by Adriana Villavicencio
I’ve seen it happen. My mom talks to someone behind a desk or a counter and the person starts to speak differently—more slowly, much more loudly, and in less complicated sentences. The tone in their voice says, You have no idea what you’re talking about. The look on their face says, Damn immigrants. I wish they would learn English.
My mom—who happens to be smart enough to start her own business from scratch and run it successfully for 25 years—is regularly treated like less of a person (and certainly like a less intelligent one) because of her accent. She’s not the only one.
Being Latino staff writer Jennifer Turano reported in July that people with accents are judged as less truthful. Other studies have shown that those who speak with an accent are also perceived as unintelligent or less professional.
Prejudice against accents can work both ways. When I speak Spanish in my accent (more gringa than not), I am often judged as less than Latina. Spanish-speaking people start speaking English to me even though I was raised (and prefer) hearing Spanish. And my extended family makes fun of me while I struggle in futility to roll my “R’s.” And then there are people who actually fake their accents just to seem more “Latino” in all its stereotypical glory (à la Sofia Vergara in Modern Family).
But in general, having an accent in this country—especially one that can be traced to an Asian or Latino origin (versus a French accent for example)—is met with unfair discrimination and unfounded judgment. Among other things, having an accent can mean that:
- Employment opportunities will be limited because you won’t be taken seriously.
- You may get taken advantage of because people will assume you don’t understand.
- Some will be outright hostile because they believe you don’t belong here.
In some states, those with accents are fighting back. A number of cases have been brought against employers for this kind of discrimination, but we have yet to see any widespread legal action. What if we weren’t so U.S.- and English-centric in this country and started to think of people with ACCENTS as potential ASSETS, since clearly their journey to this country (and tenacity to learn a new language) are testaments to their motivation and intelligence? What if we began to value the diversity of experience and perspective that immigrants and newcomers bring to a job or organization?
I was in a café the other day when I noticed that the man behind the counter had a thick accent. Then, he spoke to a customer in French and greeted one of his employees in Arabic. I thought: You must be smarter than I am. You know two languages I don’t.
To learn more about Adriana, visit The Radical Ideas.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.