Are you judged for having a different accent?

29 May 2020

Written by: Shazma Gaffoor

With one in four Australians born overseas, the nation boasts multiculturalism. But is it without bias?

Australia is home to some of the world’s oldest cultures. Nearly seven million people from across the globe have migrated to Australia since 1945, and many identify with over 270 ancestries.

Melbourne has repeatedly held the title for being “the most liveable city”, followed closely by Sydney for ranking highly in healthcare, education and infrastructure as well as stability, culture and environment. Research suggests that out of a global top five listing, Australia ranked second as being one of the “most desired destinations to live abroad”.

Which is why the nation prides itself when it comes to its rich heritage and cultural diversity. But does everyone feel celebrated?

Discrimination is not unique to Australia, and just like a stubborn stain that doesn’t go away, it is prevalent across the board. Whether it is racism or sexism and all the other ‘isms’.

The one that isn’t an ‘ism’ is discrimination against accents.

Dr Howard Manns, director of the Monash Master of Applied Linguistics, discusses the findings of his research regarding this topic on their university faculty page.

“Accents are one of those last areas where you can be a bit racist, sexist or regionalist because when we’re casting judgements on an accent, we’re not casting judgements on the accent itself, we’re are[sic] casting judgement on the user of the accent,” he said.

Having a non-Australian accent has been a nightmare for some, despite calling Australia home. Nigerian-born contact centre consultant Michael Akinola faces discrimination every day. Customers frequently ask him if he is Australian or bluntly say they don’t really want to “speak to someone in the Philippines” and “ask to be put back to an Australian person”. He responds to the sceptics saying he is Australian, but customers still refuse to believe him.

“If they [customers] say they don’t understand what I’m saying, I slow down and break it down to them. But if they start to question where I’m from then they’re seeking to go down a different path,” he told upstart.

He believes the lack of education or exposure to accents outside of peoples’ immediate circle are two reasons people may discriminate. Akinola feels that he is looked down upon because he doesn’t sound local.

“In social settings when you talk to people, if you don’t sound very Aussie you may be treated differently as opposed to if you sound Aussie,” he said.

“Obviously, it’s an issue with how they think about the world. I’m not going to educate them on how the world works.”

Akinola believes that he would still face discrimination if he were to work in a face-to-face working environment.

“People are inclined to be aligned with their own than [with] others. If they feel they can speak to someone without a cultural barrier, they’d speak to them more,” he said.

“Let’s face it, we live in a society led by white males, and that’s just the fact. You can’t change the narrative. I feel I will always have to work harder than the average Australian.”

Former human resources manager Shazia Faleel was part of a team at an accounting firm that primarily focused on diversity and inclusion. She believes career progression is mostly based on merit and performance with an emphasis on confidence being key “even if you have a heavy accent”.

“I’ve personally never had issues with not having the right opportunity because I speak a different way,” she told upstart.

Faleel made a parallel between the lack of confidence and the slow progression of some colleagues from diverse backgrounds.

“Their [limited] ability to speak the [English] language with confidence also inhibits their ability to then perform really well like at interviews,” she said.

Faleel believes that it is the lack of fluency in language that causes confusion. This was exemplified during an interaction with one of their international subsidiaries which caused repeated miscommunication.

“The frustration came from them not being able to clearly articulate what they wanted to say and them not understanding what we wanted. You can’t have successful outcomes anyway when you have that kind of barrier,” she said.

“It comes down to having the most impact and confidence when you speak. Even though it has nothing to do with the way you speak, your impact will be of someone who speaks well.”

Being treated differently for having an accent is against the law in Australia according to the Australian Human Rights Commission. And Australians like Akinola knows where he stands with people who are blunt but when facing microaggressions is where he questions if he is being presumptuous.

“I’m confident in who I am. I’m educated, I’ve travelled the world, so, I wouldn’t internalise anything and think it’s their problem and not mine. I’ve learnt to do that,” he said.

Photo: By Markus Spiske available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.

Shazma Gaffoor is a third year Media and Communication student (Journalism) at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @ShazGaffoor