Don't Apologize for Your Accent

Ever heard someone tell a white person with a strong southern accent to "learn English?" Why do people view foreign accents and the accents of white southerners differently? The White Guy has the answers.

Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


Question:

Do you feel the same way about the difficulty of understanding an immigrant's accent (say an Indian's accent) and another white guy's accent (say someone who has a strong southern accent and you are not a southerner)? If not, can you think of a reason for feeling different[ly] about them?

Answer:

In my opinion, many people (not just white people) will use an accent as a reason to insult a person with less perceived power. Since you asked specifically about white people, I will relate that I've heard white Americans tell people with foreign accents to "learn English." I've never heard a white person from the Northeast tell a white person with a southern (U.S.) accent to "learn English." I'm sure it happens from time to time (probably immediately prior to some unexpected dental work), but it can't be common.

That's because in almost all cases, if the person with the southern accent is white, they are perceived by white people to be a peer. Peers are permitted to have an accent. I have a friend with a prominent British accent and she's told me that she finds most American men find her accent to be "sexy" and she's used that to her advantage in getting superior customer service. A southern accent is considered charming in many circles. But a "foreign" accent–especially from a person of color–can be met with scorn and derision, especially by bigots.

I've had the opportunity to travel to many places on the planet and have found that my brain has substantial shortcomings processing languages other than English. Therefore, I humbly understand how other people could have an accent for many years after adopting a new language.

At a recent meeting of PRIMER (Puerto Ricans In Management and Executive Roles, where I am one of two Anglo members and the 2006 Member of the Year), I was talking with one of my fellow PRIMER members who has a fairly prominent Spanish accent despite two decades of living in the mainland, a graduate degree from a top continental U.S. university, and a highly successful career in corporate America.

I had to ask him to repeat a sentence and he apologized for his accent. I felt terrible about his apology, so I said, "Please don't apologize. If I moved to Puerto Rico, twenty years from now, I'd still be the guy with a difficult-to-understand English accent–because that's just the way I am."

By the way, have you heard this joke? A person who knows three languages is trilingual, a person who knows two languages is bilingual and a person who knows one language is American.

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Luke Visconti is the founder and CEO of DiversityInc. Although the title of his column is meant to be humorous, the issues he addresses and the answers he gives to questions are serious — and based on his 18 years of experience publishing DiversityInc. Click here to send your own question to Luke.

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