I don’t sound black.

I get that a lot. I neither sound nor act black by some people’s definition. [I’ve already done the dissection of the idea of ontological blackness (in I, II, III parts) so I’m not going to re-hash that now.] It’s one of the reasons I don’t do reading of my work very often. A good chunk of my family lives in England, another chunk in Jamaica, and the rest live in America. As a consequence, I picked up an ear for accents and write them pretty well. However, having purposefully lost my British accent as a child in my efforts to fit in, I don’t have much of an affect to my speaking. Not British, not Jamaican, not black – and I would sound ridiculous trying to affect one.

Let’s be straight though, when folks talk about anyone sounding black, we know what they mean: ghetto. I took a linguistics course in college and when we got to the topic of Black English Dialect (B.E.D.), she asked me, the only black in the class, to give an example of it. She caught herself pretty quickly (cause I would hate to have to snatch a professor in front of her class) and realized maybe that wasn’t the best way to have that discussion. However, it did lead to a dialogue in why we make such assumptions.

Here’s another one: on a recent episode of the show Boston Legal, Denny Crane (William Shatner) gets in trouble because he tells an applying associate (played by a grown up Urkel) that he doesn’t sound black and thus is a keeper. Shirley Schmidt (Candice Bergen) gives this defense to quell the brouhaha:

My name is Shirley Schmidt, I’m a senior partner at Crane, Poole and Schmidt, thank you all for coming. It’s nice to see you’ll turn out when there’s hard news. Yesterday my partner, Denny Crane, made some regrettable statements, the most offensive being when he told an African-American law student that he didn’t sound black. I know Denny Crane. He is not a bigot. When he used the word ‘articulate’, as I suspect Joe Biden used it, as I suspect our President used it, what he was attempting to convey was that he thought Mr. Givens would play well with white corporate America. The simple but ugly truth is we all look for that. Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not, but we do. We have a primarily white client base. We hire associates we feel will best appeal to that base. Before you point your finger at us I would invite the media to look at its own industry. Consider the criteria by which you choose your anchors. Denny Crane’s statement speaks not to his own racism but to a much more insidious one that exists in a white collar society that prefers to take its blacks as it takes its coffee, with a little cream and sugar. I’m not proud of it. But until we confront that truth, we will not change it. Thank you all for coming.

Which dovetails with the comment left by Laura:

When you hear someone’s voice you can’t help but try to picture them. I don’t think it is racist to say someone sounds black. You are just being honest, you are saying “when I hear your voice, I picture a black person.” There is a blonde white woman televangelist (I can’t think of her name) who I believe sounds “black” when she preaches. I could also say she sounds “southern,but not twangy, tough but not rude, with an attitude but a strict teaching kind of attitude” but I don’t think you would get the idea as clearly as when I say she sounds “black.” Her preaching doesn’t appeal to me, probably because I am white and I am used to the “middle-class white” vernacular. But when the camera pans to her huge audience, you can see that she has many black followers. How cool, this tiny, blonde white woman leading a huge congregation made up mostly of black people. What does that say? I think it says the same as what “Shirley Schmidt” said above. People are attracted to those people who communicate in a manner they are used to. It is just easier to listen to someone who sounds like you. I think it also shows that we no longer are supporting people based on their similarity to our skin color, but on their similarity to our own lifestyle. Unfortunately our vocabulary has not caught up with us. There just isn’t a word with the same kind of meaning as just saying “black.” And I think saying black carries a nuetral meaning whereas saying “ghetto” or “gangsta” or “thug” are definitely words with negative connotations.

One of the things I hadn’t thought about in my ghetto crackery blog was the idea of speech. When people hear a Southern drawl, much like when they hear B.E.D., there is the assumption of being uneducated. It’s what leads people to ascribe words like “well-spoken” and “articulate” to black leaders they feel comfortable with, as if they are compliments.

Nope, I don’t sound black, so I’ve been told by black and white folks alike. From black people, it feels like the accusation of “selling out”, a warning that I risk being left outside of the community. From white people, there is sometimes an air of condescension, however well-intended it may be meant. Or, it would feel like that if I believed that being black boiled down to how people spoke or dressed. Still, it’s a shame that there is an undertone, even in this very blog, of middle class bourgeoisies trying to put distance between “us” and “them”. And that’s another simple, but ugly truth, one worth discussing further.

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