“You sound like you’re white.”
There is no quicker way to fully enrage me than to tell me this.
The worst part is that nobody thinks anything of it; they usually say it in passing, with an air of amazement that is offensive in and of itself. But if they actually stopped for a minute and thought about the (many) implications of those five words, I don’t think I’d hear this “compliment” nearly as often.
“You sound like you’re white,” coming from an American person is basically: “I can’t believe that you managed to train your inferior Hispanic brain to imitate the speech patterns of a native English speaker, it really is amazing what you people can accomplish when you put your mind to it. I feel so much more comfortable with you now that you don’t sound like Charo.”
Coming from a fellow Hispanic, it’s: “I can’t believe you sold out your entire culture by learning how to conjugate verbs correctly and how to stop rolling your R’s at will, you should be ashamed of yourself for not behaving like a stereotypical caricature.”
Either way, it’s an obnoxious comment, and the frequency with which I hear it continues to appall me.
When Americans say it, it’s annoying because it implies that speaking correctly is a trait exclusive to whites, and oh wow! I’m so talented for having achieved this! It also proves that even in a country as diverse as this one, having an accent is still viewed as a sign of inferior intellect and general low classiness. Of course the irony in all this—that a person who speaks a second language with an accent is still beating everyone else by knowing two languages—is totally lost on everyone.
The situation is even more insulting when Hispanics scoff at my beautifully crafted sentences, because it means that we, as a people, have just accepted that we’re are all supposed to speak the way the American media assumes: a mixture between Fez from That 70’s Show and Gloria from Modern Family.
The fact that the mere act of not having an accent and using words correctly means I’m no longer a “true Hispanic” says a lot about the way Hispanics in this country view themselves. Am I really supposed to speak like a character from a George Lopez sitcom? Saying “papi” and “vamonos” every five minutes, even if it doesn’t apply to the conversation? Or should I Salsa dance my way around the office so nobody will forget that I am a Hispanic goddess who will not be tamed?
Here’s an idea: why don’t we all just try our best to sound like educated adults, regardless of our accents?
The truth is, I understand why people say this to me, especially in South Florida where English is everyone’s second language. My point is that it shouldn’t be said as a compliment but a mere fact, and it shouldn’t be worded as me “sounding like I’m white.”
How about saying, “You don’t have an accent”? to which I’d reply “I moved to this country when I was 9-years-old, at a time when there weren’t any Spanish speakers in my area. Not only is a child’s brain a sponge that will absorb anything in a matter of minutes, I didn’t have anyone to speak Spanish with and subsequently slow down the learning process.”
Of course, then they’d be like, “You sound like a professor.”