of certain words, like I’ve heard white people talk about how “Eid” backwards is “Die.” It’s not even English. Or they think a foreign name sounds like a funny English word. Get over yourself.

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