When I was growing up, all I wanted was a Southern accent. I am from a small town in Western North Carolina, so I figured I was all set. By and large, though, my parents’ past in Chicago ruined my chances, and my accent is limited to certain words and phrases.
As I have grown up, this personal desire for a Southern accent has cut sharply against the realization that many other people do not share my longing. Instead, on campus and outside of the rural South more generally, vaguely rude comments such as “How could anyone ever live here?” are more common than you might expect once you start paying attention to them.
I mostly hear comments about my small town. Although many come from a place of genuine curiosity, the ones that rub me the wrong way seem to insinuate that there is something wrong with the people in my town, that this is not the correct way to live a modern life or just generally imply a sense of less-than.
The small accent that I do have tends to only really come out at home, and I am sure that part of this is a response to the strong accents around me. However, code-switching is also an acknowledgement of the comments I mentioned briefly above. Southern accents have long been viewed as markers of class and intelligence. My Southern friends have mentioned to me how people remark on their accent and many have told me they actively try to lose the accent on campus. It is easier to be perceived as competent without it.
And honestly, these sorts of phenomena make me a little peeved. They taint something I have always considered cool, even beautiful. In the South, accents vary regionally and tie people together in how they talk. In a way, people with accents literally carry where they are from and the people that raised them with them in the very words that they say.
I think that Southern accents and people’s reactions to them are a small part of the rural-urban divide in the U.S., which is perhaps a small part of the polarization we see in our politics.
Maybe changing how we think and talk about rural places in the South and the people that live in them can be a part of the solution. When people from different places converse, Southern accents and people with them have the potential to catch others off guard sometimes in a wonderful way. They can turn any sort of stereotype about the rural South on its head.
However, people also need to be willing to listen. You don’t have to love my town or want to live there. Maybe parts of my life there baffle you or seem so out of touch with what you are used to. But the realization that a Southern accent is not indicative of lower intelligence or a certain political stance, and is not grounds for condescension, is a starting point to better conversations. When everyone feels respected, we can really talk about issues.
It’s a small place to start in the face of seemingly insurmountable political and cultural polarization, but isn’t at least some of what we argue about based on misperceptions, or feeling misunderstood?
The commonplace of the victim narrative for all sorts of people on both sides of the aisle certainly suggests so. And if people are willing to look past the accent, not that they should have to, maybe they will be surprised or at least learn something.