Navigating the Academy with an Accent by Amanda Pumphrey

“Where are you from?” I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me that question since moving to California. I would be able to make a substantial payment towards my student loan debt by now. No one knows I’m “different” here in SoCal until I open my mouth. My thick Southern accent happens to be my signifier.

Before I moved to Claremont to begin graduate school, I never considered my accent a problem. Despite the fact that when I moved outside of my hometown to college only two hours away, some of my friends teased me about my accent. Since I grew up in the very southwestern corner of Georgia, I lived right along the Alabama border. Some of my college friends from other regions of Georgia thought I sounded more Alabamian. Still, mostly everyone I went to college with had some form of a Southern accent and that was okay. It was safe. It was normative. 

During the graduate school application process in my senior year of undergrad, one of my close advisors explained to me that it would be beneficial to take speech therapy classes in order to lose my Southern accent and develop a more neutral accent. She explained that if I wanted to continue to further my education and enter into the academic world that it would already be hard enough as a woman, but doubly hard as a Southern woman. With the various stereotypes about Southerners being uneducated people, she thought I would be viewed as an uneducated woman and I would not be taken seriously.

Obviously, I did not listen to her because my accent is still here, folks. However, what she said has really stuck with me, especially since I am no longer in the South. I have found it very annoying when people mention my accent, even if it is in a complementary way. Often people will inquire about where I am from and tell me that the love to hear me talk. They ask me to repeat certain words because it sounds different the way I pronounce it. Within the classroom context, I have had people tell me that they have a hard time grasping what I am actually saying because they are so fixated on my accent. This really upsets me.

I do not want to be a spectacle. I want to bring who I am wholly into my course work and graduate studies. This means that I cannot change that I am a Southern woman raised in a very remote and rural part of Georgia. Unfortunately this year, I have learned that two of my friends, both women from the South, who are in other graduate programs, have also been advised to change their accents. My younger sister, who works with the orientation program at the University of Georgia, has been asked to change her accent when she addresses students. Even in our own state we sound “too country” or “too dumb,” to address the public!

I’m angry that these stereotypes of the South exist. Therefore, I want to work extra hard in what I do to prove to people that you can be educated and Southern. The two do not have to be antonymous. Even if you have a non-normative accent, you can still be influential. Often, I am reserved when speaking publicly because of my accent. I often hear my former teacher’s voice in the back of my mind. I’m continuing to work through these moments of self-consciousness and insecurity to be able to speak boldly. This semester I will be giving two papers and speaking on two panels at three different conferences. I hope to use these opportunities in order to articulate myself and my work. I am very thankful to be surrounded by a very supportive and encouraging community of professors, colleagues, and friends.

Sorry, but the feminist in me is not going to compromise a foundational part of who I am in order for people to supposedly understand me or take me seriously. What are some things that you have been asked to compromise during your academic journeys and how did you deal with it?

 Amanda Pumphrey is a first year Ph.D. student in women’s studies in religion at Claremont Graduate University. She received her MA in religion from Claremont School of Theology and her BA in religious studies from Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia. Amanda enjoys studying Christian sexual ethics and feminist and queer theologies. 


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13 replies

  1. I refused to dress down or dowdy. If I was going to stand out anyway for my height, and there was no way I was going to deny my body.

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  2. 1. Forced to wear dresses up to junior high
    2. Told to not dress too dykey for decades, being treated badly in clothing stores
    3. Almost had my arm cut off on a bandsaw by a boy who didn’t want girls taking shop classes
    4. Being paid 50% less for twice the work of my male colleagues, until I nailed the president of the company with mathematical evidense of this outrage
    5. Told girls can’t ________ maybe over 100,000 times
    6. Dissed at every bed and breakfast in town by uptight straight women who freak out when an “obvious” lesbian walks in the door
    7. Given great service over the phone, and given the trash heap when I arrive in person
    8. Paying more for health insurance and AAA for decades because I’m not heterosexually married
    9. Not getting a head of household deduction on my taxes because I am lesbian
    10. Given the cold stare of death when I walked into a collegue’s home for a party (I was friends with the wife) and the husband was a fanatic homophobe, unbeknowst to the wife (this just happened in Dec., 2011)
    11. Getting shunted to the table next to the kitchen with my partner frequently, even when there are plenty of tables by windows.
    12. Being told the tables are reserved, and no customers come in to claim them during our entire meal.
    13. Getting passed over to teach an advanced licensing exam class, while males just out of college with NO teaching experience got put into that fast track assignment.
    14. Having het women acting like awful fearful jackasses around my partner and me in public
    15. Being cheated at car dealerships and outright overcharged for years, before I finally learned to fight back
    16. Putting up with the dumb questions hets ask lesbians all the time, including “Were you ever sexually attracted to a man?” (That last question was asked at the end of 2011, and I said “Try anything and I’m going to stomp you to death!” –man got up and left me alone after brutal threat of violence).
    17. Getting bad service at a lot of retail places, getting worse service when I’m with my partner
    18. Overhearing nasty comments about lesbians when I sit down in a restaurant
    19. Being bored to death when het women go on and on and on about their genius drug addicted sons— “Oh but he scored so high on his SATs” (This has happened more times than you can imagine
    19. b. Being expected to have an attitude of sympathy about the drug addicted idiot boy when I think he should be thrown in jail!
    20. Having het people tell me how great their weddings were — don’t EVEN bring that subject up in front of me if you expect your head to remain on your shoulders.
    21. I think 20 items is enough for one blog post.

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  3. I must say, I love this post and I am very happy that someone (especially you) has decided to write about it.

    I have a number of comments but I keep going back to the conversation I had with Grace as a WSR Salon in the Fall. We were talking about the inflection in my voice that tends to go higher than the “typical” male voice. It is my tell, as you so eloquently put, that I am gay.

    I hate to say, I don’t tend to be ashamed of my body (in the serious sense) but when it comes to my voice, I am very insecure. Although I can sit there and perform an aspect of the global North, heterosexual male the moment I speak, the “jig is up!”

    I also wanted to say that I too am guilty of saying things to you like “I love the way you say that” or “You’re voice is just too cute!” Please know, I see how it can make you feel (as I feel that way too) and I am sorry if I stepped over the line.

    We all have things about ourselves that we wish we could change or just do away with all together, but for the sake of our identity as both feminists and queers, when it comes to our voices, we have to speak up and speak up often.

    Bravo Amanda. Your post is brilliant, as usual :)

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    • John, thank you so much for your comment, compliment, and your support. I really take to heart what you say in your last paragraph. Thank you for that!

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    • John: I remember that conversation well – in talking about presence, authority, voice, etc. I had asked if your inflection was intentional and you had said yes. What we didn’t discuss then, though what you briefly mention here, is that you are nonetheless insecure about it.

      As you and Amanda both know (as students of mine) I do comment on both “form” and “content” of students’ presentations. I want students to know that the “how” of what they are saying is just as important as the “what” (i.e., I want them to learn to avoid the typical newbie academic trap of focusing so much on writing the paper that they spend little time actually practicing to give it orally). That includes eye contact, body posture, tempo of voice, etc.

      Re: regional accents, my advice (to everyone) is simply to be aware of what they connote to others, but NOT to actively work to “correct” them so long as what they are saying is understandable to others. I think differently, however, about foreign accents in cases where they preclude successful communication. More specifically, I’m not saying that people like my parents (who are native Taiwanese speakers) should try to attempt to speak the Queen’s English, but I still do encourage (for instance) my dad to change his pronunciation in cases where what he says is not understood by others (e.g., my dad has a habit of dropping the final consonant, so he will say things like “chay-ah” when he means to say “chaos”).

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  4. I just remembered that at Yale I was looked down upon for being from wild and free California by strait-laced students and faculty who were from the midwest, the south, and the east. Aren’t people wonderful? In the field of Religious Studies there were and are plenty of southern and midwestern accents. I have a friend who did take elocution lessons (in college I think) to lose her New York area accent and another who didn’t.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Carol. It’s interesting what people assume about certain regions or states. My family had that “Oh, you’re moving to CA where people are crazy!” reaction. I’m glad to hear that southerners were represeneted at Yale! :)

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  5. Since I am very musical, I find accents fascinating. I hear them more than most people, just as I might be the only one at a lunch group that hears what song is playing in the background.
    Southern accents are one of the last great targets of belittlement in the U.S. it seems… depending on what part of the country you are in.

    People are always going to say dumb things, because they often lack the imagination to say something more perceptive. If I go to the park, almost everyone says “That’s a BIG dog!” In several languages, but still a rather silly thing to say.

    Every once in awhile something amazing will happen. The day a little girl came up and knew the breed of dog, and had no fear of it. What a delightful smart little girl! Of course I told her: “That was a very intelligent thing to say. Keep studying!” I figure this one comment might offset the deluge of “pink princess” comments she’s likely to hear everywhere.

    It’s hard to say what would cause people to just be ok with how people nationwide speak, or if the north got over its fussiness about southern accents. Elocution lessons? I guess it’s always something someone is going to say, but at least it isn’t some man blocking your progress at work.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Turtle Woman. I agree, it is difficult to factor what would actually change the general perception of people with accents. I think that within the academy we are expected to speak a certain universal language. Hopefully through conversations and active listening, people can have a different perspective of southerners, in my instance. I like the way you encouraged the little girl – That’s awesome! I know from growing up in the South, the “pink princess” is definitely hard to escape!

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  6. I am glad you decided to keep your accent. I hung on to mine for as long as it would stay. But I also want to say, I always ask people where they are from (particularly when they have an accent) because I love knowing and I love celebrating the varieties of speech that we have.
    Kahena

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    • Hi Kahen,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I often find myself curious of other accents as well, and I think it is totally okay to inquire in a polite way. However, what I hate the most is when people do not let me respond and they often try to “place” me somewhere in the South. I literally had an argument with a woman who just knew I was from Dallas, TX. haha. I think it is important to celebrate the varieties of speech as well! :)

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  7. Since this is the first article I’ve read on this subject from a personal point of view, perhaps it will open up the discussion more. I’m not sure if there is a universal language anywhere— college campuses or companies. What would it be like? The flat dull midwestern accent I use? Academic speak that I read in papers and occasionally hear at academic panel discussions, which really does seem foreign and odd to me most of the time— and these are American born academics….?

    What would be really neat would be a kind of openness to just let women speak, in whatever way works for the speaker. What would make you feel the most powerful as a communicator? How could everyone decide to be more discerning? Is it rude to ask where someone is from? Depends on how it’s done. I find it is about conversational imagination, which I thought was in abundance on college campuses generally. But since I’ve been out of school for eons, and only show up on campus now and then for a lecture or short workshop, who knows what’s possible.

    I do know that if I want I can use the exhausting “white straight male” form of business speak, and it seems to calm down the dragons. They can’t take female speak, so I’ll sink to this level to get the point across. Would you want to keep your accent and not change it? What would you beneift from it? ‘White male speak” got me my first multi-million dollar deal, but then again, I had the telephone advantage so they wouldn’t freak out at dyke me. You can never win at times, and then you can now and then.

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  8. This is such serendipity, as I am reading “Voicing Chicana Feminisms” by Aida Hurtado. In discussing the challenge of writing in ‘her own voice’ she quotes AnaLouise Keating:

    “I am a product of the US University system. I have learned to mask my own agenda–my own desires for social justice, spiritual transformations and cultural change–in academic language…. If I incorporate the personal into my words, perhaps I won’t be respected as a scholar. Or maybe you’ll think that I’m vain, egocentric and selfish… Or maybe I’ll sound stupid, unsophisticated, naiive…But one of the most important things I’ve learned from reading and teaching Anzaldua’s works is the importance of risking the personal.”

    For all we learn in the academic world, we are also pressured into fitting ourselves into many moulds in order to look and sound ‘the part’, and I think doubly so as women who are also expected to be smart, and strong and pretty and articulate … but not TOO much so. You are crossing perceived borders – an educated Southern woman who dares to keep her speech along with her words. Brava. The academic world need to be broadened bit by bit, not narrowed by convention. You do not need speech therapy. Your peers would do well with deconstructing some of their own beliefs about intellect, however.

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