During my time in America, I encountered a special type of bullying: Mockery of my Trinidadian accent. However, the taunting wasn’t exclusively done by white people. Rather, I was also targeted by African-Americans.
Racial harassment involves the bullying of persons based on their race, ethnicity or religion. This behaviour can also occur between individuals of the same race but of different nationalities or cultural backgrounds.
Such was the case with former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who faced backlash for his impersonation of an Australian accent in 2011. In fact, his actions sparked conversation among people trying to understand how a white man imitating other white people could be offensive.
I attended a party in late 2014 with group African-Americans. As the night wore on, I experienced a strange form of bullying I didn’t expect, especially from people who looked like me.
An African-American man overheard me talking and used the opportunity to show off his fake Jamaican accent. Then, he asked me to repeat certain words and phrases for his amusement.
For the rest of the evening, he referred to be as “Cool Runnings” and encouraged his peers to join in. Thankfully, they shared my embarrassment and refrained. Still, he continued his taunting.
Dealing with bullying is exhausting and confusing, especially when it involves something as simple as the way you speak. Yet, I learned several key lessons from that event and other incidents that followed.
Caribbean people, this is how to deal with folks who mock your accent. For the purpose of explaining each point, I will hereby refer to the African-American man from my story as Quan.
1. Address what offends you.
After listening to Quan boast about how much he loved Jamaican beef patties for 20 minutes, I pulled him aside. In a polite yet stern voice, I told him I was offended by his comments and asked him to stop. Sadly, Quan, simply intensified his routine.
The first step in dealing with bullying is to address the perpetrator. Do this by clearly identifying the offensive behaviour and explain how it affects you. This might not work but it’s worth trying because people may be unaware they’re hurting you.
Author PP Wong explains the difference between ignorance and willful racism on The Huffington Post. Simply, when people don’t know their mockery is rude, they will likely accept your explanations and refrain from repeating their jokes.
2. Avoid isolating yourself.
I was so confused by Quan’s teasing that I spent the rest of the night avoiding him. Furthermore, I became increasingly sensitive to anyone who imitated my accent in the months that followed. So, to protect myself from that discomfort, I chose to only socialise with other West Indians.
Isolating yourself from an entire group of people will effectively prevent you from making useful connections. Every African-American, for example, wasn’t insensitive like Quan, and I learned that by facing my fears.
Don’t assume your bully represents an entire social group or community. Approach each situation with an open mind and hope for the best instead of bracing for the worst.
3. Don’t become your bully.
Moreover, don’t try to match your bully’s behaviour. For instance, responding to Quan’s actions by mocking African-Americans or firing insults based on the way he spoke would have been counterproductive.
As former United States First Lady Michelle Obama said at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “When they go low, we go high.” Regardless of what people say to hurt you, avoid resorting to similar tactics for the sake of revenge.
4. Turn to your friends for support.
Bullies thrive when their victims are vulnerable and alone. Therefore, you can take away that power by asking for help, especially from people in your bully’s social group or your own.
If other African-Americans at the party rallied with me to challenge Quan’s behaviour, he would not have been so confident. Also, had there been other outspoken Trinidadians at the event, he would have seen that I wasn’t alone in being “too sensitive.”
Of course, there will be occasions when you will be on your own. As such, educate yourself on any policies that can help you, contact an objective authority figure and take action.
5. Keep speaking up.
After releasing the Trini Trent Radio podcast episode “African-Americans vs West Indians,” I received emails from West Indian people. Each person spoke about the pain they or their family suffered while assimilating to life in the United States.
Among the themes that struck me was the common thread of learning how to blend in with Americans by diluting or erasing their accents. Yet, hiding your accent isn’t the solution. Rather, that’s simply giving up who you are in the face of bullying, and missing the opportunity to help others.
As Safwat Saleem said on TED about holding onto his Pakistani accent, being who you are has the power to change others’ perception of what is normal. Additionally, by speaking up in your true voice, you will encourage other people struggling with their identities to do the same.
“Love yourself, accept yourself, forgive yourself, and be good to yourself because without you, the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things.” – Leo F. Buscaglia