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.
What I did hear is Bermudez's concern that she would be losing a core part of herself in order to succeed, which is a major concern for anyone attempting to become a part of an industry that values specific types of beauty, behaviors and language. I immediately thought of actresses Sofia Vergara, Selma Hayek and Penélope Cruz, who have all been successful and who all have "strong" accents.
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.
The business of accents can be political, but not necessarily in this instance. Acting isn't about being you; it really is about becoming someone else, which is what Bermudez figured out during the episode. It's pretty simple: No one can take away who you are unless you let him -- even in entertainment.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.