On my way to a paid gig, my Lyft driver bombarded me with an unsolicited conversation about himself and the weather. I noticed that he spoke with a delayed tone, going out of his way to over-enunciate his words. He assumed that because I didn’t have an American accent that I must be visiting from somewhere else and didn’t speak English. “You see, here in Los Angeles,” he started, despite the fact that English is my first language and I’ve lived in the United States for a decade.
“So, you have an accent. Where are you from?” he asked, screwing up his face. When I said it was none of his business, his tone switched. He got disgusted and immediately kicked me out of his car. I was not only late to my destination but also unable to work as a paid audience member for a network television show. (If you show up late, you get turned away.)
In tears on my way home, I realized the severity of what happened. I got kicked out of a Lyft for the first time, which caused me to miss out financially. This domino effect occurred only because the driver couldn’t respect me and my accent.
It wasn’t the first time my national origin has caused a backlash from American strangers. On countless occasions, I’ve had my voice mocked, I’ve gotten demands to do free labor at a moment’s notice, and people have even threatened to call ICE on me. These incidents usually follow the same phrase the Lyft driver said to me that day: “You have an accent.” Something that should be harmless on the surface becomes a gateway to more visceral — and, at times, dangerous — situations.
The statement “you have an accent” normalizes a xenophobic, narcissistic way of thinking across the country. Whether intentional or not, it perpetuates toxic ideas of how someone “should” sound. By definition, an accent is a specific way someone speaks a language. Everyone has an accent; it just varies based on where you’re from.
Regardless, the Lyft driver thought that since I had an accent, I was automatically an outsider. It’s important to note that he didn’t fit the older White male trope we often tie to these racist moments. Pablo was a light-skinned Latino in his mid-thirties at the oldest. Sadly, he wasn’t the first non-White person to talk down to me in this way. Whether Asian, Muslim, or Black, Americans from various racial and cultural backgrounds have commented on my accent by saying things like, “Oh, and you still have that accent,” or, “Oh, and you still don’t sound like us.” As seen in the ongoing diaspora wars, weaponizing our differences creates a more profound, unnecessary division, forming a vicious cycle. Not only is much of it rooted in ignorance, but it also does nothing to challenge the originators of discrimination — White supremacists — accountable.
When I tell an American that they also have an accent, the response is usually hostile. At my restaurant job, a Black male customer snapped, “If I had an accent, you would be able to hear me and know where I’m from. So since you think I have one, tell me when I’m from!” He stormed off when I said the United States.
Making American accents the default implies that there’s a problem with the billions of people who don’t speak a specific way. It demands that people around the world absorb mannerisms from a country they might not even visit and that there’s inherently something wrong with them if they fail to do so. Believing you don’t have an accent creates a toxic, U.S.-centric standard of what should be considered normal. It’s the reason many have self-righteously said the following to me:
“Why are you speaking with that fake accent?”
“You need to learn how to speak English properly.”
“You’re not supposed to say it like that. You’re supposed to say it like this. I’m not gonna stop until you say it right.”
“I like Idris Elba because he can switch between speaking in a British accent to a regular accent.”
While many don’t want to admit it, there’s a direct link between these microaggressions and the more prominent issues immigrants face. These statements can be a stepping-stone for more extreme forms of discrimination — smaller pieces in a bigger puzzle that results in deportation, denial of services, and other forms of violence.
A previous living situation quickly got violent when I called out my roommate for forgetting to pay rent. They mocked my accent excessively before saying, “So you think because you’re not from here that you’re better than me?” They then proceeded to charge at me and hit me in the head. I continued to be the source of blame after the fact, and received justice — and safety — only when I moved out and filed a restraining order.
Unfortunately, mine isn’t an isolated incident. Whether they verbally abuse Spanish speakers or physically assault Asians, some Americans feel more emboldened than ever to propel their disdain for “foreigners” with violence. If I ever were to leave the country — though I have no immediate plans to do so — these not-so-micro-aggressions would be the main reason why. While I’ve had many great moments in the United States, I’d be lying if I said my accent hasn’t significantly shaped my negative experiences.
If we are to move forward, it starts by letting go of mindsets that reduce immigrants to “people with funny accents.” The truth is we all sound “funny” to someone. It’s ignorant to believe you don’t have an accent just because you’re surrounded by people who mainly sound like you. Our differences should be embraced, not used as racist ammunition.
You can like how I speak and still disrespect me — these are not mutually exclusive things.
You don’t have to like how I sound, but it doesn’t give you the right to compromise my safety, meddle with my finances, or negatively impact a fun night out. I, nor any other immigrant, shouldn’t have doctor visits, job interviews, or grocery shopping disrupted. Even if you like my accent, that doesn’t justify mocking me. I don’t care how much you love (insert British artist or television show here) or want to learn to sound like me, switching into your terrible version of an English accent will never make me feel good. You can like how I speak and still disrespect me — these are not mutually exclusive things. It wouldn’t be okay if the tables turned on you.
As we step into this new decade, we must continue to challenge what’s been the norm for years. Many people worldwide are perfectly content with how they sound. Despite what country I live in, I have no desire to assimilate, even though countless people think I should. I refuse to cater to beliefs that tie a specific accent to the level of humanity someone should receive. This country has long prided itself on being a nation welcome to immigrants. To what extent is this true when many can’t respectfully speak to someone who doesn’t have the same accent as them?
Just like any other form of discrimination, it is not the responsibility of the recipients to eliminate the problem. If anything needs to change, it’s the attitude many Americans have — one that implies that their voices are standard, while everyone else worldwide “talks funny.” To believe otherwise is to buy into a very backward, colonial, and White supremacist way of thinking that many are fighting to unlearn.
For the brief time I was his passenger, Pablo missed a learning opportunity. Instead of recognizing that immigrant women don’t exist for his entertainment, he decided to abuse the little power he had and “punish” me for not wanting to speak to him. This nation needs to welcome immigrants in a way that exists beyond disingenuous ad campaigns and political speeches. It requires welcoming internationals as we are, whether or not we sound like you.