Does my voice whiten me or not? A reflection on the instability of race and accent (by Vijay Ramjattan)

Guest blogger Vijay Ramjattan is a PhD candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, a division of the University of Toronto. His research interests lie at the intersection of language and race as these relate to the experiences of marginalized people in the workplace. These interests are exemplified by his MA research examining the professional microaggressions experienced by racialized English language teachers and his doctoral work on the racialization of accents found in the communicative labour of international teaching assistants.

My parents make fun of how I pronounce the word “water.” When I pronounce this word, the /t/ sounds more like a /d/ (what linguists refer to as flapping) and the second syllable is unstressed. In contrast, my parents, who were born in Trinidad, pronounce “water” as “wata.” For them, the way that I pronounce this word is a result of being born and raised in Canada and thus having a so-called Canadian accent. However, according to my parents, a Canadian accent is a metonym for something else. In fact, when they comment on how I sound Canadian, my parents are actually remarking on how I sound white. That is, they usually connect my speech to that of people in the Canadian media, who are mostly white and identify as Canadian.

By making the above comments, my parents are implicitly articulating how racial identities are never stable and how accents contribute to their instability. While many think that racial identity is a fixed trait established at birth, they fail to consider how language (and other semiotic resources) may make people more or less stereotypically representative of their racial/ethnic group (Roth-Gordon, 2017). For example, when black people are complimented as “articulate,” they are positioned as “less black” on account of their ability to move away from the pervasive stereotype of black unintelligibility (e.g., Alim & Smitherman, 2012). In my case, my so-called Canadian accent positions me away from my Indo-Trinidadian background. That is, it is an auditory reminder that I was born in a nation where English has become the dominant language through white settler colonialism. It also highlights how I was brought up in an educational system that continues to perceive the English of white settlers as the standard to which students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds must subscribe.

Because of these points, my parents, while joking about my accent, nevertheless understand me to be speaking “correct English.” Therefore, from their perspective, my voice aurally resembles that of a white Canadian.

However, it is important to note that the whiteness being projected from my voice is only noticed by those who have personally known me for an extended period of time. Indeed, beyond my parents and various relatives living in Trinidad, strangers rarely, if ever, mention how I sound Canadian/white. This leads to another important connection between my race and accent: just as my so-called Canadian accent can shift the meaning of my racial identity, my racial identity can disrupt the stability of my accent. In other words, I have noticed that being brown makes others perceive my accent as “non-Canadian.”

Specifically, I frequently receive questions about the perceived foreignness of my accent even when people have had the chance to hear me speak. For instance, after giving a presentation at a recent academic conference in Toronto, one of the audience members complimented me on my research and then proceeded to ask, “Where are you from?” When I told them that I was born and raised in Canada, they replied, “But your accent doesn’t sound like you come from here.” While dumbfounded by the comment, I understood that this person was hearing my race rather than my actual voice. This understanding is supported by research examining how listeners perceive the speech of people of colour as “foreign” even when they produce the exact same speech as a white person (see Rubin, 1992). In the Canadian context, such a perception is fueled by the notion that people of colour, no matter their accent, are constructed as foreign to the nation when juxtaposed to white settlers and immigrants (Creese, 2018).

When some people, like the audience member, perceive my accent as foreign and others, like my family members, perceive it as Canadian, it reminds me that the interconnection of my race and accent is always in flux. Indeed, depending on my interlocutor and context, my accent can figuratively whiten my racial identity or my racial identity can darken my accent. Rather than exert energy trying to “recalibrate” my race or accent to achieve a desired impression for others, I believe that I should be using these occasions as opportunities to question and challenge the language and racial ideologies guiding the perceptions about me. For readers who have had similar experiences, what are some effective strategies that I can begin to implement?


Alim, H.S., & Smitherman, G. (2012). Articulate while black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the U.S. New York: Oxford University Press.

Creese, G. (2018). “Where are you from?” Racialization, belonging and identity among second-generation African-Canadians. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2018.1484503

Roth-Gordon, J. (2017). Race and the Brazilian body: Blackness, whiteness, and everyday language in Rio de Janeiro. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Rubin, D.L. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English- speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33(4), 511-531.

5 thoughts on “Does my voice whiten me or not? A reflection on the instability of race and accent (by Vijay Ramjattan)

  1. Something similar has happened to me, but the other way round. I’m a person of color, but I ‘pass as white’. I’m originally from Brazil and people constantly associate my accent with countries where the population is overall perceived as white.

  2. For western Europeans when I lived in Indonesia, I was “just” a latino with a “sexy” accent, while for indonesians I sounded like a native speaker of the English Language with my “american” accent and my white face.

    I could never put into words what happened to me over there regarding English and my latino and white backgrounds, this article did that for me. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I too was born in Canada to Trini parents. I have a ‘neutral’ accent as well and people ALWAYS assume that I am white when all they have to go on is my voice. You hit the nail on the head when you said “I understood that this person was hearing my race rather than my actual voice.” I frequently encounter the situation that you described – people insisting that you MUST be from somewhere else because the accent and the skin colour don’t fit. It used to amuse me when the ‘polite’ Canadian culture wouldn’t allow them to ask me directly about my origins (that would be rude!), but they would keep negating my answer (Canada? Manitoba? Winnipeg?) hoping that I would eventually give up the goods and reveal my parents’ country of origin. When I was younger I used to acquiesce, but now I find that I don’t bother to appease their ignorance and prefer to leave them wondering.

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