We Need to Detach Accent from Class Status

I went to a beauty salon near where I live in South London last week. I was chatting casually to the technician when she said: “you’re not from here, are you? You don’t sound like you are.”

I sighed to myself because I know the connotations that come with my accent: posh and privileged.

It makes me feel like those that I’m talking to think I have my head in the clouds, with no idea of the realities of being working class – when I truly do. It feels like the struggles I’ve faced throughout my younger years of being hard up to go unacknowledged. All those times I’ve spent truly worrying about money are immediately undermined. (This is no doubt a consequence of being a major overthinker.)

I remember when I was at school – in an area that’s officially considered by the government as deprived – other students used to call me posh. My mum was a stickler for pronunciation, she used to pick us up on any dropped T or the use of ‘these ones’ instead of ‘those ones’. I have a well-pronounced south English accent as a result. And it made me feel embarrassed and has definitely contributed to a hefty amount of imposter syndrome over the years.

I thought my voice would fit in better when I went to University. I knew the chances were that they’d be people that sounded like me. I was right, there were, but they could still detect the difference in the way I spoke.

I remember one privately educated girl laughed at the way I said ‘hamster’, and began mimicking me in jest. I laughed and shrugged it off, but in private I cried – my voice still didn’t fit in. To one group I was too posh, to the other, I was not posh enough.

A vocal identity

I’m under no illusions. I know having an accent that’s ‘beyond my working-class background’ (god, that sounds awful) comes with some privilege. I have the OG voice of UK journalism, which has most definitely portrayed me as being the right fit for jobs.

However, beyond just my own experiences, what’s sad is how much someone’s accent can affect the way you appear to others and the opportunities you’re given. Back at the salon, the beautician and I continued our conversations about accents. She explained that she’d been a journalist too, but she didn’t feel like she fitted in. People looked at her differently because of her South London accent. It was a factor that pushed her out of the industry altogether.

What’s worst is that she justified there not being a space for her in the industry. “Working class people are working class for a reason. It’s not appropriate for someone to be talking like that in journalism.”

It makes me sad because if we abided by this ethos big portions of the population would be prevented from having a voice and sharing their experiences. (Of course, there’s social media which can be incredibly effective in perpetuating the voices of marginalised people – but I’m talking about big magazines and newspapers)

There’s this ongoing narrative that professional spaces aren’t for people like them. They’re not entitled to having an opinion because of the way they speak and where they were educated. It’s a bit like when people were mimicking me at uni and I didn’t feel I could speak up. Admittedly, I even feel nervous writing this column, through fear of people claiming I’m not working class because of my voice.

Of course, without these voices the process of marginalising working class voices continues further. It should go without saying that we shouldn’t neglect people’s experiences on the basis of how they sound. This is applicable to everyone regardless of their background. And I genuinely believe if we spent more time listening to what people have to say rather than how they say it we’d have a much more diverse food for thought, which can only be a healthy thing for our society.

Image courtesy of Canva.

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