First, see mediastar‘s post on “acting white.” This is a comment on that thread that I thought I’d pull to the top here.
What’s interesting is that the “diction” issue you describe, while having obvious implications for speakers of “black” dialects, also applies to a lot of white people. I grew up in a part of NC where the white dialect – at least, the white working-class dialect – is the same harsh mountain Southern that Tom Wolfe depicts in his last novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. And I’m telling you, I don’t care how brilliant you are, you cannot sound smart with that accent coming out of your mouth.
I taught myself to speak with a more neutral dialect, and am lucky that I’m natually pretty good at imitating what I hear. I was a debater in high school, and had a lot of exposure to people who could speak proper English (Websterian Ohioese, pretty much), and I realized early on that sounding like a hillbilly was going to really limit me. At the time, I was thinking it would cost me debate rounds, because my accent made me sound like a dummy in front of Yankee judges. I didn’t yet realize that this was also going to be a key to my ability to access opportunities in the professional world.
For years – over 15 years, maybe 20 – nobody ever guessed I was Southern. The most common guesses were Pennsylvania and Ohio, so I was hiding pretty well. Once I got into my PhD program at CU, I decided to let the Southern out a little bit – by that time I had learned the joys of letting people underestimate me, so occasionally playing the bumpkin was a form of intellectual gamesmanship on my part.
Unless I’m in a situation that calls for pro English (maybe a high-level business situation or voice production work, which I do from time to time), I now tend to sound a little Southern.
But, not the mountain dialect. That loses you points even with Southerners, because upper class whites in this region speak a more elegant dialect that’s informed by coastal accents. The way I sound now is more like that, and it’s by design. I don’t have to think about it anymore – after all these years I’ve learned to sort of intuitively adapt the dialect to the situation and audience.
Now I have a niece who will one day be heading off to Wake Forest, and she has the same Piedmont mountain working class mushmouth that I did. But she’s smart as a whip, and the only thing that should limit her in life is her own sense of what she wants to be. I don’t care what that is – doctor, lawyer, rocket scientist, or fry cook – so long as she’s happy, I’m good. But I want her career and opportunities to be a function of her choices, not other people’s prejudices. So at some point I’m going to have to talk to my sister about getting her a diction coach.
Is this uppity? Condesending? Well, no. It’s about wanting her to be judged on her ability, not on people’s preconceived biases. If you can’t speak a certain way, doors don’t open for you in the South (or anywhere else, for that matter). It’s the same as wearing ripped bib overalls and a tube top to an interview – the thread count in your shirt says nothing about your ability as a problem solver in a professional context, but interviews can be over before they start if you throw the wrong image walking through the door.
Right or wrong, it’s reality. One of the things I want to do now that I’m back in my hometown is to work with the Chamber or maybe one of the local schools (Forsyth Tech or WSSU would be the obvious choices) to develop a seminar on class climbing. I know things about the challenges of migrating up out of the working class. There are things you need to know that you have no way of knowing, and I’d like to help kids who are like I was learn some useful things about diction, style, comportment, etc. I always felt like there was rulebook, and everybody had a copy except me. And I was right.
I’d like to give smart working class kids looking to better themselves a glimpse inside the rulebook, if I can….