MAXWELL:  Discrimination on the basis of accent

6/7/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A colleague of mine at the St. Petersburg Times and her husband lived in Lansing, Mich., during the late 1970s. She, a New Yorker, wrote for the Detroit News. He, a Southerner, was a law student.

They rented an upscale apartment on the river near the governor’s mansion. One night while they were shopping, a clerk asked for their address. After the husband gave it, a prosperous-looking man in earshot blurted, “How in the world did you get a place like that with an accent like that?”

In her best New York accent, my colleague dressed down the stranger. “Based on (my husband’s) accent, he obviously thought we were hayseeds,” she says now. “That was by far the worst example of “accent bias’ (my husband) ever encountered. But so many people made fun of his accent over the years _ including some of his classmates _ that he and I were very glad to leave the place as soon as law school was over.”

What my colleague’s husband experienced occurs all too often and in too many places when people _ especially Northerners _ hear the sweet tone of the Southern drawl. Misunderstood, castigated and mimicked, the Southern accent can bring ostracism, hurt, anger and feelings of inferiority that may last a lifetime.

Even President Bill Clinton, the most powerful man on earth, is ridiculed as a “Bubba” because of the Dixieland in his voice.

When I was an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a Mississippian, his drawl as slow as a summer afternoon, was in one of my classes. The first time he participated in a discussion, a hush fell over the room. After he stopped speaking, several students laughed.

“Who is that? Gomer Pyle?” a Bostonian asked, pointing. The Southerner was mortified. I felt his pain and clumsily said something perfunctory about a university campus and respect for the cultures of others.

He never missed a day. But he never participated in another discussion.

North Carolina native Charles Hadley, a teacher at Queens College in Charlotte and a dialect coach for the movies, has experienced his share of put-downs while working up North. “It’s, “Oh, those poor little darling Southerners,’ ” he said in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I have literally seen people lose jobs because of their Southern accents. There’s really nothing wrong with having a Southern accent _ as long as you don’t have to use it in business outside the South.”

Michael Montgomery, an English and linguistics professor at the University of South Carolina, agrees, arguing that most Americans think nothing of discriminating against dialects and accents.

“The message given to people is: If you want to get a job anywhere in the country and increasingly in the South, don’t talk like a Southerner,” he told the Times-Dispatch. “We’re supposed to live in an enlightened age. They haul you into court for discriminating on the basis of race, gender or creed, but an accent is supposed to indicate your intelligence. . . . Those prejudices and stereotypes are stronger than ever.”

Here at the Times, Southerners whose accents are as thick as homemade molasses surround me. Take Robert Friedman, deputy editor of editorials, for whom I work. A Georgia native, he has a moderately heavy drawl. I am always amused when readers are shocked to learn that this man with a Jewish name and who writes brilliantly is not, as one man said, “your prototypical New York Jew.”

Harriet and Mike Abrahm, both native Alabamians who are Jews, have similar encounters. People think that they, too, should be from New York. Harriet, executive director of the Florida West Coast American Jewish Committee, has one of the most beautiful Southern accents I have ever heard. Many people discount her intelligence until they realize that they have done exactly what she expects _ and wants _ of them.

Mike, a lawyer, loves to litigate against his silk-suited Yankee peers. By underestimating his intelligence, these hotshots suffer the agony of defeat every time. And Mike? He smiles self-deprecatingly all the while.

My boss, Phil Gailey, is a Georgia boy with a thick accent. Often, visitors to the editorial board _ the governor, presidential advisers, senators and representatives, bank presidents, big-time lawyers, scientists _ are taken aback when Phil demonstrates easy familiarity with difficult subjects.

This element of surprise _ the underestimation of the Southerner’s intelligence _ is a recurring theme in the comments of my Southern colleagues at the Times and elsewhere.

Lucy Morgan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for tough articles exposing a corrupt sheriff and his cronies, has a heavy, musical drawl. As our Tallahassee bureau chief, she has thought long and hard about being dismissed.

“All of the good ol’ boys presume that I have no brain _ until it’s too late,” she said. “Actually, I think it has helped me over the long haul to be underestimated. Some people don’t like that, but it’s fine with me if people want to think that my brain is as slow as my drawl. . . . Being underestimated is good for reporters in many instances. I suspect that black reporters are often underestimated, too. I tell them to expect it and build on it.”

Florida native James Harper, a reporter whose accent booms across the room, agrees with Lucy: “In an adversarial situation, it can be an advantage when people underestimate you. That’s an old Southern trick used by whites and blacks.”

Times editorial writer Sharon Bond, who was born in Georgia and reared in North Carolina, pointed out yet another burden that comes with having a Southern drawl: Northerners assume that anyone with the Southern accent must be a racist. Even worse, Sharon learned as a college student in New Jersey the awful truth of historian Henry Steele Commanger’s observation that “every Southerner is held responsible for the entire South.”

My good friend Stephen Jackson, an Alabamian who teaches journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, offers an amusing twist on the Southern drawl. Having spent many years in Colombia, Steve speaks fluent Spanish.

His problem? “I even speak Spanish with a Southern accent,” he said. “Vamos, y’all! I always say in Spanish, meaning “Let’s go, you all.’ Colombians are very patient with me. They know that I’m a gringo speaking Spanish. Unlike Americans, they are not judging my intelligence by my accent _ as far as I can tell.”