When a language is exposed to different cultures with their own tongues, accents are bound to emerge. The sing-song Hindi language married smooth English to create the Indian accent. The sharp, angular Chinese language joined English to create the Chinese accent. Literally teach anyone with their own first language to speak English and you will probably get a similar result.
As English became a global language, and as more opportunity seekers began to migrate to dominantly English-speaking countries, there formed an invisible divide between those who learned English to survive in their new home and those who were surrounded by it since the day they were born. In the U.S., a non-American accent is almost an instant indicator that its holder does not come from a traditionally white, middle-class American upbringing. To native English speakers, the unique dialect of non-native speakers may seem interesting, even peculiar. But, even in lighthearted conversations, are accents funny?
If you remember the “this is my voice x days in …” trend, it originally involved bilingual people on the internet joking about their own cultural stereotypes, which was funny because it was a humorous homage to their home countries. Some people used the trend to showcase their ability to speak another country’s language(for example, transitioning from speaking in an American accent to fluently speaking Japanese). But when a non-Korean put on a clearly forced, cut-up Korean accent as a comedy stunt, it did not resonate with me at all. Instead, it made me uncomfortable.
It’s also hard not to mention the numerous comedians doing their own impressions of different ethnicities. I admit that I’ve chuckled at one or two of them, but simultaneously, I felt a pang of tugging guilt and constraint about whether I should be laughing or not. And as the fake accents got less accurate, there was more for my guilt to feed on.
A lot of us recognize to some degree that mocking accents of another ethnicity can be (and is often) offensive, yet we continue to do it. Just like a non-Asian calling an East-Asian person, “ching-chong” is racist, someone satirically condemning the way an Asian person speaks is as well. But oftentimes accent imitation is so subtle or casual that it’s hard to draw the line.
As an Asian POC, when someone of my race puts on an accent to imitate an Asian “auntie” or “uncle,” I usually find it funny, or at least enjoyable. They are sharing a part of their experience in interacting with people from their heritage, and in doing so, other Asians are able to resonate and laugh along with it because they relate to this on a deeper level. Non-Asians can appreciate it as well and look into a new aspect of Asian culture.
But even still, the comments on those videos were not always so accepting. Karen Ip, also known as Fruitypoppin on her social media platforms, received criticism on her videos, which largely blew up due to funny reenactments of her life with her Hong Kong family. The comments accused her of perpetuating Asian stereotypes as an Asian herself instead of fighting them, and creating content based on them for “the whites to laugh at.” In response, she explained that her content is meant to bring the community together by making fun of relatable situations, not to succumb to racist stereotypes assumed by non-POCs. And right here is the distinction between an offensive racial joke and a solidification of racial identity.
But what if someone isn’t using an accent to imitate a real-life situation in their lives? Can people use stereotypical accents of their own ethnicity to break tension or let loose a little laugh? Well, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. NPR’s Tasneem Raja briefly examines this topic in her episode of “Code Switch,” where she and a few comics and actors from Mumbai discuss the ethics of Indian accents for humor. She mentions a joke by Russel Peters, a Canadian comedian of Indian descent, in which he conveys the effectiveness of the Indian accent to cut tense situations. In this way, it’s clear that many non-Indians and Indians alike find the accent funny, but it’s not for everyone. Raja explains, “For me, I know that I‘m kind of doing [the accent] in a way that feels like it’s out of love, not mockery, but I can completely imagine somebody hearing me doing this, and thinking, ‘Oh my god, she’s just making fun of her parents.’”
The issue is mostly a matter of the baggage that comes with these accents. The reason accents of minority races are so much harder to touch on is that minority immigrants suffered – and still suffer – discrimination based on any little characteristic that others deem as foreign, and therefore socially unacceptable. This makes me question whether poking fun at my own ethnicity’s “stereotypical” accent is truly a reclamation of the culture my people were prejudiced for, or if it’s actually exacerbating the sense that it’s up for grabs for comedic purposes. And you never know what someone has been through because of their, or a family member’s accent. Perhaps context is the deciding factor, as is the case for Fruitypoppin’s skits.
However, what of European accents (French, Italian, etc.), or even British accents, for that matter? Occasionally, I see not-so-nice comments on videos of Americans imitating a British accent. And I can understand where these accusations are coming from – outsiders generally tend to envision just one dialect, whereas British people are scattered around different regions of England, so naturally, accents are distinguishable to each specific region. And even then, truth be told, most of these online creators don’t get any of these accents right – and that’s where they go wrong.
Unlike trying out accents of POCs, which would be blasphemous, it’s as though as long as the culture the accent is derived from and the nuances of the dialect are fully understood, it’s all good. It might be all about authenticity. Brittany Broski on TikTok is known for her spot-on British accent (she’s American) which is so funny because it’s just that accurate: one user commented on one of her videos, “The only american I’ll not be offended by using the British accent cuz it’s so good mate ???.”
A lot of the lighthearted content we love relies on race and relatability, especially since we live in such a globalized, diverse era. Whether we’re strengthening racial identity by impersonating the common Asian uncle or we’re sharing funny aspects of our culture with others, accent humor can either have a well-intended positive influence or be harmful instead. It being something that we can’t simply give up, it’s time to take a step back and comprehend the implications of what we say before it slips off our tongues. When we hear something and it makes us uncomfortable, let’s engage in conversation. Racial and cultural identity is both a powerful and sensitive subject to broach, especially in comedy, so it’s important to handle it wisely.