Everything I know, I felt it first.
Even if it was felt inside me.
I have always been Iñupiaq.
As a child raised in Wasilla, I knew through stories and references the places my mom would sometimes go: Barrow (at the time) and Wainwright. She was intentional in sharing stories of growing up on the ice, being the daughter of a whaling captain, what it meant to be on a whaling crew. She would tell stories in our living room and in a number of classrooms at school, and my earliest memories were spending time with the continuous stream of visitors at my Aapa and Aaka’s who lived just blocks from the old Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC), gathering at their apartment, eating niqipiaq (our food), speaking Iñupiaq and playing music from the Slope. We even learned common dance via my mother urging us forward during the invitational songs at AFN, and since I was a baby, I’ve had the taste of maktak, tuttu (caribou), quaq (frozen, raw meat) and misigaq (seal oil) in my mouth.
Everyone I knew who was Iñupiaq, were relatives I had met by my mom. So when I was 19 and beginning an internship at an Alaska Native Corporation, I was meeting other Iñupiaq and Native people on my own for the first time.
During this internship, I made a friend, my first from a rural community. He had the accent of the place he grew up in. And I remember feeling surprised.
When he mentioned a historical fact: Surprise.
When he mentioned a niche piece of legislation: Surprise.
Recognizing he knew everything I did, and in various areas, more: Surprise.
Biases have nothing to do with being good or bad.
I remember realizing he was as knowledgeable as I.
The Dominant Cultural Value of Speech
I don’t remember learning to read, because I almost always could. By Kindergarten, I read full, fluid sentences as my peers uttered booklets word by word, lasting two weeks until I was advanced to First Grade. I say this, because words and speech have always been a feature in life.
And teachers and classmates treated me as wildly smart; it didn’t matter that I barely learned math or chemistry. The message was clear: How you spoke was indicative of your level of intelligence, and I used all the words.
If you spoke faster, you were smarter. The more obscure the words you used, the smarter you were. Even tone is used as an indicator of speech, with people adjusting their tone to “sound” more authoritative on a matter and intelligent.
But what if you come from a people where faster doesn’t mean smarter? Where tone is not indicative of competence? What about those who speak English as a second language, or speak English as a first language, but with an accent? Regional dialects and accents have been proven to affect wages and accent biases can impact employment prospects, with people striving to lose accents that are perceived as being less intelligent in order to improve opportunities. In 2017, I wrote the essay, “I Always, You Never: A Celebration of Village English,” to push back on biases and prejudices present in our communities as a result of local accents and Englishes. It seeks to acknowledge how our community accents come from our Indigenous languages, and in many cases in Iñupiaq, the phrases that are considered odd in Engish are direct translations from Iñupiaq. It is as applicable today as it was then.
With speech being a cultural benchmark of awareness, brightness, capability and intelligence, one example of how this arises is the perceived level of confidence many Western parents have that a child can accomplish a specific task in accordance with where they are in speech, equating awareness to their ability to speak. It may surprise some Western parents to see Iñupiaq toddlers with an uluaq (little ulu) in their hands, butchering and working on animals, but Iñupiat parents know that children and toddlers are capable of much more prior to the faculties of speech. Iñupiat toddlers will perform full, clear motion dances with their families, to the pride of the community and the amazement of White guests.
Soon after my internship, my entire community flipped from the White-majority community I was raised in. I was immersed in our Native community and it would be several years before I attended a White-majority event. Needless to say, those biases were soon terminated the more time I spent with our people, and I feel wholly unaffected now by the manner in which someone speaks, in relation to their intelligence. But it does make me wonder about Americans such as myself, who had little exposure to non-dominant English speakers growing up, with the closest experience being that of the speech of a child.
Ultimately, it’s not that speech cannot be used to convey intelligence, but what’s present are snap judgments of intelligence based on how someone speaks.
Culture and Biases
As stated, the response to non-dominant speech includes accent discrimination and biases, wage and employment penalties, and is a dynamic in communities across America and abroad (hence terming it ‘dominant’ as opposed to just ‘White’).
It’s not about being good or bad. Biases come from culture.
Everyone has a culture. Culture is everything that is your normal and is your default. Attitudes of good/bad/write/wrong/common sense/respect/view of the world etc., is all culture, and terms may include, “deep culture,” “subsurface,” or “intangible culture.” It is often invisible to oneself when immersed, and becomes more visible via the benefit of contrast with other ways of being, and other peoples’ “normal.”
Culture also includes expectations of what should be. Biases arrive when those expectations are not met, such as the expectation of dominant speech. As detailed previously, there can be detrimental ramifications for anyone who is not meeting those cultural standards and expectations.
Again, it’s not about being good or bad. The dominant message is clear: how you speak is indicative of your level of intelligence. There’s a dominant culture, and we absorb messages like air; babies associate races with positive or negative traits by the time they’re three or four.
One thing I’ve noticed in contrast with dominant/Western cultures and my own, is that broadly in America, there’s a large emphasis on how you sound, and not always on the content of what someone says. With my people, there’s a focus on who the person is and what is said, regardless of how it’s spoken.
I had always been Iñupiaq, but that did not exempt me from absorbing messages from dominant society, like air. This is what racism is like, a system that privileges and prioritizes the pinnacle of Western/White expectations, and it’s easy to slam down those “others,” who are racist. But it’s not about being good or bad, and it’s more complex than just “others”: It’s us. All of us, those who have advanced these messages, and those who have internalized them about ourselves and asserted them in our community members and to our peers.
Everyone has a culture, and this strand is one element of dominant Western/White ways of being. If we (because I am also White and have been a part of this) don’t know this — that we have a culture, what our culture is, that what we think is normal is actually cultural, that there are other completely valid and effective ways of operating that happen to contrast with our own — we could be asserting these messages in a way that can carry serious implications for other people, damaging or limiting wellness, success, career opportunities, financial security, general treatment and safety, and more.
It is possible to grow more aware of messaging, and how furthering those assertions upon others with their own sovereign backgrounds and ways, can cause unintended consequences and pain. With the browning of America and heightening multiculturalism, this will become more essential than ever. I’d further encourage others to share their experiences of coming out of their own biases. Ibram Kendi asserts that the foundation of racism is self-interest; what does it matter, if it helps. And again, it’s not about being good or bad.
Also, the next time you’re talking with someone and you feel surprised, pay attention to that. You’re likely uncovering a bias.