Accenting the Accent

Every now and then, someone will tell me, “You speak English so well!” A compliment? Only if speaking standard American English—perhaps with a slight California tinge—signifies a level of competency and accomplishment. If standard American English corresponds to good education, a good family, a good background. If speaking English any other way means something about me and my ancestry is suspicious, low-brow, or incorrect. It’s a compliment if, by speaking without some accent, I’ve somehow overcome some great obstacle.

In June Jordan‘s essay, “Nobody Means More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” she details the struggle associated with growing up hearing and speaking Black English. Her words echo the lives of many Americans, who live in a society where “White English…is ‘Standard English.'” For some, to grow up in a home where White English is not the standard is to form an identity of inferiority in a predominantly white society.

Jordan describes a childhood caught between Black English at home and White English in society. She writes, “We begin to grow up in a house where every true mirror shows us the face of somebody who does not belong there, whose walk and whose talk will never look or sound “right,” because that house was meant to shelter a family that is alien and hostile to us. As we learn our way around this environment, either we hide our original word habits, or we completely surrender our own voice, hoping to please those who will never respect anyone different from themselves.”

That home—a place meant to embody comfort—could be “hostile” reveals the paradox of growing up in both the private family and the public society. Black English is both “home” and “alien.” Identity becomes split between “original word habits,” spoken at home (i.e. Black English) and White English spoken in public, “hoping to please those who will never respect anyone different from themselves.” The prejudice is clear: Black English might be comfortable, but it’s wrong. White English, no matter how unnatural, is the only right way to speak.

This schism between a personal identity and a public identity extends beyond Jordan’s life and her work with primarily black students and Black English. Why is it that the standard American English or British English are considered to be the “correct” way of speaking? Why do these accents sound educated and informed to ears while regionally or racially tinted languages are heard as inferior?

It’s no secret that a preference for standard American English penetrates the definition of success in America. Just a few days ago, in his State of the Union address, President Obama said that being a full citizen means learning English. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States is still segregated based on language—and by extension, race—in many aspects of society, including where people live, work, and attend school. Families that speak with non-white accents still have trouble finding employment, housing, and schooling for their children, though they may hold full rights and citizenship. If employers and landlords and teachers “can’t understand” their employees, residents, students, they can’t trust them.

According to the Barnard website, our student body has “over 30% students of color,” which corresponds to 70% of the student body with white or European ancestry. According to the CIA World Factbook, 79.96 of the American population also identifies as white. Does a campus that more or less reflects the demographics of United States also reflect the prejudices? Do the accent affinities that dominate the United States dominate our campus as well? I would hope not, but I’m not always sure.

For the record, English is my first and only language. I have never learned Chinese beyond the words for my favorite dishes. But when I have traditional Asian features, speaking unaccented English is apparently a skill, even at a school like Barnard. Even in a city like New York. It’s a part of me that teachers, employers and peers understand—a part that they can trust. In the end, I don’t know if it will matter that I have full citizenship or quality education, when I look like I might not. My English major may not be worth anything unless I can speak English so very well.

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