Soyini Ayanna Forde
Not too long ago, I happened to have a phone conversation with a fellow Trinidadian and used our dialect word, “bull.”
He interrupted my tangent with, “Say ‘bull’again.”
“No!”I say, continuing on my mini-tirade.
“Yuh know how long I eh hear somebody say ‘bull?’I real love hearing my own accent sometimes.”
Life in the States turns an accent into a commodity that can no longer be taken for granted. The longer we simmer in the melting pot, they become more rare, special. And yet, not all accents are perceived equally. They can be emblematic of culture, nationality and identity, but (despite what stereotypes might imply) not much else. You can’t tell what kind of individual a person is, intrinsically, by their accent alone, yet perceptions and judgments are made and wielded all the same. Inside Trinidad, we hold perceptions about a “West”accent (also racially coded) versus a “back-a-yard”accent, between the clipped enunciation of a local newscaster and the perceived accents of some so-called working-class people, people from “country”and East Indian Trini accents.
Negative stereotypes about race, nationality and culture collude in response to accent, the very voice people use to express themselves. For example, I went to college in Miami: a mashup of communities, cultures and languages from around the world. There, I heard many disparaging comments about Haitian accents, which, as my college friend from Ghana pointed out to me, is the tongue that probably retains the closest link to Africa. The rhythm and sound of Kreyòl, a beautiful expression on its own, echoes “New World”African derived languages that you don’t hear quite in the same way in the English-speaking Caribbean. In the United States, I have heard that I sound British too many times to count. Allegedly, this is a good thing. Who taught us those differences?
The other thing my accent does is lend credence to who I claim to be. It’s like a verbal passport. Especially since you can’t tell on the outside what kind of black person I am. I could be from anywhere in the diaspora, but my Trini accent locates me specifically within the Anglophone Caribbean landscape, where meh navel string bury, as we say. Accents can imbue legacy. In a multi-ethnic place, like the United States, they can also reveal the systematic racism that permeates and influences our culture.
Last year, I happened to be sitting in the passenger front seat of a 2013 rental car with my friend, a young black man, in the backseat as we waited on a friend to exit an apartment in Orlando, Florida. I was well aware of various incidents of profiling and violence placed upon black and brown bodies across the gunshine state. A phenotypically white, or white passing, Orange County officer (who my friend later noted had been circling and profiling us from afar for a minute) came up to the window of the car and began questioning me out of seemingly nowhere. His intro involved adjusting his holster pointedly and jabbing his index finger towards my face, saying, “Don’t I know you?”
“Uh…I don’t think so.”I said, confused and slightly panicked inside but keeping my voice calm. “I don’t even live here.”
“We’re visiting from Tampa,”My friend pipes in from the back, his thick West Indian accent coating his words. As soon as we began talking, the cop changed his tack and asked us where we were from in a completely different tone.
My friend went into reflexive overdrive, “We’re both from Trinidad and we’re here for the Caribbean carnival. We drove down for the weekend.”
The cop’s demeanor continued to do a 360. All of a sudden, we were comparatively alright and couldn’t possibly be the black people he was looking for. He even made small talk and wished us a good time over the weekend. I don’t know who that cop thought I was, but before he knew we weren’t from here, he was all but convinced that I was this person (we all look alike, remember?) and dutifully suspicious of black bodies sitting in a shiny car outside a nice apartment complex. It took a while to personally unpack and process all that took place in that episode but it’s not the first time (and will not be the last time) that a presumption of exceptionality (or something like it) will be meted out to me just because of my accent. It happens just as easily as the flipside happens with no context but for my dark skin.
Privilege exists across many junctures and all forms of privilege require someone else to be pitted as Other, as lesser than. There’s beauty privilege, thin privilege and white privilege to name a small selection. Sometimes, various forms of privilege can work inside one person’s life. Sometimes we have access to one, or some, but not others. Though I have cis-privilege, my lived experience is constantly mitigated and complicated by my blackness as a black West Indian woman. Privilege can be randomly passed out without your permission. You may not have asked for it, but there it is, existing and being, and I am constantly reminding myself to be mindful and cognizant of the ways in which my privilege(s) impact the lives of others around me. The work to decolonize thinking never ends, but that’s my aim. West Indians, though we’re not often exemplars of the Model Minority Myth, can and do benefit from the tension inside of and around those constructs. We are sometimes posited as preferential people of color, and we feed that idea to ourselves and others inside our community. However, I am not a better kind of black person because of my sound, just a different kind, still part of our extensive diaspora. Our variegations of blackness sustain me endlessly; I am here for it and I am here because of it, all of it.
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Soyini Ayanna Forde is a Trini-Guyanese writer & activist residing in Florida. She loves brucking out to soca and musing on race, feminism & culture. You can read more of her thoughts here.