Birthdays are special in my home. We are four people but we only celebrate two birthdays, as my sister and I are twins and my parents were born just one day apart. Every year we gather only twice, with a cake and candles, to celebrate with the Doerre Torres family special: “Happy Birthday” sung in three languages–English, Spanish and German. 

Alongside birthday celebrations, my parents also shared strikingly similar career paths; both studied chemistry at their state or national universities, and both came to the U.S. in the nineties, my dad from Germany, my mom from Colombia. They met working at a Boston University (BU) laboratory. And then their paths diverged. 

My father continued working in a BU lab, where my sister and I would sometimes help him assemble little Lego kits in the shape of RNA for his students. His coworkers and supervisors would come in and out, casually conversing with my father. His work environment was relaxing; he fit right in and got along with his coworkers. 

In 1999, my mother began working at a cancer research institute. She was there for fifteen years, but I knew so little about what she did. I never went to her work or interacted with her coworkers. All I gathered was based on the stories she would tell my dad in the car about the rude comments her coworkers made about how she spoke. Both of my parents spoke with an accent, and yet only one was constantly belittled and undervalued because of it. 


At Amherst, taking “Hearing Difference: The Political Economy of Accent” with Professor Pooja Rangan, I thought back to my childhood and to my parents’ strikingly different experiences at work. My research sought to contextualize why, despite their equal credentials, my mother’s and my father’s experiences differed so greatly. 

My reading, thinking, and discussions with my professor and classmates revealed the system of linguistic discrimination through which my mother was oppressively racialized based on her Spanish accent in ways my father and his German accent were not.

Both of my parents are understood to “have an accent” because their speech patterns do not match those of the normative American. However, the processes through which each is measured against this normative notion of “American” differ greatly. Accents are commonly understood to indicate origin, and in the U.S. differences in origin are viewed through the lens of ethnicity and race. In the contemporary dominant racial hierarchies of this country, my father’s accent marks him–a little–as ethnically Germanic; my mother’s Colombian accent marks her as racially other. As sociologist Bonnie Urciuoli explains, “In social life the unmarked is typical and the marked is atypical. The contrast can be highly politicized. In the United States where Anglo origins are unmarked, all other origins range along a sliding scale of slightly marked and safely different to highly marked and dangerous. Ethnicity is safely marked, race is dangerously marked” (Urciuoli 17). Ethnicity frames divergence from the unmarked citizen through national and cultural origin, while race frames divergence as “natural attributes” that hierarchize racialized people “and if they are not White, make their place in the nation provisional at best” (Urciuoli 15). 

Ethnicized accents do not disqualify people from being viewed as productive members of society and as holding an American identity. While they may be understood as differing from the norm, the manner in which they differ is accepted and does not become the basis of exclusion. Ethnicized accents are interpreted as displays of “higher culture” and “authenticity” (Urciuoli 16), celebrated even. And most importantly, they are understood to be able to coexist with American English.

Meanwhile, racialized language and accent “dangerously” mark difference, and become a point of exclusion. They are often portrayed as “parasitic” (Urciuoli 16) as they are constructed in opposition to normative American English, and are thus understood to be incapable of coexisting. Some mainstream speakers even fear that Spanish accents, language and people will displace American English and everything it stands for culturally and socially.

Binary listening practices augment this racist cultural logic. That is, white American listening practices often “imagine language as a finite good,” in which the more of one language someone speaks the less they can speak another (Rosaldo 403). The prominence of one’s Spanish accent is unthinkingly believed to correlate with how little English one is capable of understanding and speaking. These listening practices intertwine with notions that Spanish has the ability to erase English due to its “parasitic” nature and inform people’s judgments of accents; thus, the racialized accent is deemed a threat. 

Many times at her work, my mother’s coworkers held the assumption that because of her accent, she was incapable of not only understanding English, but also of understanding the content of the work itself. They would question her ability to perform the most basic procedures; claiming she was “hard to understand”– they would even refuse to work with her. Urciuoli notes how accented speech or racialized language difference is perceived as a threat in the work space; “speaking Spanish [or with a Spanish accent] at work is dangerous because people are supposed to act like Americans at work” (Urciuoli 16). However, Urciuoli also gets at the real dangers faced by people who display linguistic differences at work: in spaces where one is supposed to “act American” (or in this case “sound American”), it becomes dangerous to speak Spanish or with a Spanish accent. 

The workplace is not the only place where the consequences for not “sounding American” can be extreme. It was in a grocery store that Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez were stopped by a border agent for speaking with “very strong” Spanish accents. Even after they produced proof of legal residence, the agent detained them in the parking lot (Stack). For Ana Suda and Martha Hernandez, judgements based on their ability, or inability to “sound American,”  outweighed legal proof of belonging. The way immigration is enforced in this country makes any space in the U.S. a space where it is dangerous to be the racialized other, or perceived as non-American. 

Unfortunately, one of the most prominent “solutions” thus far falls into the same racist binary view of language than the problem. While Spanish is portrayed as having the ability to erase English, the inverse is also believed — namely that English has the ability to erase Spanish. Therefore, efforts to eliminate accent-based discrimination have largely focused on the speaker themself; often both speakers and listeners wrongly focus on accent “reduction” as the focal point for inclusion. Losing one’s Spanish accent becomes a signal of Spanish language loss, which is often framed as “the path to inclusion and prosperity for Latinas/os and other ethnoracially minoritized groups” (Rosa 108). This framing promises eventual, conditional inclusion to American identity whereby all of the material benefits of American identity are promised once an accent is changed. But this framing of conditional inclusion does not adequately address current exclusion and inequality, and fails to address the root of said exclusion and inequality. 

Only speakers with racialized accents are regularly asked to get rid of their accents. And while racialized accent and speech are not valued in racialized individuals, multilingual education is increasingly emphasized and sought after in white communities (Rosa 110). The problem is not with Spanish, other racialized languages, accented speech or the racialized speaker. The problem is with the process of racialization as a whole which deems some accents acceptable and others in need of modification. It is not accent that impedes marginalized groups from a reality free of racism and prejudicial treatment (Lippi-Green 50), it is racism.

Complete inclusion in America should not rely on an individual’s efforts to change their accent; the accented speaker should not need to change. Instead, America itself needs to examine and address the underlying racism through which belonging is withheld. Once this takes place, no linguistic difference will be a source of exclusion. And speaking Spanish at work and in public can be as special and celebrated as it is in my home.

Works Cited

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. “The Myth of Non Accent” in English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, first edition New York: Routledge. 3-7; 41-53.

Rosa, Jonathan. 2016. “Racializing Language, Regimenting Latinas/os: Chronotope, Social Tense, and American Raciolinguistic Futures.” Language and Communication 46, no. 3: 106–17.

Rosaldo, Renato. “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy.” Cultural Anthropology 9,  no. 3 (1994): 402-11.

Stack, Liam. 2019. “A Border Agent Detained Two Americans Speaking Spanish. Now They Have Sued.” New York Times, February 14. Accessed May 1, 2020.

Urciuoli, Bonnie, 1996. Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican Experiences of Language, Race, And Class. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.