“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?