I am from Williamsburg, which is along the southern coast of Virginia. The area of Williamsburg that I live in contains a wide range of cultures and landscapes stuffed into this medium sized town. While driving down one stretch of road, the scenery could switch from farmland to mansions to an urban setting within 6 miles. Because of these close quarters, conflict between different groups of people is unavoidable. I noted one typical situation in my field notes that I found on twitter.
Go on twitter and see
The person who tweeted this is of Indian descent, but is native born in America, so she does not have an accent. In response to this tweet, a user wrote “Imagine somebody tweeting ‘To everyone with a ridiculously Indian accent: you sound dumb’ what would you do exactly?” The original poster responded back saying that if this comment was made, he would be a racist. I found this tweet interesting because it evoked a ‘twitter war’ on my feed. Most of the tweets that appeared on my feed were in favor of the twitter user rebutting the original post.
I did not participate in this twitter war, but I did discuss this tweet with some of my friends from high school attending other colleges. This particular user has a history of evoking conflict on twitter by calling out other users on the grounds of white privilege and producing posts like the one above, bashing people who have no control over there accent. When someone tried to question her like the second user did above, the race card is pulled. I find these situations extremely frustrating because there is no need for the post in general, and the use of race to defend oneself after attacking another group of people for how they speak is hypocritical.
After calming my emotions to the subject, I decided to look into the question, “why it is common to hear a southern accent and immediately believe the person of lesser intelligence?” Neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields, discusses experiments in his article Why Does a Southern Drawl Sound Uneducated to Some? that contain possible answers to my question. He finds that, “Numerous studies show that we instantly attach cultural stereotypes and subjective judgments about people’s knowledge and abilities from hearing their accent in speech.” This article explained why the twitter user assumed knowledge and accent were directly correlated, but not why the accent ultimately became associated with dimwitted people.
I experienced difficulty finding an article that directly addressed my question, but I did notice a pattern in the type of articles that popped up. They all discussed the media and its shaping of our view of southerners. What I have learned from school and personal experience is that in the south, communities often develop strong attachment to their churches for religion and also as a community gathering/ social event. With this, the community becomes closely knit and hospitable; everyone knows everyone, and they take care of each other like a family would take care of its own. In addition, an article in Forbes found that the education gap in the South is shrinking. “Over the past decade, the number of college graduates in Austin and Charlotte grew by a remarkable 50%; Baton Rouge, Nashville, Houston, Tampa, Dallas and Atlanta all expanded their educated populations by 35% or more.” So if the South is producing educated and equally qualified people, then why has reality TV shows about ‘redneck culture’ dramatically increased in popularity? Shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Swamp People, Duck Dynasty and Hillbilly Handfishin’ represent southerners as ignorant and crude people who only spend their time fishing with their bare hands, eating fried foods, and using improper grammar. Even though these shows may be watched for entertainment, they are subconsciously constructing and planting an unflattering southern identity into the minds of the American Public.
I understand that I am biased in this situation because I come from a southern background, but this bias doesn’t change the fact that these stereotypes are hurtful and are out of hand. I am passionate about fighting this issue because there are instances where qualified people are not getting jobs just because of misconceptions of their accents. An accent does not define a person; words, emotions, thoughts, and opinions make people who they are, so before you judge, consider what the person is saying, rather than what it sounds like when they say it.