Maybe In Heaven, Everyone Talks Like They’re From Tennessee

My wife and I stayed up late watching Agent Cody Banks (OK, let’s not start — I like that stuff), and my stomach turned over when the prep school drivers’ ed instructor turned out to be an older Chinese man speaking in a horribly fake pidgin accent. You know the type — lots of “l” and “r” switches, worry about immigration papers, tense confusion, loss of definite articles, and, of course, in the end, ultimate humiliation for the character.

So I thought, Gee, isn’t that nice, a little casual racism among friends? And in a kids’ movie, no less.

Racism is bad, fakey accents are racist, case closed. Right?

Except this: When I was a teacher, I involuntarily took on a mild “twang” — not really a full-on “Southern accent,” just an occasional “y’all” and a generally more relaxed pace than I typically use. I was completely unaware of this accentette until one of the moms asked me if I came from Nashville, as she had detected a Bellevue brogue which, she informed me, is much more refined than the Knoxville patois.

And I still “y’all” my baby and her buddies. I speak with the broad, deliberate rhythm that I associate with the shallow parts of the South. And they respond — kids seem to feel more comfortable with me when I’m a fakey Tennesseean.

So, what’s the difference? If I’m completely offended by falsely pidgin accents, why not my own?

I think I might have figured it out. Today, I was watching EcoGeeks — one of my favorite new video podcasts — and in not one but two episodes, they use voice caricature. In the “snakes” episode, a white guy does three different accents: “Steve Irwin” Australian for the Aussie snake, a turban-wearing Indian for the king cobra, and Richard Attenborough for the African black mamba. In the next episode, a Nebraska grad student does a seriously silly Indian accent… but he himself is of South Asian descent, although probably U.S.-born. His fellow grad student (and girlfriend, too, I betcha) speaks with an equally fake Scottish accent.

Anyway, the Cody Banks thing was disgusting and un-American, almost as racist as the latter Star Wars movies. It didn’t help that there wasn’t one other Asian-American character (at a prep school in Seattle? please!), and only one person of color in the entire thing. The EcoGeeks, in the context of being silly with lots of international accents — well, that seemed all right. Except — well, there was that white guy pretending to be a Hindi snake charmer.

Does that mean that the answer is that fakey accents are racist when they are used to ascribe stereotypical negative qualities to groups of people, but sort of fine when they’re used respectfully? Especially if you’re of the same race as the people you’re imitating? I guess so, but I can’t say I’m entirely convinced.

So when I as a white guy imitate (poorly) the accent of a white Southerner because it’s a more kid-friendly version of American English than I speak — maybe that’s all right?

Man, this stuff is hard to understand. How on earth am I going to explain it to my daughter when I can’t even figure it out myself.