Mocking accents spreads unjust, offensive stereotypes

Sharada Vishwanath, Graphics Coordinator

I was sitting in class when the person next to me began to imitate an Indian accent. At first it seemed like lighthearted fun, but when they mentioned the words “curry” and “cheaper,” I grew annoyed. When people imitate non-European accents they often begin to incorporate rude comments that can be offensive to many people.

When people imitate accents, they often include stigmas about the race, ethnicity or culture which they are mocking. The notorious case of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (a completely nonsensical South Asian last name), a character from “The Simpsons,” perfectly highlights the issue with mocking accents. According to a New York Times article “The Simpsons’ Responds to Criticism About Apu With a Dismissal,” “The Simpsons” responded with “a dismissive nod that earned the show more criticism.” “The Simpsons” have also received a lot backlash for making other racist and culturally inappropriate comments in their script. In a season 13 episode, the shows depicts Brazil as a place crime ridden with “bisexual predetors”, filled with slums and kidnappers.

The thing that the writers didn’t take into account is that the issue wasn’t really the accent itself. Simply having Apu talk in an American accent won’t solve anything; it’s the stigma that comes from applying the accent in the way that they did that makes it offensive. Yes, it’s incredibly difficult to create a show whose humor is poking fun at political events without offending someone along the way. But at a certain point, lines must be drawn.

It isn’t just Indian accents. Most accents have some kind of stereotype attached to them. But while European accents are found to be sophisticated and elegant, other non-white accents are found to be uncouth or crude. Sure people poke fun at British  accents, but when they do so it’s never with the intention of making it sound unrefined, as it is with other accents.

The thing about mocking accents is that we often dismiss how hurtful they can be under the pretense of  “it was a joke” or “all in good fun.” But for people who have relations to accent issues, they can be hurtful. Throughout my time in school, there have been countless times I’ve heard friends imitate a variety of accents, usually paired with associated stereotypes, which after a while, become unnecessary and tiring.

Sophomore Sarah Saeed is a second generation Pakistani American whose parents speak with an accent.

“I feel like the view on European accents is that they are classy or desirable, and accents that are usually associated with the working class, like Latino accents, Asian accents or African accents are found to be ‘dirty’ or ‘lower class,’” Saeed said. “That’s because those minority groups are treated lower in society and their accents are associated with something undesirable.”

When people mock accents, it’s hard for me not to take it personally, because my parents constantly struggle with dealing with accent issues. Being immigrants from India, they become excessively self conscious when they speak to white people. They obsess over pronunciation and the way they sound, for fear that their worth will be measured by the way they speak, not what they say. My parents have often experienced certain judgemental expressions or degrading subtle comments to indicate that the other person is, in a way, discriminating against them.

Sophomore Jasmine Castillo often speaks for her Guatemalan parents in an attempt to “avoid getting looks” from Americans because of their broken English.

“This one time my Mom decided to speak up and ask for something in a store and instantly the mood shifted, the other person became so uncomfortable and rude in the situation,” Castillo said.  “She actually mocked the accent to her face. I became very upset because that’s twisted and unacceptable.”

Saeed also notices the struggles her parents face being immigrants to America from Pakistan.

“My mom used to substitute in schools, and the white students used to make fun of her accent,” Saeed said. “She felt really self conscious because she’s been here for 20 years and she’s just as much American as anyone else. She knows English really well, it’s just that she happens to have an accent, but she’s judged for that.”

The term “Linguistic Profiling” or “Accent Discrimination” describes the judgement people, particularly people of color, face because of their manner of speaking. According to a study about linguistic profiling through the phone done by Professor John Baugh in St. Louis, people looking for employers made racist or discriminatory comments through the phone at those with diverse sounding dialects, rejecting their chance to be employed solely based on their voice.

Mocking accents and applying stigmas about that race is incredibly degrading and condescending. It indicates that the person mocking believes that people of that race are not sophisticated enough to speak properly.  It implies that they somehow think it’s hilarious to speak with an accent, and that despite people with accents having to drop their native linguistic roots and adapt to this newer foreign method of speaking, if people are still unable to speak perfect English, that indicates some lack of intelligence.

But people can’t just completely let go of their linguistic roots.

“It’s so unrealistic to just drop everything you learned and grew up with to make everyone else comfortable,” Castillo said. “Just because they aren’t used to something that’s not from here, something different, they shouldn’t judge it.”

But what is an accent anyways? At the end of the day, everyone has an accent, different ways of accentuating different sounds, and there is really no such thing as an perfect American accent.

Mocking accents can be funny, as long as you are sure everyone around you is fine with it, and definitely as long as you don’t apply stigmas to the sentences you speak. But generally, accents aren’t something to make fun of or laugh at, they are something that a person is probably very aware of and does not intentionally carry with them.