Saturday, 10 March 2012

Accents and the Tragedy of Self-Hate!

I recently started Video blogging and with it came the barrage of opinionated comments on my looks, appearance and quite interestingly, my accent!

I have never been self conscious about my accent.  I started making guest appearances on National TV programs almost two decades ago as a young human rights activist and vocal feminist. I remember the first time I appeared on one of the ‘posh’ Women’s programs which at the time passed as a feminist TV show, I was immediately approached after the show by the popular “polish’ presenter who told me “Yemisi you were really brilliant on the show, only thing is if we could get you to lose the accent”. Well, it happened that the presenter also ran a ‘Finishing school’ for girls ... hmm do not ask me why a “feminist’ TV show presenter had a “Finishing school for girls’’… well, this is Nigeria we are talking about, and feminism , like many assumed “imported” ideology comes with its colonial baggage!

 Anyway, she was so impressed with my points but not so impressed with my accent that she offered me a free session in her 'Finishing school' to get rid of my accent. I remember asking her why I would want to be rid of my accent, I wasn’t self conscious about my accent, especially since Nigeria is a diverse country with many local dialects and accent is one of the ways you know where a particular person is from.  Well, I was told getting rid of my accent would be great for my profile, I declined her ‘priceless’ offer and  insisted that  I’d rather keep my accent as it is an integral part of my identity .

I have since gone ahead to speak at many national and international events, sometimes with heads of states and diplomats present. I have made a few speeches at UN meetings, appeared on a live televised round table debate with Tony Blair and some other world leaders, but I never for a minute  felt self conscious about my accent, and well, my audience never really complained and in some cases, they seemed to appreciate what I had to say. Shows you should choose your audience well!

However with the uncontrolled audience that YouTube, Facebook and other online social networks attracts, I have recently been faced with so many malicious comments attacking my Yoruba accent, and funny or rather very unfortunately, 99.9% of these comments are from my country people who have similar accents! I couldn’t help but wonder why people would hate themselves so much as to believe that their accent is inferior? This phenomenon is not peculiar to Nigerians.

In 2009, I attended a student exchange program in Indian; I was the only black student in a group of white students. I noticed that the first thing most, if not all, of the Indian lecturers did was to apologize for their accents!  I thought that was unnecessary if not outright pathetic. I mean, I paid some serious money for a Masters degree in a UK university, none of the very white, very accented lecturers ever bothered to apologize to me for their British accents, rather, whenever I ventured to speak in the class (and yes, I couldn’t be kept shut) , I at least, made sure I spoke slowly enough for them to get the gist of my comments but did they ever extend such courtesy to me?  Hell no! And I am pretty sure the exchange lecturers in UK did not apologize for their British accents to the exchange Indian students sitting in UK classrooms. So why did the Indian lecturers feel they had to apologise for their local accents to the exchange, mainly white students group? Well, somehow I knew (don't ask me how!) that even though i was a member of that group, they weren't apologising to my black ass for their Indian accents!

In fact, the default setting is, being an English speaking white person means ‘No accent’ and if at all, it is considered a ‘superior’ accent to what is coming out from a brown or black mouth! Of course having only lived in UK for 3 years, I am still trying to identify the myriads of British accents; from the Manchester accents, to the Lancashire, to the Scots, to the… oh forget it! Yet, I am by default, the one who is supposed to apologize for my accent because I am black and from Africa. Nope, we all have our accents and none is superior to the other.

From good old wikipieda ( link here )
  • Accents and dialects vary widely across Britain; as such, a single "British accent" does not exist.
  •  Non-native pronunciations of English result from the common linguistic phenomenon in which non-native users of any language tend to carry the intonation, phonological processes and pronunciation rules from their mother tongue into their English speech. They may also create innovative pronunciations for English sounds not found in the speaker's first language. Local accents are part of local dialects. Any dialect of English has unique features in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The term "accent" describes only the first of these, namely, pronunciation.
  •   Among native English speakers, many different accents exist. Some regional accents are easily identified by certain characteristics. Further variations are to be found within the regions identified below; for example, towns located less than 10 miles (16 km) from the city of Manchester such as Bolton, Oldham and Salford, each have distinct accents, all of which form the Lancashire accent, yet in extreme cases are different enough to be noticed even by a non-local listener.
The main tragedy is that following my video posts, the myriads of hate comments deriding my accent are not from people of different culture but from my own culture, my home country, my hometown!  Below are examples- 

Double lol!!! Bisexual Yemisi Ilesanmi's got a terrible English accent... which suits her lifestyle I suppose. *tut tut* I thought she was polished, but now I've seen this video, *smh*"
(Comment made by a Nigerian woman on my video interview posted on a mutual friend’s facebook wall, she obviously hates the fact that I am Bisexual and Atheist! And, she’d rather talk about my accent than the content of my interview. Her comments were dead giveaway of how much she loathes her local accents) 

“You cannot slap some sense into Bishop Oyedepo cuz you don't have any sense. Instead of you to spend your time learning how to speak proper English, you're here making a mockery of yourself with your H factor and inability to pronounce words right. I suggest you take your alien looking ass and put it somewhere away from the cam.” 
(Comment from a Nigerian man on my YouTube video ‘Slap some sense into Bishop David Oyedepo’, the commenter forgot or hates the well known fact that the main distinguishing factor of the Yoruba accent is its heavy emphasis on H in spoken English)

“Ello! My name is Yemisi... and today... I Ham very Hangry!” 
 (Comment left on my YouTube Video ‘Slap some sense into Bishop David Oyedepo’ by another Nigerian who hates his local accent!)  

It really is a tragedy that so many people are still under the chains of mental slavery. The belief that you are not good enough unless you are white, rich and skinny and speak English through your nose is still a prevalent belief amongst many Africans!  Some actually thought such comments about my accent would offend me, but I just wonder why I should be upset because I have an accent that is unique to my place of birth and where I grew up. What is there to be ashamed of?  People who make such comments are ignorant and need to emancipate themselves from mental slavery.

 This also got me thinking about some other things people have said to me which they thought were offensive but which I just took as a matter of fact and not an offense. For example, during my first professional photo shoot as an aspiring plus size model, the makeup artiste, a  talented black woman was preparing to fix a pair of fake eyelashes on me when I made the very honest comment that it was my first time of fixing fake eyelashes. Well, she was aghast  and  she mockingly said, “Are you from the village?  I asked her why not fixing fake eyelashes should be associated with a villager’s behaviour.  I just never felt I needed fake eye- lashes.  Also, I never fixed fake nails, I have naturally long nails therefore I never needed to have nail extensions, same with my lashes! And the horror of all was when she was shaping my eyebrows and I said I do not use tweezers because I find it painful, I prefer “plastic shavers” She shrieked and said “You are definitely a bush girl!!! She being a lovely lady immediately covered her mouth so no one but me could hear this “insulting” comment.  Being called a ‘bush person’ is like the ultimate insult to an African person especially an African woman.  Only I didn’t take it as an insult, she was so remorseful after that I actually started wondering why I wasn’t offended!

I explained to her that being from the ‘bush’ or village should not be seen as something to be ashamed of. I could choose to live in the bush/village if it made me happy. If I won the lottery today (fat chance since i don't even play the lottery), first thing would be to buy a house in the countryside, and yes, to me, countrysides are glorified villages.  Also, my not using tweezers is me putting my comfort first before fashion, and plastic shavers have done a pretty good job of shaving my eyebrows for decades, so if it isn’t broken, why try to fix or change it?

 However, I got seriously thinking about why I  wasn’t offended by such comments? Is it over-confidence? Is it because I was born in the city, grew up in the city and have visited all the continents, that I do not find it offensive when someone out of the blues criticize my accents or call me a bush girl or not polished enough?

I think it is because I understand that many people, especially Africans are dying to ‘belong’, desperately seeking the approval of the ‘upper class;’ which itself means , the adoption of white culture and behaviours, which unfortunately many Africans still consider as superior to their native cultures . Many have been brainwashed and are still under the yoke of mental colonization. They live under the unfortunate impression that they are inferior in their native environment, appearance or lifestyles, they consider themselves second class human beings. In such cases, I just shake my head and pity their ignorance.  Well; I actually go a step further by putting pen on paper or my face on YouTube to help educate such people to be free from the chains of mental slavery. 

In a similar vein, I understand what Greta Christina was saying in her blog post “the ugliest of all atheists!”: #mencallmethings,  about people being concerned about one's looks especially if a woman,  than what one has to say. 

She wrote “When I was speaking at the University of Chicago last week — awesome event, btw, thanks to everyone who put it together! — the event organizer showed me a publicity poster for the event, which had been graffittied. Next to my photo and under my name, someone had hand-written the words, “the ugliest of all atheists!”  Because that’s the important thing, isn’t it? When determining the worth of a writer or speaker or other public figure, the most important issue is whether said figure is nice-looking or ugly. It doesn’t matter if we’re stupid or smart, accurate or off-base, innovative or entrenched, boring or inspiring. What matters is whether random strangers find us sexually attractive.
 In my case, I do get such feedback like, “you look beautiful in that video, can we be friend?” Yuk… I just wonder how I would accept to be friends with someone who sat through a video I took the time to make about a topic dear to my heart and all he or she could say was “you look beautiful and sexy!”  I mean, what happened to the topic I was discussing? Not interesting, beautiful or sexy enough?

Like Greta said  “The point isn’t that I’m not ugly. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.” I will go further and add-
The point isn’t that I'm not beautiful. The point is that it shouldn’t matter
The point isn’t that I’m not sexy. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.
The point isn't that I'm not fat. The point is that it shouldn't matter.
The point isn’t that I don’t have an accent. The point is that it shouldn’t matter.

For those that are ‘put off’ by my accent, especially those that actually share this beautiful Yoruba accent with me or speak with  Igbo or Hausa accent from my beloved country, Nigeria, listen carefully, read my lips if need be, PEOPLE HAVE ACCENTS, GET OVER IT! You should spend less time on self-hate and more time on listening and understanding the topic under discussion. It is said that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people. 

Deriding accents from your homeland accentuates your insecurities about yourself, your origin and your identity. Disparaging the accents of people different from you shows how ignorant you are of the diversity of the world you live in. Such comments won't hurt the discerning, it only draws attention to your self-hate. Everyone has an accent, learn to respect yours and others will respect you. You are free to adopt another accent if it made you feel good but do not look down on those hanging on to their accents. Learn to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of diversity, you do not always have to blend in, you can stand out. You do not always have to crave to 'belong' , you can make people appreciate where you already belong. Do not wallow in self stigmatization, Stop your self-hate! 


  1. Interesting discussion. Thanks for having the time to talk about this. But why bother? Inferiority complex is what most people live in. I dont care if they want to learn others' style, its their right, what I worry about is that it makes them not to know their worth, or accept those that know. But the first basic reality of identity is knowing yourself; without linked to all those accessories that comes with life.

    1. Thanks Godwyns. Why bother? Hmm...I have taken the time to address this because some feel it is a way of attacking my person. They actually think pointing out that I have an accent is an insult! It is like someone telling me I am Bisexual! Tell me something new!lol!

      The funny part is those hauling the accent "insult" hate my sexual identity and Atheism, since they could not discuss ideas, they settled on what they thought was an attack. The tragedy is that it smirks of self-hate, since they are all from my home country and have accents too. I just had to rub it in their faces that no offense is taken and also do my good deed of the day by encouraging them to cultivate the habit of discussing ideas and stop discussing people.

  2. It is good you even address this Yemisi cuz some people even need the courage to tackle some negative comments they receive about their accents and now you have provided that.

    1. Very true, Toyin, the stand tall activist! It is always important to not shy away from issues especially issues that could make us doubt ourselves. Positive criticisms should be welcomed, negative criticisms should be shown for what it is, negative. We can take a step further by objectively analyzing the negativity to the critiques and hope they can learn to turn it to a positive. Unfortunately many are only interested in bringing you down to their level, even when you offer them a hand of support, they'd rather pull you down!

  3. Africans and Nigerians in general have created such ridiculous high standards for themselves that any one who falls short is laughed at....we are perfect at faking every thing in our lives. The ignorance of even the most educated is alarming. Interesting discussion this is.

  4. Thanks Lara for your contribution. If only Nigerians practiced the high standard they falsely lay claim to. From leaders to followers, it is unfortunately the same old story, HYPOCRISY.

  5. Nigerians and really all people from former colonies who deride other people's authentic accents are suffering the lingering effects of colonial mentality! It's tragic, and as Yemisi notes, a sign of deep seated insecurities, self-loathing, and identity crisis.
    "The idea that intelligence is linked to English pronunciation is a legacy from colonial thinking."

  6. Dear Yemisi, Let me start by saying I love you and I am a fan of all who are advocates of human rights for all beings. However, I must disagree with you on the basis that those who criticize your accent are haters. I am Yoruba and I do not speak English as carelessly as you do. The problem here is not your accent but your lack of proper enunciation. The good news is that this flaw can be corrected. And those who have offered you help in this regard do not hate you or your accent. As a human right activist, you want to educate the masses and get your message across as eloquently as possible. Even as a Yoruba woman the pronunciation of your words are a distraction and hard on the ears.e.g. Hi Ham very Hangry. Yorubas do not speak as such. Please see this as a positive criticism and try to make changes because the world needs a courageous and brilliant person that you are. Peace and love to you.

  7. @Lola Seeing that you sent me same message on my Facebook, which I have responded to before seeing your comment here, , I will just go ahead and repost my response to your message.

    Dear Lola,
    You wrote

    I am Yoruba and I do not speak English as carelessly as you do

    Is this the point I defend myself by saying I do not speak English carelessly? lol!
    What the heck makes you think I care to speak English, Yoruba or any other language the way YOU do?

    Whatever gave you the impression that you and I both share the same aspiration when it comes to how we speak English or any other foreign or local language?

    It seems you think the fact that we are both Yorubas gives you a kind of say in how i speak or present myself to the world. You definitely got that wrong cos I do not care about the corner of the planet you come from. I concern myself with actions and characters, not your place of birth or abode.

    You obviously overrated the weight of your opinion concerning any aspect of my life. Please learn to keep such patronizing opinions and unsolicited advice to yourself.

    To address your other unsolicited opinions --

    You wrote

    The good news is that this flaw can be corrected

    ROTFLMAO! Sorry to disappoint you, but I am not the one with the flaw, you are the one suffering from a serious residual mental slavery. If you think I should take elocution classes to improve my pronunciation when I have not got any speech impediment, then you really have a problem. It is basically same as suggesting I go for a cosmetic surgery to make myself ‘more beautiful’ to appeal to a larger audience. You have a problem, not me.

    You wrote

    And those who have offered you help in this regard do not hate you or your accent

    If you or any other person finds the way I pronounce my words not pleasing enough for your ears or grating on your nerves, it is your problem, not mine.

    BTW, I never said those who rant about my accent hate me, what I have made very clear in my blogpost titled ‘Accents and the Tragedy of Self-Hate’ ( is that those , especially Nigerians who complain about my accent, HATE THEMSELVES. They suffer from inferiority complex because they see their own accent as inferior to that of their former colonial masters. They view the way they pronounce words as not elegant or posh enough for foreign audience.

    No, this is not me shying away from criticism; this is me telling you to not impose whatever you think as a pleasing accent or enunciation on me. If you find it difficult understanding my video, which as a Nigerian, I do not think you would, then that is your problem to overcome, not mine. I speak in Nigeria and no one tells me they can’t understand what I say, but put it on YouTube suddenly every Nigerian wants you to change the way you normally speak and adopt a foreign accent and enunciation.

    I do not appreciate anyone imposing their fakery on me. What you see is what you get. If you don’t like I how speak, dress or look, you’d have to keep your advice along these lines to yourself, no matter how well meaning. It is such useless advice that makes many vulnerable people, especially women, doubt their own self worth. It is such people like you that go sending people they hardly know messages on how to lose weight thereby exposing vulnerable young women to anorexia. Today it is about my pronunciation, tomorrow it will be about something else. Word of advice, if you are not a medical doctor, my personal medical doctor, keep your bullshit about my perceived enunciation ‘flaw’ to yourself, your opinion is not wanted.