I was born and raised in a southern U.S. state–not the deep South, but in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was, and still is, a very rural place. When people ask where I’m from, I never respond with a town or city; I respond with a region. The county where I grew up covered well over 450 square miles, but the population was well below 20,000. One high school for grades 8-12 served the entire county, and there were still only 1000 students. Drive a few hours north, and people don’t believe I’m from the same state because of my accent.
At least that’s the way it used to be.
Over the past few years, whether owing to the influence of science, academia, or living in progressively larger and less conservative cities, my accent began to neutralize. Without a conscious intent, the drawl has diminished to the point that few people now recognize it’s there. On a rare occasion, someone will pick up a hint of something different, though they’re nearly as likely to ask if I spent time in England growing up as they are to guess I’m from the South.
I haven’t cast aside the accent completely. When I’m talking with family or back in the South–where three letter words can take on 4 syllables–my Southern speech comes out in full force. But put me back in the lab, and the lilting drawl goes back into hiding. There are a few words that retain their unique Southern flair (such as my pronunciation of “naked”, which greatly amused a friend and former colleague). Or should you be so foolish as to incite the temper that those ginger strands hint at, that drawl is likely to find its way out.
For the most part, though, there are only small vestiges of my Southern accent in my everyday life. Before my accent became more neutral, it occasionally became a focus for attention from others–mostly good-natured teasing. But the attention made me uncomfortable, nonetheless. And sometimes it was accompanied by the implication that it was unusual for a Southern girl to become a scientist or simply to be smart, or the assumption that I was too timid or well-mannered to stand up for myself or anything at all.
In the United States at least, there is a distinct cultural stereotype associated with the South, especially the rural South. David Kroll recently caught Stephen Colbert in a slip of his Southern accent and posted this quote from 60 Minutes interview with Colbert:
At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a southern accent. Because people, when I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a southern accent.
In TV and even many books, portrayal of intelligence among Southerners is often reserved for the aristocracy. The rural Southerner is often painted as the bigoted village idiot with a deep Southern drawl chewing tobacco, listening to country music with NASCAR on in the background.
The stereotype takes on even more nuances for the girl from the rural South. I use girl, because it really doesn’t change from adolescence until she becomes the family matriarch. The Southern woman is demure, waiting for her husband or father to make decisions or form opinions for her, doing what she is told. She isn’t terribly interested in education. She’s polite to the extreme, not one to disagree often and certainly not with a man. In other words, she is weak and basically empty save for the edicts of Southern hospitality and the occasional baby.
If you were to ask my father, grandfather, brother, or husband, and they’d tell you a different story. Each has been husband, father, and/or son of a fierce Southern fem. The women of my family have been (mostly) punctual and polite, good cooks, hosts, and caregivers. But should you ever mistake our hospitality as a doormat, you could quickly learn just what a fiery spirit we possess. They were nurses and secretaries and are some of the strongest women I’ve ever known. They taught me about resilience, doing what needs to be done, not letting others take advantage of me, going after my passion… In short, they taught me that to do what I set my mind too. Among those ladies, there was never a question, never a doubt that I had what it would take to follow a career in science.
All our lives are governed by unwritten rules, many of which we’re not even consciously aware. Still it makes me a little sad to think that I drop my Southern accent when I go to work, that I basically hide a part of my heritage without even intending too. It feels like a bit of a betrayal to my family, and particularly to those women who showed me so much. It also makes me more acutely aware of the stereotypes ingrained in my mind–and try harder to check those assumptions at the door.