So what exactly is this “black sound” I am insisting exists?
Illustration by Jason Arias.
Given that I am the kind of black person who is often termed “articulate,” it may seem surprising that I spend much of my life feeling quite thick of tongue. I am one of those unfortunate black people who sound white. It is, of all things, a social handicap.
“So white…!”, then, I seemed, years ago, to a black administrative assistant. I was told of the assessment some time later by an acquaintance of hers, but I could sense that this lady couldn’t stand me as soon as we met. This was long before I had any public notoriety for unconventional views about race issues; I was an utterly anonymous new professor of linguistics. That she found me so disagreeable must have had something to do with me as a person. I arrived into the situation with good intentions and was interested in ingratiating myself as much as possible with everyone there, so I have reason to assume that what repelled her is the way I talk, which does indeed sound “so white.”
Some will say that this woman was especially narrow-minded or ignorant, but she wasn’t—that’s just the thing. I could tell countless similar stories, about the couple of black listeners who liked my recorded linguistic courses in the Great Courses series but complained about the way I speak, one of them adding that a friend heard me and thought I lacked “swagger.” When I was twelve, a cousin of mine, not yet three, remarked that my sister and I didn’t sound like everybody else he knew. This kind of thing, for me, is and has always been just part of living.
I hardly consider myself significantly oppressed on this score. It is well documented that sounding black on the phone makes you less likely to be shown an apartment or house or to get a job interview. A black kid who uses Black English in school is often criticized by teachers and thought less intelligent. Classic experiments have shown that people’s evaluation of someone reading a passage changes according to whether it’s read by a white or black person. The black voice is rated less favorably—considered less bright, less friendly. My burden, in comparison, is a mere personal cross to bear, worse than having a hard-to-spell name but hardly on the order of being denied services and thought dim. Yet to an extent that few would have reason to know, I suffer.
When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off. The vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. This means that if you are black, upon meeting you, a great many black people will tacitly expect that the two of you will speak more similarly to one another—at the very least in terms of that certain “sound”—than either of you do to white people. That similarity is an index of acceptance and warmth in a society that looks askance on black people in so many ways. Then it turns out that you don’t sound similar, despite your black face. The wrong voice is coming out of you.
Although the expectation that you were going to sound black was not conscious, the fact that you don’t is processed quite consciously: it’s the discrepancy that elicits attention. You are heard as talking “like that,” though you know no other way to talk. It seems, perhaps, that you purposefully distanced yourself from the normal black way of talking in a quest to join whites. More certainly, you sound snooty, chilly, not like the type anyone would want to have a beer (or anything else!) with. To a black person who knows only other black people who speak with the same sound, your different sound is not just peculiar but, because it is a “white sound,” snobbish. The matter is not one of perplexity or discomfort, but irritation, even contempt.
Plus, these days, the “black sound” has acquired a certain cachet in mainstream society through the popularity of hip hop, so increasingly someone like me finds that even whites below a certain age process him as “square.” Call it stereotyping or call it progress, but a lot of white people happily anticipate a certain hipness, “realness,” from a black person. We’re so “down,” so approachable, so “the shit,” apparently. In talking to these people, just as to so many black people, I disappoint. I offend.
One of the hardest things about this is that so many people would be inclined to say that the problem—being read as not sounding black—doesn’t exist.
During the O.J. Simpson trial, in response to one witness who claimed to have heard a “black voice” at the scene of the murder of Simpson’s wife and her friend, lawyer Johnnie Cochran objected: “What’s a black voice?” The mostly black jury assented. Cochran was implying that the very idea that black speech has a particular sound is racist; often, people making the claim insist that black people simply talk like Southerners.
Most any American knows that a white Southerner is unlikely to sound like Chris Rock while a black person is unlikely to sound like Paula Deen. Black and Southern English overlap, but just that. Did the Reverend Martin Luther King and the white police officers beating and arresting him speak the same dialect? Yet the notion of a “black sound” smells like it could bring on accusations of stereotyping, so one is inclined to just step around the issue.
One worries that any characterization of black people’s speech will be a critique rather than a neutral description.
Black people’s own ticklish orientation when it comes to acknowledging a black way of speech is understandable for two reasons. The first is the racist past (and present) of this country—so often, that which is black is trashed as deficient; one becomes permanently wary. Then also, Black English is primarily associated with what are considered errors—ain’t, he be, aks, and so on. Naturally, one worries that any characterization of black people’s speech will be a critique rather than a neutral description. To many, the idea that even educated black people have this sound will seem like a prelude to the claim that even educated black people are incapable of mastering “proper language.”
But the same people who hotly deny that there is such a thing as a black sound will notice immediately when a black person “sounds white,” as countless black people teased about this as children can attest to. Logic dictates that if a black person can sound white—and this accusation is uncontroversial in black America—then the norm must be for black people to sound something else.
So what exactly is this “black sound” I am insisting exists?
I am not referring to black slang. Plenty of black people use little street slang and yet still have a black sound. The question is why you could tell most black people were black if they read you a shopping list over the phone.
Scholarship has confirmed what most of us sense intuitively: whites and blacks are very good at identifying black voices, even from an isolated word. The black sound is, though we don’t usually use the term this way, an accent. It differs from standard English’s sound in the same way that other dialects do, in certain shadings of vowels, aspects of intonation, and also that elusive thing known as timbre, most familiar to singers—degrees of breathiness, grain, huskiness, “space.”
Contrary to how some may read me here, I am not bragging about how “well” I speak. I’m not. The black sound has nothing whatsoever to do with whether one is capable of expressing their feelings elegantly, convincing others to their point of view, weaving an engaging story. It’s just a matter of some vowels—it’s like the difference between one carpet color and another, nothing more.
Black and standard English share the relationship of two sisters, not that of a mother and her wayward daughter.
But why is there a black sound? Well, in actuality, there is nothing inherently “black” about it. It isn’t genetic, of course, and it isn’t a degradation or departure from standard English. When English came to America, it developed in many directions, of which today’s standard and black varieties are but two. Black and standard English share the relationship of two sisters, not that of a mother and her wayward daughter. Sisters begin as different people, and over time become even more different. Dialects of a common language behave the same way. This is why actors in old movies sound increasingly weird to us; people who learned to speak in 1900 picked up sounds at a different stage of drift than they’re at now. Fred Astaire proclaims “This is revo-LYEW-tion!” where we would say “revo-LOO-tion.” William Powell as The Thin Man prepares to round up what he calls the “sus-PECTS” instead of the “SUS-pects.”
Sounds change. An ah might become an aw or an ay. A t might become a d or a ch. The way a sound progresses is no more meaningful in itself than changing hemlines, the fact that the fade-out on pop recordings went out of fashion, or that avocado was such a popular color in home décor for a while. But when these random changes happen at the same time to two different dialects, over long periods, they’ll seem more and more distinct. This is why black people have a different sound than whites.
The differences between the white sound and the black sound that tip an American listener off to a speaker’s race are subtle. I am not talking here about obvious, bluesy things, like saying thang for thing or mo for more, which are patterns less likely of educated people. One difference is that the eh sound before m or n sounds a little more like ih, so that, for example, mention sounds not exactly but to a whisper of an extent like mintion. Or, the er sound is slightly distinct: bird will sound a touch like buh-urd—not in a drawly way, but enough to alert the American brain. Then there is the timbre, fine-grained differences in vocal placement and texture that analysts have yet to characterize in detail, though the ear and mind can pick them up easily enough.
As dry as such details are in isolation, together they are why you might sometimes have heard a voice on National Public Radio and known the person was black, no matter whether they were talking about the latest doings in Congress or tomorrow’s weather. If you have ever had that impression, you may well have felt guilty about it, especially if you’re white.
The dominant conception is that only racism could create the impression that black people have a particular way of speaking. The assumption, roughly, is that educated black people talk just like educated white people, while less educated black people usually (but not always) speak a combination of Southern English and bad grammar. There is little room in our public discourse for the reality, which is that 1) almost all black people code-switch between standard and Black (not Southern) English to varying degrees, 2) even the most educated black people typically talk with vowel colorings and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” (and not “Southern”) after a few sentences, and 3) there isn’t a thing wrong with that.
The result of all of this, for me, is an ongoing cognitive dissonance in my relations with other people. Yet I stopped bringing it up long ago. You just hit a wall trying.
Though I often wish I did, I don’t have the vowels and cadence of the “blaccent.” I have lost count of how many times callers-in to radio shows I appeared on have assumed I was white (including plenty of black ones) or asked whether I was. Radio hosts often gently advise me to, when commenting on racial issues, mention my race on air—which indicates that it’s not evident from my voice that I’m black. Several listeners to my Great Courses lectures have written to me and mentioned that they didn’t know I was black until they saw my photograph. Once, answering the phone for a white roommate, I listened as an old man drifted, when a news event came up, into a diatribe about “niggers” coming over the horizon; clearly, he did not hear blackness in my voice. I barely code-switch—after drinks, awakened in the middle of the night, talking to my daughters, amused or angry, I sound pretty much the same: boring Mid-Atlantic American. I have written here and there about the fact that black Americans have a larger English than most white Americans. Alas, my English isn’t large at all.
My noting that I don’t have a black-sounding voice has, on a couple of occasions, seemed to peeve the black person I was talking to. I think they were wondering whether I was claiming that, unlike other black people, I speak “properly.” I mean no such thing—though much of what made it seem like I did was surely my “white” voice and the subconscious associations it brings up.
There has also been the occasional white person who has sincerely suggested that I just take on a black sound if I feel so uncomfortable. But they were unclear as to what I meant when I referred to “sounding black.” One white woman said, while making vaguely vernacular street gestures, “Can’t you just, like, ‘Heyyy…’?” Well, I suppose I could “Heyyy”—but, for one thing, it would be stepping outside of my natural self. The fluently “Ebonic” guy expected to speak standard English does not need to adopt a foreign code to do so—any black person can speak standard as well as Black English, even if they would rather dwell in the latter. I didn’t grow up saying “Heyyy,” and Rosetta Stone offers no materials that might instruct me in the art.
Somehow I came out sounding like an announcer in a 1940s newsreel.
Accent is the hardest thing to pick up in a new way of speaking after the age of about fourteen. The colorings that constitute a blaccent are subtle, deeply ingrained, and even harder to master for someone whose home base is standard English, precisely because Black English and standard English are so similar. And no, my being a linguist doesn’t help: we have neither the training nor the inherent talent that would make us better at this than other people. It’s professional actors who wangle it—Idris Elba and Thandie Newton have, dazzlingly, managed to learn a light blaccent for their roles despite growing up outside of the United States. I could no more master a subtle blaccent than I could learn to blink, lift a fork, or laugh differently. Your accent is your you.
Why do I sound so white when I talk? It’s a good question. Both of my parents were black (some people ask, and they must be spurred on by my voice, as I’m not that light-skinned). I grew up around plenty of black people—in an integrated Philadelphia neighborhood where my friends were all black kids, and then all-black Lawnside, New Jersey. Most of my friends were black until adolescence; my best friend had a working-class black Philadelphian accent himself. Neither of my parents were given to code-switching to full-blown Black English—but both of them used a somewhat more Black English-inflected way of speaking when talking comfortably with black people.
Yet somehow I came out sounding like an announcer in a 1940s newsreel. I’m tempted to say that as an inveterate nerd I identified more with the teachers and students at the private schools I attended, who were mostly white. But plenty of middle-class black kids—of whom, by the 1970s, there were more every year—went to school with whites and played at home with blacks and emerged sounding like home, not school.
I’m not a joiner, and people around me are more likely to pick up speech habits from me than I am to pick up speech habits from them. But then, my sister is more of a joiner than I am, and also had a richness of black experience at all-black Spelman College that I never had. She had an extremely light blaccent that she developed in those years to identify with her friends, but that was just a phase; on the whole, she has always spoken exactly like me. Truth to tell, I’m not quite sure why I sound like this. But I do.
It is more my curse than it is my sister’s. I know that, especially in school, black girls get teased for “talking white” as much as black boys do. But I submit that, particularly in adulthood, not having a black voice is less of a social stain for a black woman than a black man. Linguists have discovered that with almost eerie consistency, across societies, women tend to speak more “properly” than men. Certainly women use slang and profanity and say singin’ instead of singing—but less than men do. For this reason, the black woman’s “white” speech can be processed, for better or worse, as “ladylike,” sophisticated. However, sounding white is not associated with masculinity—if anything, when it pertains to a man it can be heard as suggesting effeminacy.
I thwart expectations in glum little ways. It comes down to the idea that black equals funky. A white woman I dated in the nineties watched me play a semi-classical piece on the piano and then smiled, “I’m waiting to see you really get into it.” “Into it”? It turned out she was waiting for me to play some blues. Of course, a black man isn’t “really” playing the piano until he “jams.” In the same way, another woman I dated said, about my lack of a blaccent, “I’ve been waiting for you to do it.” To her, my actual voice was preliminary, public, stiff. She assumed that once comfortable I would glide from Word! into “Wuh-urd!”—from no into “naw,” from hold on into a little “hode on.” I already was comfortable—and was talking the way I am comfortable talking. But to her, my vocal comfort zone constituted “not really getting into it.”
One of the strangest things about being a white-sounding black person is that, in one regard and only in that regard, I would have felt more comfortable in the past. Until the 1960s, the linguistic landscape in America was prissier than it is now. In public, language was to be presented in its Sunday best, and casual speech was only for off-time with intimates. Even grade school inculcated hardcore spelling and grammar rules, such that modestly educated soldiers during the Civil War wrote letters that sound practically Shakespearian (and sometimes quote the man). This divide between “high” and “low” was maintained as strictly in the black community as anywhere else, and what it meant was that it was not considered odd for an educated black person to not “sound black” at all.
One of the oddest things about listening to recordings of Booker T. Washington, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, civil rights titan A. Phillip Randolph, or operatic contralto Marian Anderson is that, in their public speech, at least, they did not have, or barely had, blaccents, where their equivalents today would. This is true of countless educated black people of the time, who surprise the modern ear listening to oral histories and other late-in-life interviews in that they sound so utterly white.
The social boundaries of Black English, which has existed since at least the early 1700s, expanded starting in the late sixties, when the counterculture encouraged a new informality and black activists and intellectuals taught black America to be proud of its vernacular heritage. A friend of mine, who was young at the time and has no blaccent, recalls a party in 1968 during which she sensed the change in the black linguistic landscape. Two black men of modest education teased her for not being able to enunciate “motherfucker” as they thought she should; she wasn’t speaking “blackly” enough. That scene would have been much less likely ten years earlier, and just about impossible twenty years before that. Newly, this woman was heard as sounding white rather than just well-spoken.
I don’t think I’m better than anybody and am quite aware that I am not white.
I certainly do not yearn for a return to the time when one had to work so hard on one’s speech patterns to be heard by wider society. Or to the time when black people were subject to such decisive segregation there was no question as to whether any black person “knew they were black” or not, no matter how they spoke. But I do envy that black people did not have a tacit expectation that all people of their color, regardless of education level, temperament, or socioeconomic background, would share a way of speaking. I would like to be able to have a conversation with a black person of whatever social position without worrying that he thinks I don’t sound black or that I think I’m better than him. I don’t think I’m better than anybody and am quite aware that I am not white.
Am I oversimplifying the problem? Maybe—I suspect many would say that the issue isn’t only that I sound white, but that I am reserved. That’s true; I know black men without blaccents who are heartier types than I am and who probably put black people off less than I do vocally. But: a reserved black man who does have the black vowels and cadence is read as contained, as keeping his own counsel, not as cold, unfriendly, classist, uptight.
Though my speaking voice often feels like a club foot, I do not hate myself. I also have black friends who do not hear froideur in the way I talk, sometimes because they themselves lack blaccents, and sometimes because they are just wired differently than that administrative assistant. And, as I am rounding fifty, my voice will increasingly come off as the fussiness of an “older” gent, quaint rather than offensive. I’m already sensing this with people younger than twenty-five. It’s the sole facet of aging I’m enjoying.
Still, when I read that Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century learning English felt like they might open their mouths to speak only for shards of glass to fall out, I identify. I all but stopped doing live talks on race years ago despite the money I could earn, out of a sense that using my “white” voice to have such discussions was ineffective and makes me sound disconnected from the issues. I mainly write on race instead; on paper my vowels and cadence don’t distort my message.
Sounding black? What’s that all about? Well, that. A minor problem in the grand scheme, I know. But I’m just saying. (Luckily, in print.)
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University, and is the author of seventeen books, including The Power of Babel, Losing the Race, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and the upcoming Words on the Move. He writes for Time, CNN, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal.
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