“But You Speak Such Good English!”

2013-08-03 17.06.46
Statue in Montreal, Quebec- Le Malheureux Magnifique (Pierre Yves Angers)

“But you speak such good English!”– random person I just met.

The above statement has been said to me countless times; usually when the person finds out I’m African, sometimes even before discovering that. The last time this happened to me was a few days ago when I ran into a girl from Alabama on my way to the library. She happened to be a Mormon missionary and she asked me where I was from. She had never heard the name of my country before, and when I explained where it was she said “Wow, but you speak such good English!” She was clearly in complete utter amazement as she repeated that phrase a couple of times.

I know what she expected my reaction to be; she expected me to thank her for her”benevolent” back-handed comment. As it was, I tried to end the conversation with her as quickly as possible because I didn’t want to lose my temper. I also tried to rationalize that maybe due to her age and her upbringing she may have never come across an African person before. I was lucky enough to have had an international education and to have been exposed to people of different races and religions from a very young age.  Rationalizing people’s actions has saved me from getting angry over all ignorant comments I face (and trust me, I hear lots).

So, according to this girl’s assumptions Africans aren’t supposed to speak English well. Well, most of the Africans I know are polyglots and can speak on average four languages , and usually that number consists of  at least two European languages.  Also, if the missionary had cared to find out, English is pretty much my first language, I learned it while I was very  young and I am more adept in its usage than I am of my mother tongue. It shouldn’t be a surprise that my English is good, regardless of my skin tone or my heritage. However, so many people operate by stereotypes.

So what’s the big deal? Am I right to feel frustrated by this? Well, for me this is my reality; something I have to deal with day by day (and even at my workplace initially). The language comment is just a part of the problem. Being constantly judged and feeling the need  to prove one’s “worthiness” while people around you don’t have to, is so trying. I’ve spoken to other minorities who have said they’ve also felt the need to prove themselves in society. My Aunt, who has an MBA from a prestigious Canadian university and works for the provincial government tells me that people with less education than her ask about her credentials before they let her handle their cases. She says this isn’t the case for her white co-workers.  My teenage male cousin was subjected to a drug test because his teacher thought he saw him smoking marijuana (my cousin’s test came back clean, like he said it would). And the list goes on and on.

So yes, stereotypes are harmful and no matter how thick one’s skin is, they do get to you after a while. To end with a very apt quote from one of my favourites, Anais Nin:

We categorize and catalogue and file, not so much out of a sense of organization but out of fear.
Anais Nin, The Novel of the Future

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11 thoughts on ““But You Speak Such Good English!”

    1. Indeed! I really should have! I found it disgraceful that a missionary would make such ignorant comments in this day and age. I would expect them to take some sort of cultural sensitivity class before they leave their home.

  1. You are absolutely right to feel frustrated by this. And offended. I’m still amazed by the number of people who go through life in their own little bubble without expanding their thoughts and their world view.

  2. I wonder how I would feel if people said to me “but you speak such good French!”, as it would imply that I am not French. So I suppose that’s what I would answer “what makes you think I’m not French?” or, in your case “what makes you think I’m not Canadian?”. I hope the question would make *them* feel embarrassed and that it would make them think too.

  3. I must say, you have explained and depicted such emotion so well using words..I have also experienced such feeling countless times myself, however I have never been able to convey it so well to others or even towards myself.
    >Being constantly judged and feeling the need to prove one’s “worthiness” while people around you don’t have to, is so tiring
    YES! Exactly! Thank you for sharing your personal story. You’ve given me an opportunity to think about the way to deal with the issue again!

    1. You have no idea how much I appreciate your kind words, MarySue! I went through years keeping thoughts like this inside me because I was told I was over-reacting or just imagining things. It feels really good to get things out and verbalize my frustrations.

      Wishing you all the best in 2014! 🙂

  4. I seriously would have told that missionary off! I marvel at your self-control. 🙂
    I’ve been told this myself many times when I lived in Britain. And it’s more embarrassing for me because I’m unilingual!
    Given the imperialist history of our world and how small it has become, why do people still assume that if you’re not Caucasian, then your mother tongue must be something else other than English????

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