One of the not-so-fun parts of living in the South is that your accent may not translate well if you leave it. Assumptions and rushed judgments are too often made about someone’s intelligence, lifestyle, and even their personal convictions simply from the way they elongate their vowels. Because of this, there’s often an unnatural pressure for Southerners, Appalachians, and rural folks to drop or soften their accents.
Look no further than Hollywood, where high-profile Southerners like Kentucky native Jennifer Lawrence have had nightmares about their accents returning. Late night host Stephen Colbert, who grew up in South Carolina, trained intensively in college to get rid of his drawl. “At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a Southern accent,” Colbert said. “When I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a Southern accent.”
With these kinds of reactions, it’s little wonder why Southerners are too often made to feel shameful for the way they speak. It’s also why things like this new accent modification program at the University of Kentucky shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Now, the controversy over the program’s launch made Twitter erupt with anecdotes and personal experiences of Kentuckians who can all relate. However, their frustrations seemed to be less about the program itself than the necessity behind it: the reality that people with Southern accents continue to be portrayed and pigeonholed as dumb, uneducated, or ignorant.
It’s a reality made possible by the irresponsibility of those in mass media who instill such stereotypes, rarely having their feet held to the fire. And it’s perpetuated in board rooms and college campuses across the country when transplants feel forced to water down their drawls to sound smart.
Among the growing calls for society at large to reflect on our biases and preconceived notions, rejecting these gross mischaracterizations that cause rural Southerners to feel shame for their accents seems like one of many good places to start.
Rural areas desperately need more high-paying industries and better access to upskilling opportunities. We need schools that can prepare students to compete in global markets and provide all kids, regardless of income or zip code, with high-quality educational opportunities that can lead them to success. But as for this notion that our accents can or should define us? Pass.
But even once that battle is won, the work must continue. Challenging harmful stereotypes is but one part of a larger movement needed to elevate our discourse on Rural America, a diverse place full of hardworking, innovative people who too often go unnoticed, whose depictions in media fail to adequately convey the unique challenges facing our communities. The rural South I know is filled with incredible stories of students and families beating the odds to get an education, make an honest living, and leave their communities better than they first encountered them. I say it’s time for their stories to be told, twang and all.
Garris Stroud is an award-winning ELA educator, author, and advocate from rural Western Kentucky. He is a former Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow and member of the Kentucky Education Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Council (TAC).