This morning I got acquainted with the immigrant anxiety felt by Chinese-American journalist Jiayang Fan about her desire to speak accentless English. In an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life, Jiayang participated in a game show designed around a talent she claims to possess: the unique ability, inspired by her anxiety, to tell at what age a Chinese-American person came to the United States. The show gave her recordings of three people to prove herself. (She got 0 out of 3.)
Nothing human is alien to me, and neither is Jiayang’s desire to blend in phonetically.
Growing up in the Dutch South, I wasn’t ever unaware of my accent, but it took me enrolling in Utrecht University to become fully aware of the effect it had on others. I could barely make it through class participation without someone chuckling in the back row of lecture hall. I decided that, on the very day I found housing in Utrecht, I would change my accent. These days, few people can tell I’m from the South. I like it that way.
Another thing I’ve always been afraid to sound was “black”. In the Netherlands, that usually means sounding like you were born and (partially) raised in an African country, Suriname, or the Antilles. With no such history, I’m silly to think I could ever fall into that category, which is a fine category in itself. Still, every now and then people will tell me I sound Surinamese. Unable to shake my internalized racism, I always find myself offended when they do.
Today’s episode reminded me of the duality of being a person of color in a conversation about speech. Like Jiayang, I find myself comparing my speech to that of other Black people, forming opinions on what I think is or isn’t “good”. At the same time, I would find it problematic if other, non-Black people were doing it for me. To me, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that distinction; it’s important people can tell their own story and not have it told for them. I’m just struck by the number of times I asked “babe, is this the example we want to give?”