Putting an Accent on Racial Identity

A reality-show star who was asked to tone down her Hispanic accent seeks to remain true to herself.

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Style Network

(The Root) -- Every time I say I'm never watching reality television again, I find myself channel-surfing and end up catching a new show. This past weekend, I landed on the tail end of VH1's Mob Wives Chicago, with goons masquerading as "ladies" fighting on a rooftop of some high-end hotel in the premiere episode.

Surprise, surprise -- VH1 is not veering far from its winning formula of showcasing damaged women, famous for associations with high-profile men (mob figures in this case), who physically and mentally pummel one another under the guise of friendship week after week. So I kept surfing.

Next up was E!'s new reality show Mrs. Eastwood & Company, and I immediately thought to myself, "Who in the hell cares about what Clint Eastwood's wife is doing?" I continued surfing and ended up catching the Style Network's Empire Girls: Julissa & Adrienne.

Clearly I was out of my age bracket, because I had no idea who these women were and why anyone would be interested in watching them. The show follows the "glamorous" lives of former 3LW and Cheetah Girl Adrienne Bailon, who is working with superstar producer Ne-Yo on taking her music career to the next level, and former BET 106 & Park host Julissa Bermudez, who returns to her hometown of New York City to continue her pursuit of an acting career.

I wasn't seeing glamour from Bailon, who was getting a tattoo removed from her ass, or Bermudez, who was living at home with her parents in a house with wall-to-wall wood paneling. But I digress. Something interesting happened on my way to channel-surfing: The issue of accents surfaced.

Bermudez was contending with her agent's desire for her to "tone down" her strong Dominican accent. Bermudez was angry that everywhere she went, including casting calls, everyone was telling her to tone down her accent if she intended to succeed in the entertainment business. She made the statement that the majority of America would soon sound like her, so she didn't understand the big deal.

I immediately thought to myself that there is such great diversity in accents from people of the Latino diaspora, and raging debates about what even qualifies as Spanish, that the statement was a stretch. Yes, people of Hispanic descent will be the majority, but the likelihood of someone from the Basque region of Spain sounding like someone from Ecuador, even when speaking Spanish, is very slim.

I also thought of Jennifer Lopez, Constance Marie, Cameron Diaz, Wanda De Jesus, Jessica Alba and Eva Longoria -- popular and successful actresses who typically don't speak with Spanish accents in the majority of their work. And then there's actress Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for West Side Story (1961), in which she had a Spanish accent. Moreno has played scores of roles during her iconic career, many for which she did not have a Spanish accent, and she has an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony to show for it.

My point is that it is not unusual in entertainment or even news for performers to be asked to "tone down" or lose their accents, for a variety of reasons. People are also counseled to lose strong regional accents (Southern, Northeastern, Midwestern) in order to be more marketable. While some see it as discriminatory, which it is to some extent, part of being an actor is being able to play various characters with different accents. Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker's performances in Bird (1988), The Crying Game (1992) and The Last King of Scotland (2006) all required him to assume different accents, which he did wonderfully.

While I was feeling Bermudez's well-placed angst about losing her accent and losing herself in the process, the profession is called acting, and assuming different identities is part of the process. Where would British actors Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Marianne Jean-Baptiste be if they weren’t able to turn their native accents on and off? Nowhere. Even American-born actors like Don Cheadle and Gina Torres (who is of Cuban descent) speak in a variety of accents in their work. 

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