Lauren Howells sheds light on the misogyny and snobbery surrounding accent shaming, through her personal experience as someone from Hartlepool who went to Cambridge.
Growing up in Hartlepool, and attending a state comprehensive, I genuinely had never given much thought to my accent before going to Cambridge. That was to change pretty quickly when I arrived.
I remember calling my Grandma after my first term at University, in floods of tears. “I don’t fit in here, I can’t do it, I’m not meant to be here”. If only I could have put an arm around that poor girl.
Obviously, the feeling of isolation at Cambridge was rooted in stigma much deeper than just my strong North-Eastern accent, largely rooted in class-based regional stereotypes, but the constant mocking of my pronunciation of words felt emblematic of the way this prejudice manifested in this environment.
Meeting new people at University is supposed to be exciting, and don’t get me wrong, I met so many friends for life there. However, I quickly began to realise that most interactions with new people, seemed to fit into one of three categories:
- Having my vowel sounds repeated back to me, with people not actually listening to the content of my speech.
- Being talked over and watching people disengage with the conversation when I opened my mouth.
- Singled out because of my ‘otherness’, and at times feeling like my ‘different’ accent was used in a way that seemed to help those from similar backgrounds bond.
It felt like my accent came to represent a sense that I didn’t belong there, and dominated so many conversations. A feature of my identity, which I had never even considered, made me feel somewhat inaccessible to others – despite me usually being very sociable and confident.
Whilst many will have seen this mockery as “just a joke”, it was actually the rupture point of an invisible but pervasive system of regional and class-based inequality. My Freshers actually coincided with the time that the shocking statistics which showed that over the preceding five years, students in Surrey received over 1,500 Oxbridge offers, whereas Halton in Cheshire, north-east Lincolnshire, Barnsley, Hartlepool, and Middlesbrough managed just 70 offers between them during the same period. These damning figures were plastered all over social media and circulated through the student community, with so many expressing outrage. But this didn’t stop the way the few ‘lucky’ students from these demographics were treated.
And that’s how my place there began to feel, ‘lucky’. I must have fluked it, or simply been admitted to ‘tick a box’. As such, I felt a pressure to conform to those around me, to be ‘accessible’, to convince those who fitted in ‘naturally’ that I belonged there too. Indeed, before long, I remember posting a story on Instagram where I was speaking behind the camera. I unlocked my phone to a plethora of messages from my home friends with “WTF is your voice”, “Tell me that’s not you speaking”. This resulted in difficult conversations justifying the toning down of my accent. It wasn’t because I was ashamed, but because I wanted the isolation and feeling of inadequacy in every interaction to stop. The worst part was that this wasn’t even a result of irrational overthinking, but actually a consequence of the reality I was facing.
Reflecting back, what makes matters worse is that most (albeit not all) of the mockery came from men. This adds a new dimension to an already disgusting prejudice. I don’t need to go into the already commonly understood misogynistic prejudices and structural barriers women have to face just to prove they are just as, never mind more, intelligent than many men. But when this is combined with accent based mockery, rooted in a predisposition that those from the North are of lower intelligence, swimming against the tide becomes even harder.
But this problem once again gets even deeper. The dominance of all-boys private schools at Cambridge is clear, not just in numbers, but their culture being embedded into all aspects of University life. Accent mocking was symptomatic of an inherent snobbery and elitism which festers within this ‘old boys’ culture. Those from this background dominate not only Universities, but also many industries, and of course, politics. This elitism is at the heart of the education of these individuals who most often occupy powerful positions in society. This reflects in the reinforcing and reproduction of a regional, class-based misogyny. Both consciously and unconsciously, this has clearly had a part to play in the North-South divide not only persisting but intensifying over time.
Therefore, this seemingly ‘innocent’ mockery now becomes a lot more sinister. If overlooked and unchallenged, what it represents further solidifies. Whilst shedding light on this mockery and hopefully taking it out of the realms of acceptability is a starting point, true change will only result from tackling these prejudices head-on and addressing the unfairness and inequality upon which it is premised.
So, perhaps next time you brush off the disgusting ridicule of Angela Rayner, think about repeating someone’s vowels back to them, or assume somebody is less intelligent because of their northern accent- think twice. It’s not a joke, and it’s not harmless. Until we address the male, southern-centric cultural and economic hegemony in this country- I’ll bet more than a few phone calls from heartbroken young northeastern girls will be picked up.
And Lauren from the past, you ended up doing better than over 95% of them in your finals by the way – not that that statistic based validation should have ever mattered for you to prove yourself worthy. You worked your whole life for that place, and overcame structural barriers so many there couldn’t even begin to imagine. You deserved to be there all along, way more than many of those who looked down on you.
Lauren Howells is a 22-year-old Labour activist from Hartlepool. She is passionate about tackling the dynamics of inequality and challenging prejudice. She is the former MYP for Hartlepool, chaired Youth Council for 2 years, and was a governor at her local Sixth Form. Lauren was women’s delegate for Hartlepool CLP at Labour Conference, and youth delegate at Labour North Conference. She is running in the upcoming Young Labour and National Policy Forum elections for the North Rep positions. She tweets at @laurenhowellss.