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Science Shows How Your Brain Turns Racist When Processing Ethnicity and Accents

A study published in 'Journal of the Acoustical Society of America' shows that what people look like is linked to how easily they are understood by others.

Can you understand me? Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

On today's episode of WTF with Marc Maron, comedian Godfrey spoke candidly about what it's like to pitch shows to TV networks as an African American. Born in Nebraska to Nigerian parents, the comedian says sounding like an American has worked against him.

"When I tell people I'm African, it's not the African they want to see," he says. "I don't have a 'help an African' accent, so white people don't get excited by that shit."


Toronto-based photographer Connie Tsang regularly relates to that level of disconnect, despite English being her first language. It's been happening to her for as long as she can remember, usually when she's abroad. One particular example that stands out is when she worked as a volunteer coordinator at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Tsang, a Canadian of Chinese descent who was born in Port Rowan, Ontario, was tasked with calling a list of volunteers whom she arranged to meet in person. When she introduced herself to them later in the week, they looked at her with confusion.

"They told me, 'We're supposed to meet with Connie the Canadian,'" she recounts. "I said, 'I am Connie the Canadian,' and they said 'No, no, no, she's Canadian. She speaks with a Canadian accent.' They hadn't realized they'd spoken to me on the phone earlier in the week."

These experiences illustrate how our sincerest attempts to be color-blind are often fruitless. And now science can back that up.

According to a linguistics study out of the University of British Columbia, what people look like has a lot to do with how easy it is for us to understand them, regardless of how they might sound or if they even have an accent.

"Expectations and Speech Intelligibility," which was published in April in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, asked participants to transcribe sentences that had static noise in the background. Those taking part in the study came from numerous backgrounds: Asian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Asian and white, black, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and White.


The sentences—"The house had a nice garden," for example—were read by 12 people who spoke Canadian English. Half of the speakers identified as white, the other as Chinese. All of them were born and raised in Richmond, BC.

The participants listened to the pre-recorded sentences, which were presented with either an image of three crosses, or a black and white photo of the speaker. In the end, listeners found Chinese Canadians harder to interpret than white Canadians, but only when they knew what that speaker looked like. In other words, participants found the sentences less accented and more intelligible when they knew the speaker was white.

Molly Babel, one of the study's authors, explains that listeners seemed to have an expectation that if you're not white, you're a non-Native speaker of English and therefore expect a certain signal. When that signal wasn't there, it became harder for the listener to understand what was being said. She admits, "race, ethnicity, and language are a tricky mix."

"Our expectations and stereotypes on what people sound like are what we use, need, and rely on when it comes to understanding spoken language," Babel says.

Along with transcribing sentences with static in the background, the participants were asked to take part in several other tasks: accentedness rating, which means describing how strong someone's accent sounds; an implicit measure of ethnic bias to gage the participants' attitudes toward Asian Canadian and white Canadians; an explicit measure of ethnic bias (example: Do you agree with the statement Asians are better at math?), and a social-network self-assessment (example: Do you spend more time with Asian Canadians or white Canadians?).


Turns out, it doesn't matter if your clique is as multicultural as the entire Bratz doll collection. Individuals who said they spent more time with Asian Canadians actually had a harder time understanding them. Those who spent more time with white Canadians also showed the effect, just not as strongly.

"Saying someone has a strong accent is actually different than having a hard time understanding what someone is saying," Babel says.

She says her findings mean a few things: "This likely isn't about willful misunderstanding. Our expectations [of how someone should sound] are what get us into trouble and can run us into the ground at some point."

Tsang admits it's unrealistic to have in-depth conversations with everyone before they can make assumptions about her. But it doesn't make the expectation about who she is less painful.

"They're not paying attention to the words I'm saying or believing what I'm saying because they've already approached the situation with these ideas in their heads," she says. "All my life I've been an English speaker and they're doubting that I am from the get-go."

Anita Bromberg, executive director with the Canadian Race Relations Foundations says that even though the findings are part of one academic study, it reflects what's happening on a greater scale.

"Despite all our mixing and educational components out there, we're still driven by stereotypes," she says. "There's a range of consequences but it behooves us to understand that it can eventually lead to outright hate amongst us and we fool ourselves to think otherwise."

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