What not to say to a room full of Southerners…

NOTE: I wrote this post week before last, right when all of the coronavirus business was starting. When it appeared that things were getting serious, the radio station where I work went into disaster preparedness mode, and I was sent home to work. When you work for a news agency and the blankety-blank starts hitting the fan, things get real busy real fast. Then between work, trying to get Sonny Boy home from college, stocking up on the necessaries, and generally fretting, I just didn’t feel like it was appropriate to publish a funny, bitchy little essay. Whistling past the graveyard and all that, don’t you know. But now that it’s been a week and a half, I figured you might want some distraction from it all. So here’s a funny, bitchy little essay about something that happened a couple of weeks ago.

“Some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.”

I heard these words at a professional women’s conference in Birmingham, Ala. The breakfast keynote speaker had come all the way from California to Birmingham, Ala.. She’d been talking for about 45 minutes on how women should speak with confidence, not constantly apologize, not use upspeak, and how we should avoid glottal fry. All good advice.

Then she sort of threw back her shoulders and jutted out her hips — affecting a laid back stance on the stage. 

“But dow-uhn hee-ah in thuh sow-uth…” she drawled, “Things move a little slow-wer.”

I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. 

Oh no…she’s not… 

“And let’s face it, some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence” she said to a ROOM FULL OF SOUTHERN PROFESSIONAL WOMEN.

Her words hung in the air like condescending Spanish moss. There might have been a record scratch. Time seemed to stop. It felt to me as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. I could hear her flat West Coast voice droning on somewhere in the distance, but I honestly don’t know what else she said because all I could think was “she did not just come all up in a room of Southerners and insult our accents and our intelligence!” 

Oh, but she did. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for her because I wanted to tell her a few things in my very own thick-as-grits Southern drawl. 

I wanted to say that the whole purpose of the damn conference was to help eradicate bias against women in business as well as against different races and other marginalized communities.

I wanted to tell her that she is promoting an implicit bias against Southerners — a bias we struggle to get past every day.

I wanted to tell her that Southerners should never lose their accent, and, to the contrary, they should embrace it! And that if Southerners are never heard saying intelligent things, the Southern accent will never be associated with intelligence. 

I wanted to tell her that I have not one, but two college degrees, but even if I didn’t have any education at all she has no right to assume I’m stupid becuase I’m Southern. 

I wanted to tell her that I work in radio, for the love of Pete, and that people tell me every day how much they love my accent. 

And I wanted to say “bless your pea-pickin’ heart,” you don’t know any better than to come into a room full of people and insult them? Your mama must not have taught you right. 

“Some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.”

A few days later, I was still stewing over the very gall of this woman. 

So I wrote her a letter. To be perfectly accurate, I wrote her an email through her website which implores one to “voice your power,” so I did. But probably not like she was expecting me to.

I told her that I found her remarks offensive. “Some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.” And that I took exception to the fact that she would encourage people to shed their accents in a professional setting in order to be taken seriously. 

I told her that she is promoting an implicit bias against Southerners — a bias we struggle to get past every day.

I told her that Southerners should never lose their accent, and that, to the contrary, they should embrace it! And that if Southerners are never heard saying intelligent things, the Southern accent will never be associated with intelligence. 

I told her that I have not one, but two college degrees, but even if I didn’t have any education at all she has no right to assume I’m stupid becuase I sound Southern. 

I told her that I work in radio, for the love of Pete, and that people tell me every day how much they love my accent. 

And I said that it was tone deaf and unforgivable for her to come into a room full of Southern professional women and insult them. “Some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.” I didn’t say anything about her mama though. That would have been unprofessional. 

She wrote me right back. She said that in her talk she had cited science and studies about accents (she didn’t), and that she had “emulated” the accent, not mocked it (splitting hairs in my opinion), that she didn’t advocate changing our “authenticity” (even though all she told us was how to change), and that she was “advocating that [we] pick up new intentional skill sets like diction” (so we’re dumb and mush-mouthed?).  

She does, however, appreciate me “voicing [my] truth.” 

Whatever. She still came into a room full of Southern professional women and said, “Some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.” She didn’t cite any other accents that aren’t associated with intelligence. And she didn’t cite any accents that were associated with intelligence. I assume that she thinks her lack of accent sounds intelligent, but apparently accent and common sense don’t walk hand-in-hand. 

She didn’t have to say “Let’s face it, some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.” 

She could have said, “In your professional lives, you’ve probably noticed a bias against Southern accents. Studies show…” Or “It’s unfortunate, but research into sociolinguistics reveals that a bias exists against Southern accents…” Or “Have you found yourself trying to mask your accent? Experts say that…”

But she didn’t. She said “Let’s face it, some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.”

Here’s what I have to say to you, dear readers. Y’all go out and speak in your authentic accents wherever you may come from. You act smart, and you say smart things. Because you are smart. And you are worthy of being heard. And your diction is fine. And you are fine and wonderful just the way you are. 

Don’t change yourself to fit some artificial stereotype of how people should sound. Or look. Or act. Don’t change yourself because some woman from California thinks “some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence.”

Together, we can turn this tide of accent bias around! 

And woe unto the person who underestimates you because of your accent. Let ‘em think “some accents just aren’t associated with intelligence” because that’s when we win. And they’ll never know what hit ‘em. 

Bless their pea-pickin’, no-accent little hearts. 

Photo by Lee Soo hyun on Unsplash

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Beth Johns says:

    Hell yes! I was once in a meeting with national leader from YMCA at United Way when I worked there. Woman abruptly stops and says I know this is the South am I talking to fast?
    I turned to colleague and said so she’s says we process information slower than other parts of the county. *#%^¥}!!

    1. Are you kidding me? People are so clueless!

  2. kkspidell says:

    How dare she. Wish you could have actually spoken with her.

    1. Me too, sister!! 😂😉

  3. Sheila Zito says:

    YOUR mother “raised you right”.

    1. Michael Reinke says:

      If the rest of the world could only see it through my eyes this type of remark would never happen. I’m 61 and my fiancee has the most beautiful southern accent. On top of that she is the Controller of a rather large corporation. Beauty and brains in a Southern Styled package. I’m one lucky man!

  4. This is a wonderful piece and I am sharing it with my students xo

    1. Thank you!! I hope they like it!!

  5. Lamar Sumerlin says:

    I’ve been following your writing for a number of years and I think this is one of your best. To assume anyone is not intelligent based on an accent is really dumb and shows her lack of common sense and experience dealing with people. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you very much!!

  6. Anyone who suggests Southern accents aren’t associated with intelligence has never seen the adoration and self-abasement many people display when they hear someone with an accent like the late Shelby Foote speak. That deep, slow drawl (often Overheard in Savannah, Charleston and some parts of Virginia) is a recognized hallmark of erudition and culture. That female speaker has no manners and limited
    Intelligence.

    1. Right on, sister!

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