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Being Black, Sounding White, and Why My Voice Is None of Your Business

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Last week, the documentary Do I Sound Gay? fulfilled its Kickstarter campaign goal, raising more than its $115,000 goal for post-production funding. The documentary features prominent gay men like Dan Savage and David Sedaris, all speaking about the struggle of “sounding gay” and mainstream society’s reaction to them and their voices. Thinking about what it means to sound gay uncovered my own lifelong struggles with “sounding white” and trying to fit in both with mainstream America and within minority communities. Sounding black or white and the meaning behind both has made for surprisingly eloquent discussions on Reddit, with Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman, with biracial comedians Key & Peele, and of course every black person who has been elected to office has been scrutinized for how white they sound.

I heard “you don’t sound black,” a lot growing up. Funny enough, I’d like to think that I didn’t sound stereotypically white either, considering I lived on the south shore of Staten Island, the place where the “er” sound at the ends of words goes to die. Apparently my family and I, with our TV news-anchor diction, didn’t fulfill our white neighbors’ expectations of what it meant to sound black, and since it came up often, it started to make me feel self-conscious. I didn’t know what it meant to “sound black” anyway. Believe me, all I wanted as an adolescent was to blend into the crowd. When I started going to sleep-away camp I began to socialize with more New Yorkers of varied ethnicities and once again the topic of my black voice came up, but from other black people. All of a sudden my enunciation and diction made me “not black enough” or an “oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) and that meant I was not a part of certain groups.

This is when I started to learn about code switching, although I didn’t know it was named as such. “Switching between two different codes is called, indeed, code switching,” Dr. John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University explained to me in an email. “It is closely studied worldwide by many linguists. Code switching happens between languages and also between dialects of the same language. Whether or not you code-switch is based on your sense of identity and who you are genuinely close to, especially as a young person. It’s not a matter of talent – again, these things are subconscious – but exposure and orientation. Black people who don’t sound black when they talk generally grew up around many whites and knew them well, for example.”

It’s hypothesized that many gay men who lisp or sound gay do so because they mimicked the women who they were around and felt accepted by during formative years. Just like my natural tendency to overly enunciate, our normal is formulated long before we know homosexual or racial stigmas exist. Code switching becomes a form of social survival. Code switching gave me access to multiple worlds. Black kids from rougher neighborhoods accepted me more. While at the same time, adults felt I held a certain level of maturity when they heard me express myself through natural use of proper grammar. The few other black kids who had similar upbringings to mine, felt camaraderie for being marginalized within a marginalized group.

Code-switching is subconscious but that doesn’t mean we cannot understand why people do it. Dr. Ignasi Clemente,  an assistant professor of anthropology at Hunter College in New York, explains the process as a catch-22, “If I change the way I speak, I may be ostracized by my (marginalized) community, if I don’t change the way I speak, I may be ostracized by society at large,” he says. “The reality is that we change the way we speak all the time, but only marginalized groups are demanded they speak differently.”

Some readers may see code-switching as disingenuous. I think it’s necessary to acknowledge the realities of our society. Being black is not giving anyone a leg up in the world. If Ta-Nehisi Coates’ must-read article in The Atlantic about reparations taught us anything, it’s that black people aren’t running the show. So, real talk, there’s a different way to speak to your boss versus the friends you grew up with. As comedians Key and Peele say, “We have to adjust our blackness.” In my case, when I teach yoga to kids in one the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I am walking a fine line to be a role-model but also relatable. It’s petulant to behave as if societal norms don’t exist.

But what is speaking correctly? “The way people speak – their accent, the expressions they use – have associations connected to 1) class and 2) likeability,” says McWhorter, “The idea that one must use what is considered proper English in formal settings corresponds to 1) what is considered “bad” grammar is associated with lack of education, and therefore, by extension, lack of industriousness and also a general sense of unremarkability. The standards are, in the historical sense, arbitrary, but it is nearly impossible for people living in the moment to shake their internalized judgments of this kind. That is, proper grammar has prestige.”

That explains how we speak to our bosses, but what about how we speak within a culture? McWhorter’s second point about likeability elaborates on this, “Speech varieties also have what linguists call covert prestige – within a group of people, not talking the ‘proper’ way is processed as part of being ‘one of us,’ ‘down with us,’ and therefore, likable. As such, it is, in a way, improper in most of the black community to not be able to speak Black English to at least some extent. Slang is just part of it – less consciously controlled is the sound system, i.e. the cadences and vowel shapes that mark someone as ‘sounding black’ even on the phone. This is why perfect diction in the ‘hood is frowned upon.”

Both McWhorter and Clemente agree that “sociocultural judgments and assumptions” are what form our basis for speaking correctly. Depending on the environment, certain speech is considered right or wrong. I don’t sound black. However, even for the extremely white surroundings of my childhood, I will never say I sound white either. I think I sound like a woman with a northeastern American accent who was afforded the education needed to navigate a world hell-bent on validating ignorant views. I’m no more right than Flavor Flav and no less than the Queen Elizabeth, but I also know what world I live in. And that world dictates I use my college educated diction at job interviews and more slang in Bed Stuy, but it’s all me and I’ll keep it my own – and sometimes that requires monosyllabic retorts and a middle finger in the air.

Image via I Too Am Harvard