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Accent Discrimination: Invisible Source of Social Bias
On April 3, 2009, an Asian American named Jiverly Wong shot and killed 13 people at the American Civic Association immigration center in Binghamton, New York, then turned a gun on himself. His victims included an ESL teacher and 12 immigrants who, like himself, had sought English language instruction at the Southern Tier facility.
In a paper published recently in the prestigious international journal World Englishes, professor of linguistics and director of South Asian languages Tej K. Bhatia asserts that the immigrant’s low English skills and the barriers and discrimination he experienced as a result could have motivated the worst mass killing in New York state.
“The way I see it, the key source of his trauma is the English language,” Bhatia explains. “Always society is mocking his acts and making fun of him. He shoots the other immigrants because he saw the English class as the oppressor.”
The trauma of constant discrimination takes a toll, Bhatia says. “There are people who are criticized and get traumatized,” he says. “They are shattered. In some psychological makeups, you can find other ways to combat that trauma. In this case, he could not.”
Wong’s deadly act highlights what Bhatia calls accent discrimination. It’s a form of discrimination at play when a reporter in 1992 asked then-U.S. presidential candidate Bill Clinton why–despite attending Oxford University and Yale Law School–the Arkansas-born politician talked “like a hillbilly.” President Trump recently called Alabama-born Attorney General Jeff Sessions “a dumb southerner.” Accent discrimination also played a part in the Ebonics controversy of 1996, when critics said calling African American Vernacular English a legitimate language devalued standard English in schools and society.
“Accent, intelligibility, mental health, and trauma,” published this month, comes amid the United States’ increasingly polarized debate about immigration–an atmosphere Bhatia fears could traumatize people who do not speak standard English. “These problems have been amplified now because of the heightened tension in this country,” Bhatia says. “In this political context, there is more and more evidence of intolerance. This discrimination will become more pronounced.”
Accent discrimination “is the most powerful and overlooked feature responsible for social discrimination,” Bhatia says. “We talk about gender and height and ethnicity. Language is the most invisible and powerful source of discrimination and we don’t talk about it.”
Southerners, Latinos, African Americans and others often make an effort to change–or eliminate–their accents through language lessons or cosmetic surgery. But accents have a biological aspect, and after puberty, it’s very hard to change them, he explains.
“If you do, you are shedding your identity,” he says. “Second, it’s not do-able. Third, it’s unnatural. No matter what happens, your natural accent will show up in unconscious speech.”
Accents are more about social biases than language itself, he adds: “The implication is, ‘You don’t belong to my club. You are subordinate to me.’”
The “desirable” accent in a certain society is that of the powerful. “The language and accents of prestigious and dominant people are viewed as prestigious and powerful simply because they are used by powerful groups,” he writes. “Conversely, the language of the less powerful and lower-status groups is often characterized as ‘non-standard’ and ‘improper’ language, which often becomes an object of ridicule or stigmatization.”
When people point out or mock an accent, “you cannot underestimate the trauma,” Bhatia says. “Your self is shattered the moment you are mocked.”
The topic hits home for Bhatia, who was born in India and has lived in the United States most of his adult life. “If I try to shed my Indian accent, it would take a toll on myself professionally with South Asians,” he explains.
Bhatia encourages diversity programs to add accent and language discrimination to their agendas. “It’s fascinating because it touches on social biases on the deepest level where we sometimes cannot even articulate it,” he says. “People get very defensive about it, but deep down we do it. If we are serious about diversity, this topic cannot be overlooked.”