Amongst the many privileges my parents afforded me – English as a mother tongue is most definitely one of the most paramount, and by no means an easy feat for a young Afrikaans couple. What they themselves could not nurture – the seed absorbed and cultivated from the garden in which it was planted. The accent grounded growth came naturally and easily as it ought to in the proper environment, with personal stimulation and reward in the form of admiring acceptance.
Perhaps this comes as one of the many perks of attending an elite private girl’s school from first to final grade – a ‘superior’ accent (or superior power against said inflection) was bound to afflict me sooner or later.
As it turns out, it was sooner that this badge of elitism was to be worn on the linguistic lapel of my oversized uniform. My newfound accolade was to slowly make its way into my dialect, succeeding the swift eviction of my previous race-identifying twang with a similar impressiveness to that of my junior entrance examination (well almost as impressive).
A present recollection of past performance observes a sort of accented language promotion accompanying my quarterly report cards; as if these where testimonial accounts of my seamless assimilation into said environment. A certain confidence grew within in me, a surety that my new language persona would have me set for life, and guarantee success to every prospect placed before me. Now, years later, I am once again in a similar situation as I lay the founding blocks for yet another educational journey, I question my juvenile views of language and realize the importance of speech to be the content of one’s dialogue, rather than the way in which it is uttered.
Literally living and learning amongst movements of ethnic awareness and cultural pride, one cannot avoid reflective questioning of one’s true self and the self created over years of acceptance-seeking snobbery often blamed on the private school.
Although I am content with the self-portrait I have produced, I am still – as any artist, curious as to what my audience sees when looking at what I consider my greatest personal master piece of all time; yet still a continuous work in progress. However, as not many an artist, my sensitivity to stylistic critique was not yet developed. This was to my own detriment through the screenings of complex and intricate work to a pejorative audience.
My would-be privilege became a begrudged embarrassment; a sort of “Engluenza” that afflicted me instantaneously upon talking to anyone unaware of my condition. My ailments would only be eased, as they were before, by stepping out of my ill-fitted uniform and into something more suited to me. The confines of my home, or rather the remedial qualities of those who I shared it with, would remedy my ailment promptly upon check in.
I remember resentingly taking part in Sunday school activities, fully aware of the stigma attached to those suffering from Engluenza. Contributing to group discussions and reading aloud swelled my discomfort. The privileged gift that allowed me to render the most vivid linguistic version of myself had become too embarrassing to present to those who had not been afforded such an opportunity.
As one does when combating detrimental enzymes, I built up a barrier of elitism, strengthen by the superior populace to which I whole-heartedly believed I belonged to (or was entitled to as membership fees, also known as school fees were duly paid). With this protection I was seemingly untouched by queries of where I was from, if I was American (interestingly) and the all-essential- to-know question, being: “why do you speak like a whitey”.
Unfortunately my membership fee did not cover the provision of a guiding manual on how to answer interrogations as to the reason of my joining the club to begin with – and even if it did would it have influenced my answer in those moments?
Drawing on my supernatural powers of assimilation, I generated a response that I believed was suited to and would satisfy my interrogators. I informed them that the cause of my apparent disorder to be the verity that “I attend a white school”.
I now recognize a certain abashedness that was prevalent in my past behavior regarding my cultivated accent – an abashedness that I do not feel presently. I find attending a multicultural internationalized university to play a considerable role in my self-acceptance and belief that whatever it is I have to offer – is unique. This however, does not mean that I am no longer confronted with identity based inquiries.
The first few weeks of university, or any institution for that matter, is usually dedicated to an orientation period of some sorts. My orientation not only included the workings of the university and how to get about campus, but also a personal-identification maneuver of sorts. It’s seemed as though classifying me according to race was of high importance to a number of students I came into contact with. However, I now found that my accent had become of less importance to them.
These initial weeks of university life was a time for me to familiarize myself with the institution, as well as the continuing orientation of my race classification. With no race-defining intonation to aid in the categorization process, I was subjected to a variance of questions including but not limited to: “Are you coloured?”, “Are you mixed?”, “You are the definition of yellow bone”, “You are coloured, I can see it”, “You look very exotic, are you from here?” and my most highly favored (in terms of the level of insolence), “What are you?”
Each of these instances provided an unsoiled occasion for profound unfavorable self-reflective thoughts; mirroring the younger version of myself – unable to digest outsiders commentary. My present self recognizes it as just that – commentary. Nowadays it interests me to hear these preconceived notions of “what” I could possibly be, with the absence of an overtly stereotyped accent. Does the insufficiency of this accent haze me as an individual, or merely the spectator’s ability to categorize what they see and hear? Perhaps what they see and hear does not add up? Perhaps this elevated English and the accent it is spoken in does not match the individual, or the skin tone? Perhaps what my onlookers regard as my “light skin”, “exotic features”, “luscious hair”, “eloquent manner” and “extremely English name”, further complement the disillusioning works of my so called “white accent”.
The disillusionment however, lies in their preconceived notion of how I should look, sound and behave. A notion that does not allow for me, just as I am, to possibly be “a coloured from the Cape” who grew up in a partially Afrikaans speaking household in a working-class ‘coloured’ community.
I hesitate to accept that the only thing that defines me to a racial group is an accent, and even to a racial group I hesitate to consolidate. I see myself as an English speaking South African and a resident on the world, who has grown and continues to grow to her full potential in the direction she chooses.
─ Nicole Margaret-Rose Norman