I have never been self conscious about my accent. I started making guest appearances on National TV programs almost two decades ago as a young human rights activist and vocal feminist. I remember the first time I appeared on one of the ‘posh’ Women’s programs which at the time passed as a ‘feminist’ TV show, I was immediately approached after the show by the popular presenter who told me, “Yemisi, you were really brilliant on the show, it would be great if we could get you to lose the accent”. Well, it happened that the presenter also ran a ‘Finishing school’ for girls … hmm do not ask me why a “feminist’ TV show presenter had a “Finishing school for girls’’… well, this is Nigeria we are talking about, and feminism, like many assumed “imported” ideology comes with its colonial baggage!
Anyway, she was so impressed with my points but not so impressed with my accent that she offered me a free session in her ‘Finishing school’ to get rid of my accent. I remember asking her why I would want to be rid of my accent. I mean, I wasn’t self conscious about my accent, especially since Nigeria is a diverse country with many local dialects and accent is one of the ways you immediately identify where a person is from. Well, the young me was told that getting rid of my accent would be great for my profile, I declined her ‘priceless’ offer and insisted that I’d rather keep my accent as it is an integral part of my identity.
That was almost two decades ago. I have since gone ahead to speak at many national and international events, sometimes with heads of states and diplomats present. I have made a few speeches at UN meetings, appeared on a live televised round table debate with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and some other world leaders, but I never for a minute felt self conscious about my accent, and well, my audience never really complained and they mostly seemed to appreciate what I had to say. Shows you should choose your audience well!
However with the uncontrolled audience that YouTube, Facebook and other online social networks attracts, I have recently been faced with so many malicious comments attacking my Yoruba accent. And funny enough or rather very unfortunately, 99.9% of these comments are from my country people who have similar accents! I couldn’t help but wonder why people would hate themselves so much as to believe that their accent is inferior? I have noticed this phenomenon is not peculiar to Nigerians alone.
In 2009, while studying for my Masters degree in UK, I was part of a student exchange program between my UK University and an Indian university. I was the only black student in a group of white students. I noticed that the first thing most, if not all, of the Indian lecturers did was to apologize for their accents! I thought that was unnecessary if not outright pathetic. I mean, I paid some serious money for a Masters degree in a UK university, none of the very white, very accented lecturers ever bothered to apologize to me for their British accents, rather, whenever I ventured to speak in the class (and yes, I couldn’t be kept shut), I at least, made sure I spoke slowly enough for them to get the gist of my comments but did they ever extend such courtesy to me? Hell no! And I am pretty sure the exchange lecturers in UK did not apologize for their British accents to the exchange Indian students sitting in UK classrooms. So why did the Indian lecturers feel they had to apologise profusely for their local accents to the exchange, mainly white students group? Well, somehow I knew (don’t ask me how!) that even though I was a member of that group, they weren’t apologising to my black ass for their Indian accents!
In fact, the default setting is, being an English speaking white person means ‘No accent’ and if at all, it is considered a ‘superior’ accent to what is coming out from a brown or black person’s mouth! Of course having only lived in UK for 4 years, I am still trying to identify the myriads of British accents; from the Manchester accents, to the Lancashire, to the Scots, to the… oh forget it! Yet, I am by default, the one who is supposed to apologize for my accent because I am black and from Africa. Nope, there is no need for apology, we all have our accents and none is superior to the other.
From good old wikipieda ( link here )
Accents and dialects vary widely across Britain; as such, a single “British accent” does not exist.
Non-native pronunciations of English result from the common linguistic phenomenon in which non-native users of any language tend to carry the intonation, phonological processes and pronunciation rules from their mother tongue into their English speech. They may also create innovative pronunciations for English sounds not found in the speaker’s first language. Local accents are part of local dialects. Any dialect of English has unique features in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The term “accent” describes only the first of these, namely, pronunciation.
Among native English speakers, many different accents exist. Some regional accents are easily identified by certain characteristics. Further variations are to be found within the regions identified below; for example, towns located less than 10 miles (16 km) from the city of Manchester such as Bolton, Oldham and Salford, each have distinct accents, all of which form the Lancashire accent, yet in extreme cases are different enough to be noticed even by a non-local listener.
The main tragedy is that following my video posts, the myriads of hate comments deriding my accent are not from people of different culture but mainly from persons of my own culture, my home country, my hometown! Below are examples-
“Double lol!!! Bisexual Yemisi Ilesanmi’s got a terrible English accent… which suits her lifestyle I suppose. *tut tut* I thought she was polished, but now I’ve seen this video, *smh*”
(Comment made by a Nigerian woman on my video interview posted on a mutual friend’s facebook wall. She obviously hates the fact that I am Bisexual and Atheist! And, she’d rather talk about my accent than the content of my interview. Her comments were dead giveaway of how much she loathes her local accent.
“You cannot slap some sense into Bishop Oyedepo cuz you don’t have any sense. Instead of you to spend your time learning how to speak proper English, you’re here making a mockery of yourself with your H factor and inability to pronounce words right. I suggest you take your alien looking ass and put it somewhere away from the cam.”
(Comment from a Nigerian man on my YouTube video ‘Slap some sense into Bishop David Oyedepo’, the commenter forgot or hates the well known fact that the main distinguishing factor of the Yoruba accent is its heavy emphasis on H in spoken English). And what was that about alien looking ass? lol!
“Ello! My name is Yemisi… and today… I Ham very Hangry!”
(Comment left on my YouTube Video ‘Slap some sense into Bishop David Oyedepo’ by another Nigerian who hates his local accent!)
It really is a tragedy that so many people are still under the chains of mental slavery. The belief that you are not good enough unless you are white, rich and skinny and speak English through your nose is still prevalent amongst many Africans.
Some actually thought such comments about my accent would offend me, but I just wonder why I should be upset because I have an accent that is unique to my place of birth and where I grew up. What is there to be ashamed of? People who make such comments are ignorant and need to emancipate themselves from mental slavery.
This also got me thinking about some other things people have said to me which they thought were offensive but which I just took as a matter of fact or ignorance but definitely not as an offense. For example, during my first professional photo shoot as an aspiring plus size model, the makeup artiste, a talented black woman was preparing to fix a pair of false eyelashes on me when I made the very honest comment that it was my first time of fixing false eyelashes. Well, she was aghast and she mockingly said, “Are you from the village? I asked her why not fixing fake eyelashes should be associated with a villager’s behavior. I just never felt I needed fake eye-lashes or nail extensions. I have naturally long nails therefore I never needed to have nail extensions, same with my lashes! The horror of all horrors occurred when she was shaping my eyebrows and I said I do not use tweezers because I find it painful, I prefer “plastic shavers”. She shrieked and said “You are definitely a bush girl!!! She being a lovely lady immediately covered her mouth so no one but me could hear this “insulting” comment. Being called a ‘bush person’ is like the ultimate insult to an African person especially an African woman. Only I didn’t take it as an insult, she was so remorseful after that I actually started wondering why I wasn’t offended or felt insulted!
I explained to her that being from the ‘bush’ or village should not be seen as something to be ashamed of. I could choose to live in the bush/village if it made me happy. If I won the lottery today (fat chance of that happening since i don’t even play the lottery), first thing would be to buy a house in the countryside, and yes, to me, countryside are glorified villages. Also, my not using tweezers is me putting my comfort first before fashion, and plastic shavers have done a pretty good job of shaving my eyebrows for decades, so if it isn’t broken, why try to fix or change it?
OFFENSE OR IGNORANCE?
However, I got seriously thinking about why I wasn’t offended by such comments. Is it over-confidence? Is it because I was born in the city, grew up in the city and have had the opportunity to travel widely, visited all the continents that I do not find it offensive when someone out of the blues criticize my accents or call me a bush girl or not polished enough?
I think it is because I understand that many people, especially Africans are dying to ‘belong’, desperately seeking the approval of the ‘upper class;’ which itself means, the adoption of white culture and behaviors, which unfortunately many Africans still consider as superior to their native cultures.
Many have been brainwashed and are still under the yoke of mental colonization. They live under the unfortunate impression that they are inferior in their native environment, appearance or lifestyles; they consider themselves second class human beings. In such cases, I just shake my head and pity their ignorance. Well; I actually go a step further by putting pen on paper and my face on YouTube to help educate such people to break free from the chains of mental slavery.
In a similar vein, I understand what Greta Christina was saying in her blog post “the ugliest of all atheists!”: #mencallmethings, about how some people are more concerned about how a speaker looks especially when the speaker is a woman, than what the speaker has to say.
She wrote “When I was speaking at the University of Chicago last week — awesome event, btw, thanks to everyone who put it together! — the event organizer showed me a publicity poster for the event, which had been graffittied. Next to my photo and under my name, someone had hand-written the words, “the ugliest of all atheists!” Because that’s the important thing, isn’t it? When determining the worth of a writer or speaker or other public figure, the most important issue is whether said figure is nice-looking or ugly. It doesn’t matter if we’re stupid or smart, accurate or off-base, innovative or entrenched, boring or inspiring. What matters is whether random strangers find us sexually attractive.” http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/03/05/the-ugliest-of-all-atheists-mencallmethings/#comments
In my case, I do get such feedback like, “Your accent is horrible, just shut up” or “You look beautiful in that video, can we be friend?” Yuk… I just wonder how I would accept to be friends with someone who sat through a video I took the time to make about a topic dear to my heart and all he or she could say was “You look beautiful and sexy!” I mean, what happened to the topic I was discussing? Not interesting, beautiful or sexy enough?
Why bother to even discuss this? Hmm…I have taken the time to address this because some feel it is a way of attacking my person. They actually think pointing out that I have an accent is an insult! It is like someone telling me I am Bisexual, pls tell me something new! lol! The funny part is those mostly hauling the accent “insult” do not like the fact that I am so outspoken about my sexual identity and Atheism, they’d prefer I keep quite. Since they cannot discuss ideas, they settle on what they thought was an attack guaranteed to keep me silent. The tragedy is that it smirks of self-hate, since they are all from my home country and have accents too. I just had to rub it in their faces that no offense is taken and also do my good deed of the day by encouraging them to cultivate the habit of discussing ideas and stop discussing people.
Like Greta said “The point isn’t that I’m not ugly. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.” I will go further and add-
The point isn’t that I’m not beautiful. The point is that it shouldn’t matter
The point isn’t that I’m not sexy. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.
The point isn’t that I’m not fat. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.
The point isn’t that I don’t have an accent. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.
For those that are ‘put off’ by my accent, especially those that actually share this beautiful Yoruba accent with me or speak with Igbo or Hausa accent from my beloved country, Nigeria, listen carefully, read my lips if need be, PEOPLE HAVE ACCENTS, GET OVER IT!
You should spend less time on self-hate and more time on listening and understanding the topic under discussion. It is said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people.
Deriding accents from your homeland accentuates your insecurities about yourself, your origin and your identity.
Disparaging the accents of people different from you shows how ignorant you are of the diversity of the world you live in. Such comments won’t hurt the discerning, it only draws attention to your self-hate and ignorance.
Everyone has an accent, learn to respect yours and others will respect you. You are free to adopt another accent if it made you feel good but do not look down on those hanging on to their accents. Learn to appreciate and enjoy the beauty in diversity.
You do not always have to blend in, you can stand out.
You do not always have to crave to ‘belong’.You can make people appreciate where you already belong.
Do not wallow in self stigmatization, Stop your self-hate!