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Accent Bias

There are more than 350 languages spoken in the United States other than English, spoken by one in five Americans. 75% of all English speakers in the world are non-native speakers.  And yet, despite how common non-English and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers are and the foundation of the United States as an immigrant nation, significant discrimination exists and pervades. As Wesley Cheung writes, “Accent discrimination is a universal yet socially accepted form of prejudice.” 

Non-English speakers are more likely to identify as people of color. As such, in addition to language barriers, they navigate the disadvantages of racism, cultural bias, and historical oppression. Implicit bias research indicates that ESL speakers are considered by native English speakers to be less successful, less intelligent and are less likely to be believed.  Within the domain of sexual violence prevention, this has larger implications of harm, as survivors face a longstanding history of not being listened to or believed. However, accent bias not only happens across languages, but within languages. John Michael Gregg notes, “discrimination based on assumptions related to one’s accent is real and this intersects with existing racial prejudices to create a heightened experience of inequality”.  There is a long, racialized history of demonizing  Black-English speech patterns that continue to cause harm today, even though it's a recognized  dialect with its own proper grammar rules. For example, although the word ‘axe’ was highly used in classic English literature (like Beowolf and Chaucer), it’s now come to be a discrimination marker used against communities who kept the term alive- mainly Black communities that moved through the Caribbean. Yet research shows that standard English speakers regard the use of ‘axe’ as lazy, ignorant, and conducive to negative assumptions about the person. Racism, in this form, prevents Black American English speakers from getting hired, from getting loans, and from being believed when they are victims of violence. 

Lastly, accent’s aren’t always just about where you come from- they can also denote a traumatic brain injury, cleft palate, or other medical experiences that may require special care. 

Thought exercise

Take a moment to think back on how intelligence has been portrayed in people through movies, media and pop culture. Imagine you’re about to take your seat for a lecture about  the latest research on violence prevention. The specialist comes out to the podium and starts to speak…what specific voice do you hear in your mind's imagination? Close your eyes and visualize who you imagine takes the stage and what they sound like when they start speaking. 

It’s likely that you thought of a neutral American accent, or even a British accent. This has a lot to do with our history. In the early formation of the United States, Southern states were regarded as poorer, less educated, and with less access to prestigious Universities. As such their manner of speaking became a stereotypical shorthand for “sounding unintelligent” or being uneducated..  As Dakota Collins writes,  “A southern drawl has become the go-to voice to adopt when ironically mimicking an ignorant opinion, creating a not-so-bright caricature…so deeply perpetuated in modern media, it’s been ingrained in the human psyche that anyone who speaks with a southern accent must, therefore, be stupid.” Scott Nelson shares that when Northerners deemed the American South to be less educated,  “they did so due to a perception that the southern accent was more closely related to ‘Black English’—something people in the north associated with stupidity”. As such, the trope of the uneducated Southern accent permeates to victimize Black English speakers across the country and negatively impacts their upward mobility, their right to speak without judgment, and their larger life outcomes. The stereotype  link between historical poverty and accent holds, even outside of the North-South divide. Places linked with larger cultural stories of poverty maintain a bias- for example, the Brooklyn accent.  

Can you think of a media portrayal that flips this on its head? How often are speakers of Black English or those with a Southern accent portrayed in positions of prestige or ways that showcase their skill and intelligence? If you’re having a hard time thinking of examples, it’s because there are very few, which needs to change. 


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