Western-Sounding Privilege: Identity and my Australian Accent

It’s five in the morning and Mum and I bolt upright in bed as voices ring out from next door.

We’re sharing a room on holiday, and until a few minutes ago we were peacefully asleep. After fifteen more minutes of unmistakably Aussie voices piercing the night, we’re both painfully awake.

I join Mum on the terrace as she says, “Can you tell them to be quiet in your Australian accent?”

I yell into the night for whoever is next door to please carry on inside as it’s five and I would like to sleep.

The voices instantly deaden.

“Thank you,” says Mum. “I knew if I said anything it would have no effect.”

I know she’s right, because even if the neighbours couldn’t see my brown skin in the middle of the night, they could recognise the legitimacy of my Aussie accent.

It’s moments like these which characterise much of the Western-born Indian experience —where my experience as an Australian of Indian heritage is differentiated from the experience of my Australian Indian-born parents.

My accent, and the privilege it gives me, is something I have become acutely aware of. In sounding Australian, my belonging to my home country has never been questioned. If people ask me where I’m from, they’re usually asking what city or suburb, not my background.

Although she has lived in Australia for 30 years and considers it more home than her native India, my Mum’s accent otherises her, just as my Aussie accent otherises me in India.

But it’s different. I’ve never had the feeling of being mocked or ignored because of my accent; it reflects my identity as much as my passport does.

Even in India, where I am obviously foreign despite my conventional appearance, my accent does not lead to ridicule. Mostly it leads to reverence, no doubt a remnant of colonialism.

In Australia, I have never had the legitimacy of my Australian-ness questioned. Australia, by nature, is multicultural, so you can be any colour under the sun and still be an Aussie. Yet part of my Australian-ness is my accent. It’s not something that I consider to define my Australian identity; however for others it is; it signals that I belong, that I am one of them.

As much as I, and others like me, struggle with identity, constantly torn between Australian and Indian, I am privileged by this conspicuous belonging.

I do not have to prove my belonging in my country.

Although I am a minority in Australia, my accent indicates that I am a first-generation Australian, not a migrant. This privileges me above migrants who are far more likely to be discriminated against. People like my Mum, who is a proud Aussie, who has the subtlest of Indian accents, who has to justify her Australian-ness to those who disregard her. This is Western-sounding privilege.

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By Kanika Kirpalani

Kanika Kirpalani is a third culture person, an Australian-Indian who grew up in Sydney and Singapore. Kanika is a final … Read more ›