In my attempts to define myself as different from those around me—people I assumed were less educated, full of prejudice, and generally less interesting—I became the one full of prejudice.
My one-word question sounded as if the “y” had been turned over on its side, stretching the sharp “eye” sound into a lower, longer “ah” with an ending buried in the diaphragm. It was one word, three letters, and possessed a surprising amount of character.
“Wha?” it went, the question I asked my friend.
My friend teased me a little for sounding so country when I’d asked him the question. We were 17 years old, sitting at a stoplight in our hometown that very much would be considered the country to most people. In fact, the drawl in how I said “why” was very much how everybody in our town would have said the word.
Therein was the problem for me: I didn’t want to sound like everybody in my hometown.
I wanted to sound normal.
As a teenager, attending a rural high school located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, I longed to separate myself from any markers that would identify me as having come from this place. I resisted the wardrobe of formless bluejeans, Carhartt coats, and baseball hats. I joined my friends in dressing differently—lots of black, fishnets, and other grunge accoutrement—dyed my hair, and listened to loud punk and goth music.
(It’s not without some humor that as I recount this story to you, I fully realize how embarrassingly ordinary that sort of behavior is of small town kids with big city dreams.)
Without fully being able to articulate it then, this was my way of resisting the culture I had been raised in: conservative, white, religious. I desperately wanted out of that culture, and so I did what I could—with what little I had to work with—to dissociate myself as much as possible from it
Whenever I overheard my classmates chatting, it was a constant reminder of where I was. The lazy I’s whenever they talked about themselves, the haphazard dropping of letters from the ends of words, and the worst—the most contemptible offense in my mind—addressing each other as “y’all.”
There would be no “y’all” in my life. I would never be one of “y’all.” No matter how unnatural it sounded, I would tap out the most enunciated, affected “you all” possible just so I could keep my head held high.
I couldn’t let the way I sounded betray my superficial attempts to look more worldly, to be more acceptable to the metropolitan life I hoped to enjoy someday.
I had to get rid of my Southern accent.
After high school, I stayed in my hometown for a year or so before I moved to a big-ish city (although it was still in my home state). I attended college and acted out the indefensibly dumb college life, all the while remaining vigilant about eradicating my accent. Whenever I revealed to someone where I was from, I would beam with pride when they remarked, “Oh, you don’t sound like you’re from there.”
By my early 20s, I was finally feeling liberated from my Southern roots and the negative stereotypes that come with them. All markers of where I came from were erased from my speech and now I was free to choose who I wanted to be.
No one would ever index me as what I was most afraid of: some backwater bumpkin with backwards, isolated views on the world.
“Y’all,” “ain’t,” and their cohorts were dead to me.
Writing this all down for the first time, I realize how brutally harsh all of this is, almost unnecessarily so. It’s just an accent, an anthropological marker of geographical origin. How bad could all of this have really been?
Filtered through my own misguided view of the world, it seemed very bad. I had indexed an entire regional dialect as inseparable from ignorance, and to be caught in the same net as Those People was tantamount, in my mind, to social death.
It is a cruel irony that my desire to separate myself from a group of people that I believed to be ignorant was facilitated by my insecurity and my own ignorance. In my attempts to define myself as different from those around me—people I assumed were less educated, full of prejudice, and generally less interesting—I became the one full of prejudice.
Some years later, I found feminism and came to better understand concepts like identity and self-determination. Learning not only about the theoretical tenets of how these concepts worked but also of the lived experiences of others in regard to the practice of them helped me to, among other things, re-evaluate my own relationship with my now-defunct accent.
I’ve never been able to accept a feminism that wasn’t inclusive, that didn’t focus on empowerment. To really embrace that approach, I couldn’t start to allow exceptions merely because of my personal biases. And so, for the first time, I really began to hear the Southern accent—something I’d rejected and denied all of my life—with a new kindness.
I found myself growing to enjoy its rolling flow, to really savor the honeyed smoothness of it. I began to embrace the difference in the accent, in the subtle education that one can gather from it.
After all those years of scorn, I was falling in love with the Southern accent.
It’s been several years since the embittered accomplishment of scrubbing my Southern accent from my speech, and reflecting on it now casts an unfortunate melancholy on the memory.
To try to right the errant decision of my youth and reincorporate the accent into my speech now would be no less affected than when I was trying to change my dialect as a teenager. It’s that gone. However, I’ve at least stopped self-policing my speech so unfairly.
And if by some twist my Southern accent exhumes itself, I’ll welcome it. I’m confident enough now to know that to have such an accent is by no means an automatic endorsement of social injustices like racism and intolerance (besides, it’s not like those problems are unique to the South). In fact, I dare say that a Southern identity is not only compatible with a feminist identity, but complementary.
In fact, a great way to start demonstrating that complementary relationship is by welcoming the South’s very own gender-neutral pronoun: y’all.
Celebrating that pronoun, my one-time object of derision and contempt, has never felt more progressive to me than it does now.
Drew Bowling is a soon-to-be social worker who writes about gender, race, and other intersecting issues. His writing has appeared on Role Reboot, Everyday Feminism, the Good Men Project, as well as at his oft-neglected but much-adored blog, Reading Without Men. Twitter is also a thing he does.