I recently heard from Horace Middlemier, an old acquaintance in the world of legal practice . He had attended an educational gathering and had a strange experience that he wanted to relate. The question he posed was intriguing and I really had no answer. Essentially, it comes down to "is it ever acceptable to appropriate an accent for the purpose of humor?" It seems someone had ended a presentation with a joke in an accent and Horace was perturbed, on the edge of offended. I did not see or hear it, and so I am left with forming opinions secondhand.
The circumstances are interesting in that the presenter was a member of a minority group, and undertook an impression of another minority group in presenting this intended-to-be humorous anecdote. Horace was a bit taken aback at what he perceived as a lack of respect for the imitated group, which he perceived as ridiculed by the joke. Curious and careful, as Horace always is, he had bounced his feelings and perceptions off of some other attendees, and related that he perceived he was not alone in his discomfort.
The conversation reminded me of a news story that came across my feed some time ago from the great Downunder. In October 2020, the Sydney Morning Herald
headline read "Speaking in tongues: Is it ever OK to do a foreign accent for laughs?" The story involves a "Sydney radio presenter," Erin Molan, that was "accused of being racist because she has, more than once, put on accents." The matter was in litigation because Ms. Molan apparently sued "the Daily Mail" for "call(ing) her a racist" as a consequence of these appropriated accents.
The Herald examined the issue interestingly. Its article features quotes from Diana Nguyen who "uses heavy accent when she performs as her Vietnamese mother" in various formats. Ms. Nguyen asserts that there is an element of intent in accent use. She says one must ask "why are you using the accent." Ms. Nguyen denies mocking her mother or culture. She explains that "white people us(ing) Asian accents in the past, it was punching down." This, she concludes is inappropriate and wrong. Ms. Nguyen says that "When white people use accents, and particularly Asian, the question has to be why." She characterizes this as disrespect and asserts that "It's a universal human right to have respect."
Another comedian, Simon Hall, told the Herald that he "understands why accents are so appealing to comedic performers." Despite that lure, however, he conceded "they can also be highly problematic." He also contended that context is important and that "Intent is important, too, but it can be easy to misinterpret." Mr. Hall opines that who is performing has great importance, "as does the power dynamic between the performer and the performed; punching up is very different to punching down."
Mr. Hall says "a white . . . doing an Indian accent . . . feels mean in the context of the world as it is." This seems tied to his perceptions of equality and society, as he adds that "If the world was equal, then everyone could do everyone's accent and it would all be funny." He admits that he has "performed as a hillbilly American, and it's a characterization that draws on shared understandings around poverty, lack of education, and a proclivity for Deliverance-style violence." Reflecting on this, he tells the Herald "On reflection . . . 'it feels a bit off, and maybe it is.'" Curiously, Mr. Hall's perspective on punching down on the economically disadvantaged seems different than his perception of other punching down. Some might say hypocritical?
The Herald described an Australian who is "the stand-out example of performing outside your cultural comfort zone." This Mr. Mitchell, it said, "has come to be seen as the benchmark against which all transgressions are measured." His portrayals focused on Greek culture, and when asked about it, "Mitchell claimed (this character was) also a character to whom Greeks gave 'an enormous high approval rating.'" Thus, there is some apparent perception that it may matter whether the group that is being mocked approves of being the butt of a joke
. But, does how the ridiculed group feels change whether everyone else perceives the speaker as a racist or worse?
The Herald addressed another broad "school of comedy, that was perceived as different because of who was speaking." This example involved when "Anglo-Saxons pretend[ed] to be ethnic in a very stereotypical way." This resulted in derogatory labeling of people, and some appropriating a particular term to label themselves. There is a perceived difference in the use of derogatory terms, and some see no issue with people self-derogating. A word that is perhaps generally or even universally offensive may be excused or permitted when used by someone of a particular background, ethnicity, national origin, or otherwise. What may be inappropriate or forbidden for one speaker might be permissible for another.
The Herald notes that "the mood of the nation (Australia) has turned." This includes that "the mood has inexorably shifted on the question of whether doing an accent outside your own cultural zone is racist." It cited a survey of 1314 people, which "included a 'significant' number of people from non-white backgrounds." This concluded that half of the respondents said that "'imitating an accent associated with another racial group' was either always or usually racist." However, "40 percent said it was never or usually not." That survey did not, apparently, consider the race or national origin of the speaker in specific terms, but seemingly presumed in the question that the speaker was not of the group being imitated ("another racial group").
One might cast that as a close decision. Or, one might see the 10% difference as a compelling margin. And, the whole issue leaves the Herald's query:
"It's a question we might all reflect on. Is doing an accent inherently racist?"
Whatever the answer in the broadest context of society, the conclusion of the Erin Molan trial may be viewed from various perspectives. The outcome was a court victory for Ms. Molan and an award of $150,000 (presumably Australian Dollars, which is approximately $96,000 U.S. Dollars), according to The Guardian
. This does not answer the question of whether appropriating accents is or is not acceptable, or even racist. It concludes that in that case, on particular facts, a court concluded that labeling the person using such accents as "racist" was inappropriate and somewhat expensive (it was not as notable as the $1 billion ordered in the recent American "hoax claims" litigation
The Guardian article includes perceptions of the Australian case, and quotes from the (presumably) presiding judge, Justice Robert Bromwich. This includes the perception that "each side had a 'measure of success and a measure of failure'" in the case. There were conclusions regarding whether Ms. Molan's humor was directed at ethnic peoples, or at a co-worker who struggled with pronunciations. In the end, the conclusion was that “'the most serious pleaded imputation,'” that Molan is a racist, was not conveyed." Thus, the point of the Molan litigation may be about who did or did not satisfy the burden of proof in that setting as much as it is a generalized statement on the appropriation of accents.
Thus, in the Australian court, the conclusion to the "inherently racist" question is perhaps "no," and perhaps merely "not in this instance." The conclusion of the "inherently racist" question in the poll cited by the Herald is more likely a significant "yes," unless perhaps you are ridiculing your own culture or its foibles. The conclusion in the broader court of public opinion is perhaps harder to measure, as it seems to be among the public figures interviewed by the Herald, perhaps a resounding "it depends." While that "depends" seems equivocal, Horace and other legal practitioners might remind us that "it depends" is likely not consistent with "inherent
." The word "inherent" is a "permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute."
In the end, perhaps the best advice is rather simple. Imitating someone's accent, whether you are "punching up" or "punching down" is fraught with the risk that you will be seen as "punching." That is belittling, ridiculing, or demeaning someone. Whether you are making fun of your own, or of others seems a fine line distinction that you may not find support for in your audience or the public generally. Despite how hour audience responds, how will those who learn of your "humor" secondhand perceive it. Will they laugh, or without the context of your joke will they simply conclude you are a racist?
The best advice seems to be to find some less potentially insulting, or at least distracting, way to grab that laugh. "Is it ever acceptable to appropriate an accent for the purpose of humor?" That will be up to the listeners who hear the joke and who learn later of your humor. Whether you or the audience perceive any racist intent or effect, your reputation may suffer. It did in the instance Horace described in starting this discussion. It is possible in this world that perceptions can be as important as the reality that we individually perceive or discern. As such, appropriating someone's culture to demean them may be troubling regardless of your intent, personal background, or perceptions regarding the direction of punching.
 Horace is not a real person, but a fictional perception of a variety of people conglomerated as a literary tool.
By Judge David Langham