It was recently suggested to me that the accent that one speaks with is a "protected characteristic" under English law in the same way that skin colour is. Is this true or false and can you provide any evidence to demonstrate this?

As I understand it, "race" is a protected characteristic but accent is not. Is this correct? Is there any way that accent could be encompassed in the definition of "race"?

  • I'm not sure of British Law, but in the U.S., discrimination law tends to make it illegal if you discriminate based on both "actual and perceived" discriminatory reasons. Accents may be indicators of nationality (which is different than race) but are not always the best indicators. For example, I know someone who's children speak with British Accents despite the fact that they are not British Born (reason is family spent some time in Britain when children were young, and they picked up the accent)
    – hszmv
    Oct 7 '21 at 18:59

English law prohibits (in certain fields - e.g. employment) both direct and indirect discrimination in relation to a "protected characteristic". Protected characteristics include "race", the definition of which includes colour, ethnicity, and national origins.

An example of direct discrimination would be if you required an employee to be of a particular ethnicity or not of a particular ethnicity - e.g. Welsh.

An example of indirect discrimination would be requiring employees to be at able to speak Welsh, which would mean that the percentage of English people who were eligible was considerably less than the percentage of Welsh people who were eligible. The thing about indirect discrimination is that is is allowed if it is a "proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim" - so obviously requiring a teacher of the Welsh language to be able to speak it is fine but requiring a fork-lift truck driver in a warehouse in London to speak Welsh would probably not be.

So although language is not itself a protected characteristic, language discrimination can sometimes be indirect race (i.e. ethnicity) discrimination. The same could be true, in the right circumstances, for accent discrimination.

There must be very few, if any, circumstances in which requiring someone to have (or not to have) a particular accent could be "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim" but the main difficulty in any claim would be the prior question of whether it could constitute indirect discrimination on grounds of ethnicity/national origins etc. in the first place I.E. would such a requirement affect members of one ethnic group more than another?

It might be difficult to argue that variations in accent in different English or Welsh regions correspond sufficiently with ethnic differences for accent discrimination to constitute indirect race (i.e. ethnic) discrimination. But I can see that indirect discrimination might be possible with regard to country differences. For example requiring employees not to have an Australian accent would, I think, be indirect discrimination on grounds of "race" (the definition of which includes national origins and ethnicity).

  • "It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which requiring someone to have (or not to have) a particular accent could be 'proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim'" Hiring an actor to portray a character with a particular accent. Obviously this applies in only a very few positions. Oct 7 '21 at 17:58
  • I agree with you there. Many actors can put on accents but if the actor happens to already have the accent then that would be a bonus. Similarly with appearance. A lot can be done with make-up and hair dye but if the actor naturally has the appearance of the character they are to play, so much the better.
    – Nemo
    Oct 7 '21 at 18:12
  • @DavidSiegel While not under British Law, I know that Disney World will only let cast members of certain nationalities work certain jobs in the park (Namely, employees who work the attractions, dining, and shopping jobs in Epcot's World Show case pavilions are always people from those nations (either they immigrated or are in the U.S. on work Visas). Since the show cases are devoted to learning about other cultures, it does serve a purpose to have someone from their interacting with guests. I'm pretty sure janitorial staff are not selected.
    – hszmv
    Oct 7 '21 at 18:27
  • 1
    At Disney Land even the janitors who are in view of the public are performers Oct 7 '21 at 22:00
  • 2
    A Welsh speaking foreman who could speak no English at all would be a vary rare beast, even in North Wales.
    – Nemo
    Oct 8 '21 at 8:56

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