Am I Giving Up Being Jamaican for an American Broadcasting Career?
AJR Photo illustration of Raecine Williams by Sarah Siguenza.
Credit:
July 21, 2014


I view journalists as the honesty police. It’s our job to tell people’s truths and reveal any lies the powers that be may tell.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’m the liar.

I’m in the midst of trying to achieve my dream of becoming a broadcast journalist by getting my master’s degree at the University of Maryland.

Shortly after I started classes in June, a classmate noticed something about me that I had begun to think might jeopardize that career — my accent.

She did it kindly, but it resurrected worries I’ve long held about the Jamaican lilt that makes me feel a part of something back home, but separate here.

I thought about the long hard road to getting a job in broadcasting. And right then and there, I switched my accent to an American one.

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I grew up in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. My mother was a former Olympic track star-turned educator and my father was in the Jamaican army and

The author as a baby with her mother and father. She grew up in Jamaica.

The author as a baby with her mother and father. She grew up in Jamaica.

later had a career in security. They raised my brother and me in a home full of light and fresh air. Even on the most sweltering days in Kingston, there was always a deep breeze to provide some relief. We played outdoors a lot.

I enrolled in a boarding school on scholarship in Alexandria, VA, when I was 14. My parents and I thought my best chance for success would be the education system in America.

I quickly realized that my accent was the one thing that everyone noticed about me. One day, I answered a question in class and a boy said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “What did you even say?” Six weeks into the semester, I got tired of the struggle.

I spent a lot of time listening, carefully copying the tone and timbre of my classmates’ speech. It wasn’t easy at first. I knew to ask for “badder-ees” instead of “batch-rys,” and not to ask people to “lock off the lights,” but to “turn them off.” As it turns out, I began to sound like an American with a Southern tinge, as many of my classmates were from southern states.

And then, people stopped asking where I was from and stopped repeating words I’d said. I was like everybody else. I became captain of the track team, president of the diversity club. I embraced American culture. Friends invited me home during breaks. I spent Thanksgivings on my friends’ ranches in the American countryside.

On Christmas breaks, I flew back to Kingston, where it would take a day or two to switch back to my Jamaican way of speaking.

My friends and family at home often accused me of  “twanging,” a term they use to describe someone from Jamaica who goes somewhere else and tries to take on a new accent, which was exactly what I had been doing. I’m keenly aware they don’t approve; that term is especially used if you pick up the new accent poorly.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people laugh at Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, a sprinter often referred to as the “world’s fastest man,” and others, for switching their accents in interviews, while commending people such as Tessanne Chin, the winner of  season five of the TV show “The Voice,” for keeping their accents and staying “authentic.”

I have to imagine that Bolt understands, like I do, that people may sometimes pay attention to the wrong part of you if you don’t make the switch.

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Still, I’m conflicted about whether I want to say good-bye completely to the accent I associate with my culture and past.

Part of what makes me unique is that I’m Jamaican. You can’t look at me and know. My accent is the first thing that tells the story. There are days when I wake up and I just want to sound like myself, and depending on to whom I’m talking, sometimes I just let it come out.

The debate in my head came to the forefront this summer when I enrolled in graduate school for journalism at the University of Maryland.

After studying creative writing and film at the University of Miami, where I have a bachelor’s degree, I decided to get serious about pursuing a broadcast journalism career so that I could fulfill my goal of spending my life telling people’s stories.

I know it’s not an easy industry to break into. But still, when classes started, I experimented with using my accent from home. Why did I do it? It was mostly because I’d been in Jamaica a lot the previous year. But there was another reason, too — I’m still proud of where I’m from and I had outgrown the desire to be like everyone else.

People noticed right away. There was nothing subtle about it and the comments quickly came. I even got a compliment on how well I spoke English — a comment that often offends me since English it is my first language.

So I gave it up. Again. This time, it was about more than just fitting in. Will it hinder me from effectively communicating other people’s truths? I just don’t know if I want to take that risk, especially before I’m established.

It has also been my experience — and I’m guilty of this myself — that when people hear an accent, they make automatic assumptions about your background, upbringing and intelligence level.  Unfortunately, these assumptions aren’t usually favorable.

(If you’re curious to know how I sound, here is an advertising clip in my Jamaican accent and a news story done in my American accent.)

I decided to ask my friends and mentors what they thought. Was I a sell out? Or worse, somehow ashamed of my culture?

Jamaicans are really proud of being Jamaican.

“Speaking as a practitioner (of journalism), I don’t think I could classify you as a sell out,” said Maia Chung, a mentor from Jamaica who works in the advertising industry.  “Your mission is to communicate and you have to use the methodology of the particular context.”

She added that even in print journalism, there are often house style guidelines journalists must follow.  It doesn’t diminish your culture or beliefs to adopt a style, said Chung.

I also spoke to Rafael Lorente, my first journalism professor at the University of Maryland.

“If I’m going to go become a broadcaster in Latin America, my Spanish better be clear to Latin-Americans because that’s my audience,” he said.

As I kept talking to people in my industry, I began to think this was about more than just my accent. It extends to a larger question in journalism: Do you have to change your culture to be a mainstream broadcaster? What if your culture and heritage is on your face, because you’re Asian, or what if it’s your hijab if you’re Muslim?

Some journalists have taken their determination to fit in farther than changing their vocal intonations.

In September 2013, Julie Chen, an Asian-American producer and news anchor, confessed to getting surgery to make her eyes seem bigger and “less Asian” when a news director said her Chinese heritage would bar her from making it in the broadcast industry. She said she stood by her decision and probably wouldn’t have made it in broadcasting if she hadn’t had the surgery.

“I will say, after I had that done, the ball did roll for me, which I struggle with. You know, wow, did I give in to ‘the man’ and do this?” Chen said during a 2013 segment on The Talk, a CBS daytime talk show where she serves as host and moderator.

 

Closer to home, Noor Tagouri, a recent broadcast journalism graduate from the University of Maryland, is also talking publicly about cultural struggles amid her dreams of becoming a broadcaster.

Tagouri, now 20, made waves when she was 18 and posted a picture of herself on Facebook that went viral. She was wearing a Muslim hijab sitting at an anchor’s desk with the tagline:

“This is a picture of my dream,” she wrote. “Becoming the first Muslim (hijabi) woman news anchor on American television.”

Broadcast journalist and motivational speak Noor Tagouri, in a picture she posted on Facebook in October of 2012.

Broadcast journalist and motivational speaker Noor Tagouri, in a picture she posted on Facebook in October of 2012.

 

In an interview, Noor was adamant that we shouldn’t have to change for the industry.

“I really don’t believe in the fact that we have to succumb to what people want from us all the time,” she said. “We have to come along and change the industry because the industry is not perfect.”

She said that my accent, just like her hijab, shows that we bring something else to the table.  When people hear it, they know that I have experience with a different culture and religion, Noor said.

“If you want to (be a journalist) fairly, you have to stay true to who you are,” she said.  “That means that, yes, there are going to be news directors who don’t want to hire you, just like there are news directors that are not going to hire me, but that’s on them.”

What she said next gave me a lot to think about:

“We have to remember what our mission is by becoming storytellers.  If our mission is to give a voice to the voiceless and to tell stories correctly, our mission isn’t to become what mainstream wants us to be.  Our mission is to make them accept who our nation consists of anyway.”

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I decided to also talk to a fellow student in my journalism program, someone who is also from another country and is working toward becoming a journalist.

Sissy Cao, a native of China, is pragmatic.

“You have to make a compromise.  It’s nice to think that we can overcome whatever cultural obstacle there is, but the reality is the majority defines the culture and as a young journalist, to enter the industry you have to follow the rules of the game.”

I thought back to my conversation with Chung, my mentor in Jamaica.

She said young people can carve a niche, but within the confines of the culture in which they find themselves.

“You have to adapt,” she said. “Be the best communicator you can be.  Learn to speak in the context of your new culture first and then develop your style around it.  That’s how we have trailblazers.”

Where does this leave me? I will most likely keep the American accent for broadcasting — and give up my Jamaican one, at least for now.

I want to be heard and understood and not have my work as a journalist overshadowed by either viewers’ assumptions about my heritage, or notions that I would favor the minority view simply because I am one.

But, it’s not easy. It’s a part of me I’d rather keep because some days my accent feels like it’s the deepest connection I have to home. I’m going to challenge myself to find other ways to display my culture. My parents made many sacrifices to get me to my dreams, so perhaps this is one of mine.

 

Comments
  • Sonya

    I understand that your accent sets you apart but even people who grew up in America have the same problem. I am from Kentucky and when I joined the military I had a very Southern accent. People did not understand me and one of the girls in my basic training class did not like me because of the way I talked. She said my accent got on her nerves. When I arrived at my first duty station people mad fun of me and laughed when I talked. I would get frustrated because they did not understand me. Over time, like you, I changed the way I spoke. We all make choices and sometimes I regret losing my accent but there are times that it still comes out. Don’t be ashamed of who you are and realize you are still you no matter how you speak!

  • Amirah

    I have so much in common with you. I can’t remember the last time I spoke with a “true” Malaysian accent. I put it on when I speak to fellow Malaysians back home, mostly because there is a similar contempt for “twanging”. The accent I came to America with was a mix of British/Malaysian/American (the international school accent). I learned quickly both in school and at Model UN conferences abroad that certain accents are viewed as more “professional” than others. Some accents are taken more seriously than others.

    I agree that you should keep using the American accent. A broadcast is about the information, so the means of delivery (journalist’s voice) should not be the focal point of the broadcast — that should be the news content. If you were going to work in Jamaica, then my answer would be different.

  • Guy Priel

    I can understand your struggle. America is a cultural melting pot and you shouldn’t have to give up your heritage and culture just to follow your dream. Unfortunately, for a nation of immigrants, we still maintain certain prejudices, which is wrong. We elected a black man president and almost elected a woman, so why should you have to become something else just to report the news? Even in this country we have people who don’t speak the same. Someone in California speaks different than people in Tennessee and people in Boston speak different than people in New York and they don’t always understand what’s being said.

  • http://www.winnfm.com Toni Frederick

    Your American accent has the subtle hint of something else that non-West Indians won’t be able to put their fingers on, that makes it distinctive and memorable. Good resonance too. All the very best to you. Look forward to seeing you on one of the national stations in the future. – A fellow Caribbean (broadcast) journalist.

  • Meish

    This is very interesting because I can relate on so many different levels. First, I am also a Jamaican who came here and felt I had to drop my accent to fit in. (I was teased endlessly and disrespected.) Second, I am also a journalist. I decided to go the writing route, however, because I just don’t like the way my voice sounds when I’m not being who I really am, and u also don’t care to be seen. While I understand your decision and sacrifice, the bigger issue at hand here is that Americans are simply an intolerant people. It’s the only country in the world that would rather bend everyone to fit the mould, than bend the mould to fit everyone. And that, to me, is backward. Other people have accents, yes. So what if you have to pay a little more attention to understand what they are saying? I never understood the issue with that. Even going back to when I was in high school, God forbid we ever have a teacher or substitute with an accent. The children would tease and taunt all day, making comments about how they can’t understand what is being said simply because it is said with an accent. It really is intolerance at its finest. And beyond the individual battle, it creates a society of people who are self-absorbed and feel superior to anything or anyone who is different. And that’s not ok. It should not be perpetuated by you or me or anyone else who is different. It’s basically a way to say I won’t hire you if you’re visibly of a different culture. And what does that sound like to you? Because to me it sounds like prejudice. You can’t be the same country running an anti-bullying campaign, and then turn around and force people to confine to a culture that isn’t theirs because you don’t teach people to accept our differences as human beings. It’s counterproductive. At any rate, I digress. I hope you can find some peace with your decision and I wish you success in the field. I’ll continue to stick to writing where accent and heritage cannot be easily identified, since we have to hide these things to be accepted.

    Blessings.

  • naomicowan

    I came across the same challenge going to school in Toronto. Especially being involved in Student Leadership….It was easy for me to have a blended or more North American accent because I’ve been practicing since I was a little girl!!

    Interestingly enough while working on-air in Jamaica – on SEVERAL occasions I was SCOLDED for my new “north american” accent. So it left me with a choice as well…

  • https://about.me/emmanuelagamor Emmanuel Gamor

    Fantastic read, and there are more of us who struggle with this than we let on. Hopefully we can break down cultural prejudices in news broadcasting when we find the courage ( & opportunities ) to truly be ourselves whatever our accent/appearances my be.

  • horlicks89

    Big up sistren, well written and well thought out piece. I think the advice you have gotten from Maia Chung and your professor are on point. Adapt or die, but doing so won’t mean seh yuh ah sell out. I am sure as a journalism student you learnt that back in the day they used to train broadcasters (radio and tv) to speak with a plain mid western accent because that was deemed to test well with all audiences. As people here have posted they have had to “code switch” when relocating for work army etc. Ah jus so di ting set. I am a yard man living here in Silver Spring (roun’ di corner from yuh) but I moved here for my second graduate degree as an adult. So I don’t have to suffer through your “dilemma”. I do have to slow it down and enunciate around my colleagues. This however results in some ah dem ah facety wid mi by saying I don’t sound very Jamaican DWL. Anyway good luck with your dreams and thanks for sharing. Your mom represented her country well! ( I used to run 400m for UWI). Walk good!

  • Kelster

    I could still pick up your accent in the American clip. I think most persons from the Caribbean will too. I think that most persons who move here struggle with code switching. I try not to dilute my accent but I know it happens. When I’m teaching, I’m always bearing mind that some words are pronounced differently. I could stick with the Jamaican/British way and maybe pause to explain or just use the American pronunciation.
    Sigh. At this point, I’m no longer sure which is Jamaican and which is American.