“accent drifting like a boat with no rudder”
“like an SNL skit of a white guy trying to do a sassy latina accent”
“being an Afro Borinqueña born and raised in the Bx I’m thoroughly offended that anyone believed this perpetrator…She thinks if she curses it makes her more believable smh”
These are responses to a YouTube video featuring testimony from white, Jewish, suburban Kansas-born former university professor Jessica Krug in her Bronx-hailing Black Boriqua avatar. The video was recorded during a New York City Council hearing three months before Krug confessed to falsely claiming a range of immigrant and working class Black ethnic identities throughout her academic career.
For Krug’s critics her “drifting” accent is conclusive evidence of her perfidy—evidence that damns both Krug and colleagues who, as Lauren Michele Jackson puts it, “failed to recognize the gap not between real and faux, so much, as between something thrown-on and something lived-in.”
Indeed, Krug’s unconvincing act may have worked for this long on her predominantly white and elite audience because they were as unfamiliar as she was with what linguist Rosina Lippi-Green calls the “Sound House,” or social and material infrastructure, of her attempted accent or way of speaking (48). To use a geolocational analogy, Krug’s listeners could not zoom in to street-view.
In fact, the judgements of Krug’s listeners tell us less about her speech than about how her speech is being listened to. An accent is created in the process of listening. Judgements of Krug’s “drifting” and “thrown-on” accent reveal assumptions listeners make about the “accurate” sound of a given racial, ethnic, regional, or class identity, and which bodies are expected (or not) to perform these lingual sonorities.
Ask an asylum seeker who has been deported to the wrong country after an “accent test,” and you will learn that listeners’ assumptions can have drastic consequences. Accents drift. They are, by definition, acquired, borrowed, syncretic. Most accents happen in the improvised space between lived-in and thrown-on—a space occupied, certainly, by asylum seekers fleeing conflict (eg: a Palestinian who learns at a refugee camp to pronounce “tomato” the Syrian way) but also by you, me, and everyone we know.
Krug was leveraged and outed by the fundamentally unstable and unpredictable processes of accented speech and listening. Let’s not forget our own drifting, accented bodies when we use them to judge hers.
This is a fascinating episode, and you bring up so many interesting ways to reflect upon it. Thanks for these provocations around accent drfit and constuctions of listening. I'm reminded of the many anecdotes I've heard of actors being required to 'turn up' their accent to embody their ethncity.
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