By Sienna Hewavidana
CN: Racism, prejudice
Accents are invisible.
Or at least – I believed they were. Growing up in my household, I had become deaf to my parent’s strong Srilankan accents. I believed they sounded like me; eloquent, well spoken, articulate – and most importantly – English. Normal.
When I was 11, my mother trialled as a teaching assistant in my class. As she introduced herself, suddenly, amplified for all to hear, was a strong Srilankan accent. In a room full of well-spoken white children, my mother was an alien. Her foreign accent was a foghorn filling my ears- I couldn’t understand where it had come from. Had she really always spoken so abnormally? Why couldn’t she pronounce these words? She stuttered over a word and it felt as if the class simultaneously all nudged each other. Shrinking into myself, I prayed for her to stop talking. In that moment, I realised the gaping difference between her and everyone else.
She was Srilankan. Foreign. Alien.
Nothing is ever truly invisible.
After that defining episode, I took it upon myself to ‘save’ my mother from humiliation. It was as if I was the brave (white) knight saving the poor (brown) princess. Whenever she spoke loudly in public, I would shush her. Take over whenever she struggled. Rolled my eyes at her out-of-place, in-your-face accent and gently, but in hindsight, condescendingly, corrected her. In public, I jumped through hoops to illustrate that I was not “one of them”: I was intelligent, sophisticated, advanced, civilised. I was white.
To me, intelligence and English were intrinsically woven. The image carved of brown accents is of oppression and unintelligence – the slums, urinating in the street and arranged marriages. For a long time, I truly believed this. I feared people would hear my mother’s accent and shun her for her foreignness. It took me a while to realise that what I was shushing was more than an accent. I was shushing my culture, rolling my eyes at my history, cringing at my origins. I shushed brownness in the fear that I would be tainted by it.
* * *
I now realise that as the daughter of immigrants, I have always walked a tightrope of being both English and Srilankan. My accent is without a doubt the former; although my parents are Srilankan, I was born and raised in Kent which borders Essex. The Essex and Kent accent are almost identical which, I’m sorry to break it to you, means that I possess that stereotypical ‘uneducated’ and ‘bimbo’ accent much reviled in the media.
When I arrived in Cambridge, bright-eyed and desperate to fit in, suddenly the tables were turned. Now, it was my accent that was being amplified for everyone to snigger at. The foghorn that people would raise an eyebrow at. Years of media revulsion about The Only Way is Essex (who could forget Martin Freeman’s condescending headshake when Towie won a BAFTA) meant that everyone held a preconceived notion of my intelligence. For my first term, I recoiled and deliberately silenced my ‘bimbo’ accent. I spoke eloquently. I used no slang. And I never let the word “init”- that famous signifier of poverty, lower class and ugliness – escape from my lips.
It took me far longer than I am proud of to realise that history was repeating itself.
Now that I was the one cowering from my own accent, I realised what I had done to my mother. Had I really sneered at her like that? Had I made her too ashamed to speak in public? I had gagged her, silenced her. I had censored a fundamental part of who she was. I truly believed that I had been saving my mother from other people’s mockery – but in saving her, I was destroying her identity.
In that moment I came to realise that an accent is more than an accent.
It is a story.
To my mother: I am sorry. Your accent is a work of art, rich and complex, crafted over centuries. It is a story of your country, culture, history and what is everything special about Srilanka. When I hear it, I hear with intent, I no longer cower. I remember the palm trees, the blazing heat and the people whose accents signify that they are my people and not my enemies. I wish I had known that to proudly speak with an accent – whether it be an Essex or Srilankan – when you are told not to is an act of bravery and defiance. Wear your brown, uncivilised, coarse accent with pride and I will not shun you. I will listen.