“This is beautiful,” my grandmother breathed. She stood in the front room with her arms around her children and her makeup immaculate. “And the kitchen installation is included?”
“Yes, of course,” said the real estate agent, but there was no happiness in her voice. She was white, and she eyed my grandmother’s Mexican family distastefully, all the way from their tea stained skin to their big brown eyes to their Spanish speaking tongues. My grandmother has always had a strong accent.
“How much?” she asked. There was a short pause.
“I don’t believe it’s in your price range,” said the agent.
“I have some less expensive housing options I can offer you … ”
Ten years later, my grandmother leaned forward on her couch in California. Her big family of aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews were all gathered around, me included. It was last summer, and she was telling us one of her favorite stories from when she tried to buy a house down the hill.
“And what happened next?” I asked.
“Well, I told her exactly where she could put her less expensive housing options -- ”
“What? She was racist! She thought we were poor because we were Mexican! When she found out the house we were considering moving out of, she got all green. Because this is a nice house! We paid a lot for this house!”
I looked up at the ceiling, at the huge windows. It certainly was a nice house, a real gem of prime real estate. My mother had told me before that it could be worth millions.
My grandmother continued. “I let her know that we wouldn’t be needing her anymore, we were gonna stay where we were.”
The whole family laughed and twittered among each other, their voices canceling out hard r’s, tough j’s and double l’s, creating a magical cacophony of sounds I’ve always loved to be in the middle of. But my family has been stereotyped because of the way they sound throughout their lives.
Humans as a species prefer to simplify. We are programmed to organize our knowledge by creating their own representations of the reality that we are perceiving, displaying its most fundamental elements instead of minute details or objective characteristics. In this way, these basic principles of the world around us become our basis for opinions, emotion control, and social cognition. Our thoughts and actions are governed by these preconceived notions, and it can take a lot to overcome them. One type of fundament is that of stereotypes.
Elliot Aronson, an American psychologist, said, “stereotypes are used to attribute the identical features to each member of a certain group without taking the existing differences among the members into consideration.” They show the viewpoint from a specific group of people, and sometimes, when exposed relentlessly for long periods of time to these opinions, humans may adopt them as their own. They are internalized during socialization. Some influential sources are parents, friends, siblings, teachers, and media. Stereotypes do not present the full picture; instead, they put forth a warped, incomplete, subjective and often false image. They are usually negative, and usually based on a traditional mindset. It is most common that arguments defying stereotypes are treated as exceptions rather than counterexamples.
Language has always been one of the most popular stereotype creators, a deciding factor about one’s place on the power hierarchy. As soon as someone opens their mouth, a million assumptions are made about their background, their history, their lifestyle, their names, their friends, their family, their culture, their choices. All from a couple of words.
Here is an example from The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingstan. In this particular story, a mother is going to a very far extent in order for her daughter to be able to speak. Here, she is explaining to her daughter why she did it. “I cut [your tongue] so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue would be able to move in any language. You’ll be able to speak languages that are completely different from one another. You’ll be able to pronounce anything.” Families take ridiculous measures to make sure that their children are prepared for a world ruled by the so-called, “standard English”. It teeters on the edge of insanity, but is not seen as unrealistic. As you can see, my grandmother faced the discrimination based on speech and race. In that moment, her power had been taken away from her and she had been assumed to be everything that she was not.
It is worth noting that race is a big factor in the stereotyping of language. Many people have preconceptions about how one may speak depending on their race, and if that person’s speech turns out to fit that stereotype, they may assume that all of their preconceived notions are correct and discriminate against them all the more.
Here is another example from Kingstan’s text. In this scene, Kingstan remembers drawing pictures of all black when she could not speak English in school, and her concerned teacher gave them to her parents. “My parents took the pictures home. I spread them out (so black and full of possibilities) and pretended the curtains were swinging open.”
The concept of language being a performance fascinates me. I don’t have an accent of language barrier myself, but it’s interesting to consider the dynamics of learning a new language and always having it feel strange in your mouth, as if you’re putting on a show for someone else that you can’t quite understand the point of. Especially if learning that language was not one of your original intentions, and it was for the sole purpose of communication.
Though race and the accents that accompany it don’t pertain to my lifestyle, they do to my family’s. My grandmother never bowed to these stereotypes, and always insisted on proving them wrong. Though these accents have not rubbed off on me, I have been able to treat others with respect no matter what their speech patterns, because assumption based on something that someone can’t help is counterintuitive, ridiculous and reductive.