Posted by: MC | February 18, 2011

What Accents Have to Do with World Peace

The bald eagles are nesting in northern Wisconsin.  To see them is a privilege.  This sense of privilege – really, of awe – is not new in humans.  And the birds deserve it.  Their power and dignity, their grace and comfort with majesty can only be met with appreciation of the highest order.

Then there’s everyday eagle speak.  Not the famous war cry that echoes through canyons, but the way eagles chat when perched near one another or the way they hum to themselves when they’re just hanging out.  It’s weeny.  Kinda chirpy but with a decidedly jagged lack of polish.  But like the Prince of Wales with a stutter (see The King’s Speech if you haven’t already), finally nothing may remove a bald eagle’s capacity for majestic inspiration.

This morning I spoke with a school counselor.  A white man who lives in the small Wisconsin community where I’m spending the winter.  He was raised in Alabama.  That’s where he went to college, and then to divinity school to become a Baptist minister.  Later he went to Mississippi to become trained as a school counselor.  Now he’s here raising a family and fulfilling his career.

I noticed the sound of the south in his voice right away.  It’s always nice to connect that way – southerner to southerner – especially this far north, and in the winter.  I’m not really sure I qualify as a pure southerner anymore.  I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest almost half my life, now.  But I know it matters – the landscape and traditions of childhood.

In the early 90’s I accepted an invitation to deliver a keynote to colleagues at a national conference.  The topic was diversity.  I remember being in the plane to Chicago when, in the peripheral way of most great ideas, it occurred to me that I had internalized a negative bias toward southern people.  It was subtle.  It showed up in the way I used my facility with language and accents to mask my heritage – to speak in ways that matched with the people around me.

It’s hard to tell how much of that was skill and comfort with social affiliation and how much was embarrassment with my roots.  People were always surprised to learn I was from Texas and Georgia.  “You don’t sound like it,” they’d say.  As if on cue I’d respond with, “We-ull, I ca’yun.  Just du-pe-unds on who ay’m tawlkin’ to.”  We’d all laugh.

I got to the conference and the keynote.  I was a little nervous.  No, I was major nervous.  It was early in my career and this was a pretty huge deal for me.  I was well prepared and presented my ideas clearly.  In the middle of my talk, and really without knowing I’d do it, I changed my accent.  I kept on topic, used no less sophisticated language, continued making reference to established scholarship; but for a minute or so I delivered it all in a thick southern accent – the kind I’d grown up hearing from the revered elders in our communities.

Light laughter drifted across the room of several hundred academics and researchers.  I said, “I notice y’all are finding something funny in my words.  Isn’t it something that the content of my talk has not shifted, but the nature of my accent changes your impression and reception?  What a powerful example of the subtlety of bias systems.  There is nothing any less intelligent about what I’m saying, but we all hear it differently simply because of the accent on the words.”

Not only are bias systems subtle, they are entirely arbitrary. We make them up.  That means we always have the option of changing them – of making them up differently.

The EX:Change adventure I write about here continues to push the edges on my stories about groups of people.  Today, as I talked with the thirteen-year Wisconsin resident, school counselor, Baptist minister, raised a white man in the south I saw lots of those stories come up and then recede as I stuck with the conversation – as I kept listening.  As white southerners, we both know there are some well-deserved, but no less overly generalized perceptions thrown our way by people from different ethnic and/or regional groups.  From my experience, I know there are Baptist ministers in the south who are generous servants to community well being – breaking every negative stereotype from visual media and literature.  From what I can tell, this man is such a person.

The point?  As for each of us, finding my way in the world has required learning how to fit in.  I’ve been pretty good at it.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Still, along the way, the fitting in inevitably requires discounting features of my own being that are less valued.  I’ve learned to speak in ways that work in male-dominated academic settings.  I’ve learned how to use language that conveys sophistication and credibility.  I’ve learned to recognize what people in power see as being of fine quality and aesthetic value.  No problem.

I am grateful, however, for the EX:Change – for the experiences before and since that trip that give me constant opportunity to see the beauty, wisdom, value and intelligence in the humble ways of my ancestral culture and homeland.  There is no single tradition that does not have its monstrosities.  Most of us have no pride in those historic facts.  They are vital as teachers, as warnings.  At the same time, there is no less strength – in fact, there is great resource in the traditions that sustain community over time.

And that’s the point – we all have these anchors, these traditions.  They vary, but they are worth claiming, practicing and sharing across our diversities – especially given the transformative times in which we live.

Who knew I’d learn so much from a winter in Wisconsin?  Maybe it’s the eagles.


  1. Well said! I too selectively “yawl” and grow where planted. I hope we don’t lose all our accents, and can judge people by their actions, not their race, gender, or manner of speaking. I love the search for common ground. Then let’s all try to walk our talk.

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