The final days of summer always remind me of the time I left home for college. In an instant I can recall what I felt 25 years ago sitting in the back seat of my parent’s car, my belongings stuffed in the trunk, as we drove silently away from my home and toward my future.
Home was Cranston, R.I., a suburb of Providence. My neighborhood was predominately white, working-class and Roman Catholic. In many ways I thought the whole world was like Cranston. But my parents knew the world was bigger and that a college education would help me achieve more in the world.
My mom had a high school diploma, and my dad never finished his. They built a life and a family they were proud of. However, they wanted more for me. There was never any question of whether I would go to college, but rather how good a college it would be. None of us had any idea exactly how to apply to college. We figured it out, and it paid off, as I became a first generation college student – a term that did not exist back then.
Pride to Prejudice
I knew my parents were extremely proud, and so was I. But as we drove farther away from Cranston, I started to worry. I worried about if I was smart enough, if would I fit it, if I would make friends. As my parents hugged me goodbye after helping me settle into my dorm, I fought off tears and dug deep. I wanted to so badly to make my family proud, but I was terrified of navigating such a new world.
I dove into my orientation sessions with a determination to make this college thing work. As I started to get to know people, it became more and more apparent that I was different. I couldn’t relate to conversations about exotic vacations, private schools or where parents went to college. But what solidified my spot as an outsider was not the fact that I didn’t own a car or even have a passport. It was the way I talked.
If you have ever lived in Rhode Island, you know about the “Cranston whine,” an utterly unique accent prevalent in folks who grew up in Cranston. It sounds like a mix between a Long Island and Boston accent. Growing up it was a source connection and even pride.
As I met people during orientation, over and over I was asked to repeat words, which were then followed by bouts of laughter. I tried to play along, but it grew tiresome. After a few days on campus, one person asked me if I knew “how stupid” I sounded. That is when I knew: My accent was the biggest indicator that I was a working-class kid and didn’t belong on campus. I got the impression that to my classmates my accent meant I was poor, uneducated and unintelligent.
Due to the relentless teasing about my accent, I coped by becoming silent. I spoke very little in classes and in social settings. I took to practicing, saying words the “correct” way by standing in front of my dorm room mirror. I felt conflicted and confused when doing so. Was I doing this because I was ashamed of where I came from and being a working-class kid? Or was it simply just one of the coping strategies I needed to adopt to deal with the classism I was experiencing? Nonetheless, I finished college with a degree – and a new way of speaking.
My accent was the biggest indicator that I was a working-class kid and didn’t belong on campus.”
Twenty-five years have passed, but the memory and feelings are still lodged in my brain and heart. When I now meet folks who are familiar with the “Cranston whine,” and they ask why I don’t have the accent, I no longer brush off the question. Instead, I tell this story in hopes that people will consider my experience – and understand that classism is at the root of the prejudice that exists towards working-class people with certain accents.
Every now and then when I am tired my Cranston accent slips out. I try not to feel ashamed or correct myself. However, there is still the lingering internalized notion that I sound unintelligent – something I know isn’t true.