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The dangers of cultural messaging

Reviewing a UTM study on Toronto children’s accent preference
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Even in a multicultural city like Toronto, people may still face discrimination for their accents or use of language. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
Even in a multicultural city like Toronto, people may still face discrimination for their accents or use of language. SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

With a rich mosaic of languages and cultures in the city of Toronto, there is an expectation that children grow up unbiased to those who differ from themselves, most notably in their ability to make friends. However, as a recent study by researchers Elizabeth Johnson and Melissa Paquette-Smith in the Department of Psychology at UTM observed, children in Toronto “showed strong preferences for peers who spoke with the locally dominant accent, despite growing up in a linguistically diverse community.”

The study’s participants were asked, “Who would you rather be friends with?” and were given the choice between two children who were made “as indistinguishable from one another as possible; with their accent being the only major difference between them.” No further information was given on personality or background.

Biases play a pivotal role in the way we form social judgments. Studies such as this one have revealed that racial biases are more inherent in children early on in their development than previously thought, playing a fundamental role in their classroom and social settings. It suggests that it is impossible to erase social categorization and stereotypes from our social perceptions and interactions as they allow us to make sense of complex situations and relationships. It is problematic when our reliance on these categories allows generalizations to become ingrained prejudice.

Discussions of discrimination typically centre on appearance as a signifier of racial or cultural differences, often ignoring the effects of accents and speech on everyday lived experiences. In January 2018, The Atlantic published an article titled, “Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents?” Sociolinguist Calvin Gidney compared the differences in speech between Mufasa, who speaks with an American accent, and Scar, who speaks with a British one in The Lion King. Scar sounds “monstrous,” Gidney notes, in a way that could not sound as terrifying in another tone.

In children’s television shows such as Kim Possible and Phineas and Ferb, heroes also fight villains who carry foreign accents, such as Professor Dementor and Doofenshmirtz, who are continually ousted by the moral code and intellect of their apparently superior, ‘non-accented’ counterparts. Even without a particular focus on villainy, these foreign accents — which are really more of a convolution of various Eastern European ones — are shown as key features of those lacking the cunning to succeed, and more blatantly, of those with crass demure and goals.

Adult shows also carry these overused stereotypes, extending beyond villains and into the lovable immigrant goofs, who are stupid, lecherous, cheap, and highly one-dimensional. Think Fez from That ’70s Show, or Apu from The Simpsons. These formulations of character have created an ingrained set of affective responses to particular accents, none of which are positive.

This is not a new convention in cinema, television, or literature. Foreign accents are and have long been associated with particular character traits, most clearly demonstrated in children’s media. These depictions reinforce a particular kind of ‘cultural messaging’ among children that affects the ways in which they engage with the idea of diversity, as well as how they function within a diverse community. These depictions of accents are often poor approximations of pronunciation and culture, blurring the lines between various ethnicities, but marking a distinct line between what is considered to be like ‘us’ and like ‘them.’ The less one assimilates to the ideal imperialist model of language and behaviour, the more one is subject to an otherness that conveys a certain deeply repulsive barbarism.

Research has shown that TV is a foundational medium for the acquisition of information on different ethnic groups, as well as the development of one’s own ethnic and racial identity. In addition, it affects perceptions of intelligence and education, based on characteristics of language and competency. Children who consume this content are more at risk of embodying negative perceptions in their own mode of living as they age and as they interact with one another on the playground.

While children are often perceived as being unconnected to what happens on a larger scale socially, ideas are already being ingrained into their senses of self and other that will greatly influence them as they grow older. It is worrisome that despite their exposure to a multitude of peoples, children in Toronto carry biases that have been even more deeply ingrained in them through the cultural messaging of products consumed in a very media-obsessed generation.

While schools are unable to filter what children are exposed to outside of the classroom, particularly on the internet, it is essential for educators to engage in thoughtful ways with these conventional but convoluted generalizations of different identities. This will ensure that children reflect on what they think, and why, in order to mobilize a thoughtful and socially conscious generation.

While it is impossible to totally erase social categorization and stereotypes from our social perceptions and interactions, for the sake of social and moral order, we cannot allow these generalizations to evolve into ingrained prejudices.

Rehana Mushtaq is a third-year English and Religion student at University College.