geography, accent and self-worth:
a letter to my fellows

by hanieh haji molana

(content warning: this submission contains themes of medical imagery,
colonialism, discussions of historical anti-Black racism)

This is not autobiography.
This is not a work of fiction.
This is therapy.

She raises her hand to answer a question for the first time. She always has an answer in her mind, but shyness weighs her down, like a paperweight on her hand. She is ashamed of the way she sounds. Today, she vows to herself, will be different. When the professor asks everyone in class, “What were some aspects you thought could be expanded on in this week’s readings?” she puts aside her fears and anxieties and volunteers an answer.

“Maybe more discussion on teories.”
Professor: “What? Tourism?”
“No. Teories.”
“Sorry, what again? Tourists?”
“No…” Blushing, she spells out “T-H-E-O-R-I-E-S.”
“Aaahhh, you mean THeories. Good. Though ‘tourism’ would have
been a better answer.”

She looks down and turns an even deeper red. She remains silent for the rest of the semester.

She has no friends in class and does not know anyone. She guesses that none of her fellow students even know her name. They are all native-born, she thinks, judging from their looks, from the confidence and ease with which they raise their hands to offer up a noncommittal guess in response to the professor’s next question. She’s not even listening anymore, only cursing herself. Why do I bother?

This is new for her. Three months after landing in this country, she is still too embarrassed to attend office hours, or to ask the student next to her in class where he found the cheap copy of the textbook. At home she had been outgoing with her peers, charming with her teachers. She had been an extrovert in the classic sense. Now, nothing matters as much as the way she sounds. Which is foreign. Dumb.

Immediately after class ends, she walks swiftly to the bathroom, hides herself and cries. In that moment, the bathroom is the only safe place. Walking back to her dorm, she is full of self-hate: hating her body, her skin, the way she looks and the way she sounds.

Why am I an angry person? This is the question that always seems to haunt me. The anger seeps into my professional life, my home life. I was never like this, not before. They say ignorance is bliss. We educate ourselves, lose our ignorance piece by piece, and what happens to our bliss? We either harden our hearts, replace bliss with cynicism, or else —? a gap opens up inside. As a woman, a minority, an immigrant, I have a foot in my old world, a foot scraping the edge of my new world, and in between, a chasm. Before people ask my name, their first question is, ahh, you have a nice accent. Where is it from? And then, maybe, my name. Where does this come from, the gap between my body and myself?

The answer is, of course, multitudinous. Factors big and small. There is race; sex and gender expression; nationality; language; politics, global and local; religion; generation; class. There are thousands of scholars who can speak with great eloquence on these topics. But for me, there is one factor that always intersects with each of those. I find that it is not often taken into account. Maybe this one issue seems trivial, even pales in comparison to the aforementioned demographic components. Yet I find it affects life in a quotidian way, fills the gaps in my day and my subconscious, complicating what used to be simple, the life I had inherited and took for granted. This thing I am speaking of is my accent.

Maybe a simple check-in with yourself can help you to answer these questions. When you meet someone new, how do you reckon their intelligence or skillset? Are they professional or unsophisticated? Trustworthy or mischievous? At an academic conference, how often do you see the panelist who speaks English with an accent? Do you hear them and think Good for them, their English is surprisingly clear? In your mind, are they an authority on the subject, or is there some room for doubt?

Your style of accent gives your body, and your body of work, a “worth.” Who in this country, who in the world, do we value the most? Is a speaker’s prestige enhanced in your mind if they sound like the anchor on the nightly news? (Though you may still detect a hint of that Southern twang…) Do you consider them erudite from the beginning, no questions asked, if they deliver their talk in polite, pithy British tones? Does the timbre of their French accent render them sophisticated, nonchalant? Is it the accent itself or the place they represent? Western or not? Colonized or colonizer?

I would hazard a guess that, let’s be honest, on the whole, we are unconsciously more attracted toward the one with a British accent than someone whose style of speaking was born in the Middle East or Asia. It is hard for me not to interpret this as a hold-over from colonialism. We are forced to abandon the self for the sake of the “right body.” There is a perceived superiority of whiteness: white skin, white culture, white language. We find ourselves, even momentarily, understanding the truth of the Black man entering France, as described by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks: “He [an African-American man] proves himself through his language.” Whether consciously or not, I find myself acting white, like that man or woman on the sitcom or the news. I try so hard to diminish the gap of otherness that I can palpably feel during each interaction with my white friends. I can put highlights in my hair. I can dress like the women on my block. I can decorate my house to make it look like a California home goods catalog. But the one part of myself I can’t hide is my voice, that is, if I am to speak.

Some universities have accent workshops with friendly, anodyne titles like English Language Proficiency Clinics to reduce apparent confusion in the classroom. Have you attended any of them? Were any of the participants Caucasian scholars with thick New England or Southern accents? Or were the majority non-Western international students who had passed the TOEFL and yet had somehow not measured up to a subjective standard of speaking? We always see workshops trying to reduce some faculty’s accent
in order to make it easier for students to understand lectures. As a geographer, it begs the question, why are we not simultaneously expanding our students’ competency in different accents and their origins? Isn’t accent a reflection of culture and history? Aren’t we taught to embrace diversity? Is this forced assimilation?

Many critics term our society “post-racial.” The truth is that colonial attitudes are so embedded in everyday policy making and practices, within and without the academy, that we don’t necessarily find accent reduction courses colonial or racialized. By acquiescing, we are grading our bodies, and importing others’ standards for measuring our self-worth. Who is a better teacher? What qualities do they embody? Maybe white and with a light accent.

Emotional experience guides political thinking and decision-making. Emotions are gendered, and social mores confine them to specific spaces. This is acceptable in the classroom, that is fine at home. A foreign-born person should act just so in public: gracious, humble, agreeable.

Here, I’m not trying to solve any social issues. I am not making value judgments of non-native scholars in the Anglophone world. I am not putting anyone on a pedestal. I am trying to speak to the experience of non-native English speakers in academia who must cut through more than one layer of discrimination, sexism, racism, or xenophobia. I want to hold it up to your face, force this uncomfortable reality into your worldview. It seems clear that as scholars sharing the same intellectual and physical space, we need to work to empower each other, not to be judged by our accents. We must free ourselves from colonial standards that continue to haunt our institutions and our imaginations.

Hanieh Haji Molana is an assistant professor of Geography at California State University, Sacramento. She received her PhD degree in Geography at Kent State University. Her research focuses on Muslim female Middle Eastern immigrants’ lived experiences in the United States. She is particularly interested in collecting stories and bringing subjective voices into the expansion of knowledge production. Her research builds on feminist and decolonial methodology within the context of the Middle East.