Recently I've had a number of conversations with coworkers and friends about accents, specifically my perceived lack of a Southern accent. (Before I continue, let me say to those who took part in the conversations and who may also read this: I'm not mad, and don't feel awkward about this! I just think it's an interesting issue I want to explore more.) Maybe it's because I've met more people in the past few months than I do on my normal timeline, but several have said something to the effect of, "Wow, you're from Arkansas, but you don't sound like it! How'd that happen?" Now I've never been one to limit my own Arkansas-bashing. I'm glad I grew up there, I wouldn't change that fact for all the world, but I'm also very glad I no longer live there. To me, home is people, not a place, and the fact that there's no (relevant and interesting) job I could find in Arkansas or Memphis makes me even less likely to call it home anymore. Still, I get a little defensive when people make assumptions or judgements I perceive to be class-based, region-based, or accent-based.
I know that, as a white person who grew up in relative wealth compared to the sharecroppers on our farm, I am and have been incredibly privileged in my life. I went to college mostly for free, and got an advanced degree in the process. I'm employed, and I support myself. These are all Good Things, and it's pretty hard to find a way to belittle someone for them. The most obvious position on which someone could discriminate against me, gender identity, is one I actually welcome: I enjoy verbally and professionally eviscerating anyone who assumes that my particular set of genitalia means I'm inferior.
So maybe regional identity is the only place where I feel my armor is weak, the only thing I'm sensitive about. And that's true - I do feel that being labelled as a Southerner can be detrimental. I purposely started trying to drop my accent when I was a teenager, because I was afraid of the impression it could give people. I have friends from college who were also from the South, and many felt the same way that I did: it's okay for people to assume that our accents mean we're stupid or bigoted. Not everyone has those assumptions, of course, but enough do that it's better to be safe than labelled a redneck.
And maybe that's just it: even though I want to believe otherwise, I've internalized the concept that your accent indicates your socioeconomic class, your respectability. Even though many people I love have Southern accents (some quite strong), I still look down on those accents in a certain way, because I don't want to be perceived as being what those accents mean to me.
Next-day post script: At lunch today I had a conversation with coworkers, including the one who'd asked me the question yesterday, about accents and the social codings they carry. It was really interesting, and no one was upset by my defensiveness. The conversation meandered into other region-based stereotypes and how we have to deal with the ideas that exist in the world about our homes. Interesting stuff, all in all, and I feel better for having had the conversation with people.