I look like everyone else around here: Caucasian, tall, with light-colored eyes and hair. The locals—parents of my children’s friends, grocery-store and pharmacy clerks, fellow shoppers in the checkout line—approach me with wide grins and smiling eyes. They say something simple or funny, something related to our shared experience, something like, “Look at this line! Why don’t they open more cash registers?” or “Can you believe the weather? Twenty degrees lower than yesterday!”
I answer in kind, with something simple or funny, something related to our shared experience, but what I say makes no difference. I know what is coming, inevitable. As the words fly off my tongue, the wide grins freeze and the eyes stop smiling. The good will toward me dissipates. They’ve noticed my accent. It’s light and ambiguous, but it’s there. I see a flash of anger on their faces—they feel that I have deceived them. By looking just like them, I have tricked them into believing that I am one of them when I most certainly am not. I am as alien and as unworthy of their wide grins and smiling eyes as the brown and the black and the bearded and the burka-clad, all of whom they’d know on sight and with whom they’d never bother striking up a conversation that bonds two equals through the shared human experiences of slow checkout lines and crazy weather patterns.
Once I’ve been recognized as Other, the conversation never recovers. Sometimes, they turn their backs to me right away, as I no longer merit time or consideration. Often, they rush to tell me I have an accent as if somehow that would be news; I feel it is to let me know that they’re onto me. They ask where I’m from, although we haven’t actually met and that’s an intrusive, personal question. My American friends always brush this one off, insist that I’m too sensitive, that I exaggerate, that people just make conversation, but that’s not how it sounds to me. The question I receive is not the relaxed, playful, “So, where are you from?” that an Ohioan asks a Montanan at a party, over drinks. No, the question I receive comes from citizen border patrol—a demand to state my business, not a foray into small talk.
They ask how I like it here, if I go home often, and if I plan to stay. I’m only temporarily welcome and my real home cannot be here.
But it is. My real home is here. Here, my children were born. Here, I pay taxes and vote. Here, I work at a large public university, teaching hundreds of students each year some complicated physics and math. Some of my students’ parents might be among those who are angered by my deceitful accented whiteness. I hope my students will grow up to know better.
I write research papers, book chapters, and grant proposals. I write award nominations, recommendation letters, and critiques of others’ technical work. I write essays and stories, which people read and enjoy. You’d likely never know that I wasn’t a native English speaker if you’d only read my work and never heard me speak… But, yes, I do have an accent. Light and ambiguous, but perceptible, like a faded scar. I wish I didn’t have it; I wish I could erase it… But I cannot. When you immigrate as an adult, the accent never vanishes. Not really; not entirely. No matter how much you wish for it, no matter how hard you work on it, no matter how strong your command of the language is, the treacherous voice box gives you up every time, lest you imagine you truly belong where you were transplanted.
Yet, I know that I have it far better than many in this country, better than most immigrants and better than American-born people of color. I am a middle-aged, middle-class white woman. As long as I don’t open my mouth, no one bothers me. No one minds when I browse through the aisles of a store. No one looks at me askance, thinking I’m about to steal. No one assumes I’m dangerous and should be shot because of how I walk or what I wear. No one spews racial slurs at me or tells me to go back to Mexico, India, or China.
I really have a good life here. I really can’t complain. I really, really shouldn’t.
But, if I could, I’d say I wish I could truly get to know the parents of my kids’ friends. I wish I could enjoy small talk with grocery-store and pharmacy clerks or gripe about the slow checkout lines and the weather with fellow shoppers. I wish I were treated like someone who has the right to be here, belonging, sharing the full spectrum of human experiences, exceptional to mundane. I wish I didn’t have to witness, over and over, that moment when a friendly twinkle in someone’s eyes disappears, when I become Other, when a barrier gets erected between us, sky-high and impenetrable. I wish I didn’t offend, over and over, by existing in a state of deceitful accented whiteness.
Maura Yzmore teaches subjects with a lot of math at a university in the American Midwest. She writers short-form literary and speculative fiction, as well as humor. Her recent work can be found in Jellyfish Review, Occulum, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. Find out more at https://maurayzmore.com or on Twitter @MauraYzmore.