You Have an Accent
I’m Black. He’s White. We’re graduate students in a large public midwestern American university in a classroom lined with spiderweb type cracks and peeling whitish paint. We’re in class, sitting in a semi-circle. I’m sitting to his left, answering a question about political correctness and wondering why this is even a question. He swivels his chair and faces me.
“You have an accent,” he says, his greenish-bluish eyes holding mine. His pale pink boney hand scratches the tabletop inching closer and closer into my space. The closer his hand gets, the more I fear him bursting the invisible bubble that separates our lives--my veil of protection.
My mind repeats the four words. He said them and spun around, giving me his back. Intimidation over. I think he thinks. He has won. I think he thinks.
I want to nudge him in the ribs protruding under his frayed, extra-large, no longer white cotton T-shirt that clings on his stick frame like a wet towel. A film of dark brown grease lines the neck area. Faded red and dull brown spots decorate the chest area.
I want him to turn around and face me. I stare at him and flare up in anger and anguish. I hold my face with both hands to cool it down. For control.
Then I let go of my face. I’m done pretending that I do not exist so he, so they, can exist blissfully. Everywhere I go on campus, in each class, they complain when I talk or don’t talk. I never seem to do the right amount of either. I have endured confusing moments of silencing. When I open my mouth I’m mocked for my accent. When I’m silent I’m mocked for being lazy, a synonym for stupid.
I don’t want him to spend time in my head. I want to deal with him and forget about him. Today I will not let me forget me. I will not let him forget me.
Not today, I say to myself. I will not be ridiculed.
I’m convinced that my anger is warranted. For years, I’ve been wounded by this statement that’s often paired with a question--like wine and cheese pairings in high-class restaurants with pianists playing in the background. It’s a statement and question set. It plays in my ears and rings in my brain. The cheese refuses to settle in my stomach. I’m disturbed by the wine. I have to do something.
“You have an accent. Where are you from?” They’ve said this to me too many times. White and Black and Brown revel in this question, in this melting pot, salad bowl, free world, land of the free. All have tried to make me hyper-visible so they can hyper-erase me when they are done mocking me. The duality of visibility and erasure is not lost on me. I’m othered, told apart, made an outcast, a foreigner, pitiable, stupid, wild from the wilderness, from Africa, therefore an animal, uncivilized, stinking, from a shit hole. My existence and existentiality are curated and questioned. I think of Sarah Baartman, poked and prodded and displayed at her displeasure for Whites to pleasure themselves.
“You have an accent,” I raise my voice and it rises to a high point I never imagined. It rips through his thinning T-shirt and thinned understanding of the world. He swivels around to face me. I don’t look away. I look at him. I don’t add “too.” I don’t want him to be bound up with me. With my personhood. With my identity. Plus, I am not a “too.”’ I am me, me, me, me.
I get ready to chop him down with my accented tongue, grab and graze him with my animal teeth, and wild claws. I want to smash him into a white doll of plastic mess and mass, the disfigured thing you throw away from disgust, disillusionment, and disaffection. I don’t get to. He’s quick to respond and lets me into his reasoning that is as thin as his T-shirt.
“What! I’m American,” he half screams.
Professor Zethy does not intervene. The other students look on. Say nothing. Too many spectators.
I’m on my own.
“And Americans don’t have an accent?” I giggle the question. I’m winning.
I offload colorful words on him. I tell him that I’m smart and educated and have never gone hungry. I quote African and Euro-American scholars for show. I don’t breathe. I don’t let him get a word in.
He leans forward, squaring his shoulders. I lean in, pushing my chest out. I flex my shoulders. This is important for my posture, my purpose. For my confidence and consciousness if not the conscientious act of self-defense. I give him a grainy stare. Pink face now red, he looks away.
Did I fail? Did I do the thing I shouldn’t do? Did I kick down the one I should have helped build up? Perhaps I dished out undeserved punishment. I punished him for the sins of others. I allowed the scars I carry in the creases of my soul to speak on my behalf. I ruined him because I’ve been ruined. I weaponized my pain to pain. Maybe I have to recognize that there is a story and curiosity behind each comment, each question. Tomorrow I will do better, be better.
We’re all the Same Really
“Us women must band together. We’re the same really,” my White female colleague says while telling me a story about horrible White men.
I am silent.
She is standing on the doorway of my office on a Friday morning. Before I have a chance to respond to the interruption in my day, her face--covered in blotches of redness, bruised by the southwestern Illinois winter--is up in mine as if we’re about to be intimate. She adds, “I hate men. You do too, right?” I look at her pale grayish-blue eyes hoping to stop her dead before she spews something funkier through her mouth.
I want to tell her that we may both be women, but we’re not the same. Kimberly Krenshaw’s concept of intersectionality races to my brain. Krenshaw explains that identities like class, race, gender, nationality, sexuality, religion, and others overlap to produce discrimination. I want to tell her that the discrimination experienced by Black women is not the same as what White women experience, although they see themselves as treated worse compared to their White male partners.
I want to tell her about white fragility. Scholars like DiAngelo consider white fragility a way to explain how White people are protected from stress experienced by other racial groups. I want to tell her that while they say Black people pull the race card, they too pull cards--the socio-economic class card, the gender card, the sexual orientation card. They do this to gaslight without recognizing the race-based comfort they enjoy
I’m not necessarily annoyed that she interrupted me, felt entitled to my time and space and thoughts. It’s not even that I want to disagree. I know that in America, White men are the epitome of privilege. Many have been awful to me too. I am annoyed that she delegitimized me as a human. Why did she speak on my behalf, claim to know how I feel? Why can’t she see that she is doing what many have done to me before, treat me as an outsider only let in to affirm the feelings of insiders?
There is so much I want to say to her, but I can’t properly line up what I want to say. A lump forms in my throat, foams, and bubbles out of my mouth. It blocks my words. I gaze into her pale grayish-blue eyes and wonder if the gray clouds her judgment, grays her notions of life, and her outlook.
The lump bursts in my throat and I swallow hard, twice to be sure. I think back to many like her who have spoken to me with a tone parents reserve for their children. I get ready to react, to respond. Ready to return a swift blow with my lips dunked in spew. Dripping with venom. Doused in flames. Dipped in ink. Lips so full and formed and formulating. I’m poised to chop her down with my words. I’m ready to blow her away as if with my African horn. I imagine her body bending like trees succumbing to a storm.
I ask, “who does the ‘us’ include?” I study her movements, her eyes, her lips. She backs away. She doesn’t respond. I clear my throat and ask again, leaning toward her, my body pushing hers away.
I watch her pale grayish-blue eyes bounce off the walls. I can almost hear their squishy sound. It’s like the muted sound of Play-Doh in a kid’s hand.
She doesn’t respond to my question. She tells me another story instead. In this story she is righteous, flawed, but with reason. Tells me that she sides with those like me, even uses the words ‘“not racist” to self-define. Tells me she is the one who calls others like her out, but never the police on those like me.
I’m fuming. I fold my lips inside my mouth so I don’t make a sound. I pull my tongue back toward my throat. I can’t control it.
“Say again?” I say losing the battle of self-control. I feel the stub of my nose stabbing her.
“You sound so high class,” she says.
Her comments on my pronunciation snub me. I know she is deflecting. I know I am not overreacting just as she knows that she is not complementing me.
A man was openly hostile to her. She is being sneakily hostile to me. Could it be that she thinks intra-gender harm is not a problem? If she recognizes the prejudicial side of intra-race issues, why does she not see that harm by White women on Black women is alive and thriving? Is it on me to teach her? Should I even teach, or it is appropriate to be flamingly hostile?
I’m tempted to fight back. I don’t. I’m not about to fit neatly into her constructed stereotype of an angry Black woman--finding a fight because she is looking for it, “You see it because you look for it,” many feminist professors have said to me. I let her be. I want to tell her that I’m superior, a warrior. I don’t. I want to use colorful words of disgust. I don’t.
Lindani Mbunyuza-Memani is an MFA candidate who recently fell in love with creative writing. While creative non-fiction is her real love, she dabbles in fiction writing sometimes. She hopes to write poetry one day, not soon. When she is not writing or observing one or another social or cultural phenomena that she knows will end up in one of her stories, she is teaching.