Re-reading my I Ain’t Dumb: Language Fluency and Perceptions of Intelligence post previously, I was inevitably reminded of the race and class issues on the same subject. You can see why: one of the stereotypes of Black people, historically—it was used as a justification for slavery—has been that they aren’t intelligent because they don’t talk right. Nevermind that it was the best that kidnapped Africans could do under the circumstances and it actually ended up being perfectly adequate—it was taken as something inevitable.
Slaves couldn’t speak right because they were too stupid to talk “proper English,” regardless of their native tongue, regardless of the fact that they were deliberately manipulated to be that way—given a chance to decide between whether it was biological or cultural, white people chose to believe that it was biological, because it shored up the power structure. And if it hadn’t been speech, it would have been something else—said kidnapped Africans being hard workers was used to justify their lack of intelligence, as was the fact that most Africans weren’t Christian. It would have been something, but because it was so obvious, the fact that they couldn’t talk right became the figurehead for everything that was stupid and ignorant and uncultured about African-descent people.
And it still exists, too, though now it’s oftened defined by negative space—an African-descent person who speaks with a middle- or upper-class accent is “articulate,” and “well-spoken,” even when there’s virtually no difference in wording.
The tradition has been faithfully upheld, too. I’m sure you can come up with examples just off the top of your head, and so can I—when the Chinese were shipped and kidnapped to be used in U.S. labor, the heavy Chinese accent was taken as evidence that they were extremely stupid, albeit cunning and manipulative. Irish and Italian immigrants, often used the same way, were seen as stupid for the same reasons: they couldn’t speak English fluently. The Polish were stupid, too—good for nothing more than manual labor. The Russians were stupid, enormous behemoths, and thugs on top of that. Blind people are stupid, as are deaf people and those with speech disorders. Et cetera.
Some are even less concrete than that—floating ideas, representations of the preality—an animated cartoon of a Native American, raising his hand and saying, “How.” Speedy Gonzales. Sven and Olga jokes. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Tonto (“stupid” in Spanish), who was cowardly, too.
Face it: Western society is all kinds of hung up on how you talk.
And a lot of that has driven the anti-Hispanic sentiment lately. How likely would it be that “LEARN ENGLISH, MORANS” would exist if Mexicans were portrayed as speaking midwestern English? And how much of the resentment aimed towards Mexicans is based on the idea that they speak broken, unaccented English?
Given how much and they don’t even speak English! is used as a constant refrain in anti-Hispanic rhetoric and opinions, I’m gonna bet that language bias is a huge, enormous part of that. Having the right accent decides so much of your worthiness and value in a community that if you don’t have it, you’ll be looked at with suspicion and wariness a priori—as a likely thief, lazy sonuva, con artist and general good-for-nothing.
And look at that list: how many of those stereotypes do we regularly apply to Mexicans? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to shift uncomfortably while a neighbor starts ranting about those thieving Mexicans will steal everything you have because they’re too lazy to work for a living—lol—and try not to interrupt with, “Um, my grandfather was full-blooded Mexican. My dad’s an ex-patriot. My brother’s visibly Hispanic. I have a Hispanic last name. You’re talking about me and my family when you say those things.”
Actually, my roommate, who’s half-Hispanic and passes depending on who’s looking at zem, has done that. Zie even used to have the stereotypical “Hispanic” accent, because zie grew up in the inner city in a largely Mexican and Latin@ area—but zie was moved by family out into the suburbs and had to adapt out of that accent to pass. I’m sure you’ve already realized the response zie’s gotten: “Well, you don’t sound like them.”
… Accents are a class and racial cipher key in modern-day U.S. to determine how worthy the person is of being around you, and being in the U.S. at all.