Unconscious bias: judging others by their accents

A gathering of culturally and linguistially diverse (CALD) ministers at Synod 2017.

A gathering of culturally and linguistially diverse (CALD) ministers at Synod 2017.

Friday Forum

Your views on the news

People around the world are hearing more foreign accents than at any time in human history.

Are you guilty of judging someone by his or her accent? Snéha Khilay is a specialist in cultural diversity and unconscious bias. She feels this is just another form of unconscious bias and one aspect of equality that often gets overlooked.

Accent is one of a number of characteristics, along with skin color, dress, or mannerisms, that identify someone as ‘foreign’ or ‘different’ and can sometimes lead to discriminatory treatment.

Recent studies in Germany have revealed that an accent plays a crucial role in the way we judge someone. According to psychologists at the Friedrich Schiller University, Jena: “The accent is much more important than the way a person looks.”

As part of the research, participants were given two audio recordings along with two photos to represent the person speaking on the audiotapes. One photo featured a white male and the other an Asian male. The voice on both audio recordings was, in fact, the same voice, that of a native English speaker.

Interestingly, participants rated the audio recording linked to the Asian photo as having a stronger foreign accent than the other voice. Furthermore, they gave a low score of their understanding of the information provided by the Asian image/audio.

This research highlights the fact that we are conditioned to expect an accent from a person who is not white, to the point of finding an accent when none is present.

We know that speakers with foreign accents can face discrimination even in a country like Australia, with a diverse population and a long immigrant history.

Treating someone differently because they speak with an accent can be against the law. This can include a decision not to employ a person because of their accent or harassing a person because of their accent.

Alex Kasirye-Musoke was ordained at 20 years of age in Nairobi, Kenya, and ministered in the Anglican Diocese of Nairobi before migrating to Canada. After arriving in Canada he had difficulty in finding an Anglican parish that would accept him.

“In spite of my theological training, views, outlooks, and faith in Christ, I ran into roadblock after roadblock in locating a church in which to minister. The most puzzling thing was that the main reason given for my difficulty in being unemployed was not because I was not qualified, or lacked experience, or even the excuse that I did not understand English well, but because my accent was different! The irony of the situation overwhelmed me. Here we all stood, under the grace of God and the one Great Commission, and yet this insistence on a “pure English accent” turned out to be the decisive determinant in who could or could not participate in that same commission.” – Alex Kasirye-Musoke

What about our church? Is this an issue for us? I wish I could confidently and honestly answer ‘No’.

Since my ordination in January 1991, I have ministered in three predominantly Anglo congregations for 20 years. English is not my first language. I speak with an accent that some in the church find difficult at times. In one congregation, an elder told me that a certain member had decided to stop attending worship services on Sunday because he couldn’t understand my accent. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t understand his Scottish accent either.

After two ‘successful’ placements throughout 15 years, I was invited to have conversations with two congregations.

I had a total of three conversations with one congregation. At times I found the conversations difficult. There was a member in the Joint Nominating Committee (JNC) who was particularly overbearing. I found the way he asked questions rude at times. At the end of the third conversation the JNC asked me to have the final conversation the following Monday.

Unfortunately the JNC member whom I found difficult spoke to some members of the congregation on Sunday morning (he wasn’t supposed to do that).

His concern was my accent. He feared that some of the elderly members of the congregation might leave the church if they couldn’t understand me. I had a phone call from the presbytery JNC chairperson informing me of what had happened. The feeling was that it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to continue the process.

There is no doubt that if you speak the accent of the dominant culture you are more ‘acceptable’ and seen to be more like them.

Research has also shown that not all accents are created equal, it seems. French, German and Swedish accents are positively received.

The gospel of Matthew tells the story of Peter, who, incognito, sneaks into the courtyard of the high priest after the arrest of Jesus. He wanted to see what would become of him. While there, he is recognised as one of Jesus’ disciples, not by appearance it seems but by his Galilean accent. “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” (Matthew 26:73)

To speak with an accent, to be unable to speak ‘pure’ English (whatever that is) has been internalised as a mark of shame. When we make fun of people who speak with different accents it cuts very deeply and can be soul ripping.

Communication is a two-way process. Both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility for the act of communication. While different or foreign accents can sometimes interfere with the listener’s ability to understand the message, accents can conjure up negative evaluations of the speaker, reducing the listener’s willingness to accept their responsibility in the communication process. Sometimes, it becomes easy to say, “I simply can’t understand you,” placing full responsibility for the communication process on the speaker.

Simply asking a speaker to slow down, asking for clarification of anything we find ambiguous and asking a speaker to confirm whether or not a paraphrase of what they just said genuinely matches up with what they meant establishes a strong foundation for respect and understanding.

Discriminating against someone because he or she speaks with a different accent is rarely a product of malice, “conscious pretext or discriminatory intent”. Rather it occurs because of unconscious bias.

“Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” (Matt. 26:78)

Pause and think. Does your encounter with people who speak with different accents betray your unconscious bias?

Rev Swee-Ann Koh
Director Intercultural unit


Share Button



Comments are closed.