When we think of discrimination, we generally think in terms of skin color. But Rahul Chakraborty, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Communication Disorders at CSUF, wants to change that. He is conducting a series of studies on accent bias and accent privilege, trying to determine what factors can help downplay people who judge someone solely on their accent.
Emphasis bias assumes a set of characteristics about a person based on the way they speak. Emphasis privilege is similar, but when the listener identifies the speaker as belonging to a powerful demographic and subconsciously attributes to them a set of more positive stereotypical characteristics.
“A lot of prejudices are part of this concept,” said Chakraborty. People hear an accent and attribute a range of qualities to the speaker, ranging from relatively benign things like the types of foods they might eat to more damaging preconceptions like their job or intelligence. This can have serious consequences, affecting employment and housing opportunities, personal relationships and the level of competence or confidence of people, noted Chakraborty.
Accent bias is tricky territory for several reasons. The concept itself is not yet widely recognized. “Focus is one of the places where anything can happen under the veil,” said Chakraborty. “With skin color, racial discrimination, and religious discrimination, there are laws to protect you to some extent. But with the accent, there is nothing. You can’t prove it in court that someone discriminated against you on the basis of accent. “
And often we don’t know that we are doing it, or as Chakraborty says, that we perceive the accent through a socially tainted lens. “It’s not necessarily overt behavior. Some people don’t even realize that they started behaving differently just because the speaker has a different accent. It can be very slippery territory. “
The accent bias is also malleable, shifting the speakers between privilege levels. For example, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, people with Chinese accents have suffered from a more severe accent bias.
Accent bias isn’t necessarily racial or ethnic, it can also be regional, as in how someone with a Boston accent versus an Alabama accent might be viewed differently. “In India there are 22 official languages,” said Chakraborty, who received his bachelor’s degree in speech-language pathology and audiology and his master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Bombay, India. “State to state, I have been discriminated against probably even more than I am here in the United States.”
Inspired by his personal experiences, Chakraborty begins his studies. (News on accent bias, accent privilege, and mental health has been postponed due to COVID-19 and is expected to be operational by this summer.) An article, “Perception of Nonnative Accent: A Cross -Sectional Perspective Pilot Survey, ”co-authored with Amy Louise Schwarz and Prasiddh Chakraborty, examined how education levels affect accent bias. They asked high school students, speech-language pathology students, and speech-language pathologists to make associations between non-native accent and personality traits, socio-cultural factors, professional attire and personal appearance. They found that young people were the most biased, but also that despite training in multicultural sensitivity built into speech-language pathology programs, even professionals retained some biased beliefs.
In later studies, Chakraborty found little correlation between accent bias and geographic location, level of education, training, and intellectual ability. “These are very complicated results,” he said.
So what should we do with this? Chakraborty recommends treating accent bias with a multi-faceted approach. “Influence has to come from different areas. It must come from academic institutions. It has to come from our daily life. It has to come from our parents, ”he said.
“Everyone will be biased. It is impossible to get rid of prejudices. It’s like viruses, they’re out there, ”Chakraborty said. “Acknowledge your biases. Respect that you are biased. Respect that these are your limits and don’t let those limits dominate your behavior. “
Chakraborty has seen his work start to gain attention, most recently in a Washington Post article on how some non-native speakers question whether they should try to lose their accent in order to progress professionally. He’s glad the accent bias is recognized, but knows the problem won’t go away immediately. “It’s a very long and continuous process. It’s kind of a crusade, ”he said.
“Imagine that tomorrow, even if you are extremely competent, your boss will not give you a raise just because your accent is different,” he says. “You lose faith in humans; you lose confidence in your skills. You lose faith in so many different ways. “