The phenomenon of “talking white,” or changing your voice to sound more like a white person, is having a real media moment right now. Upcoming films “Sorry to Bother You” and “BlacKkKlansman” both feature black men appearing to be white over the phone. But does it work? The following is a transcript of the video.
Manny Ocbazghi: Can you tell what race I am just by hearing my voice? Turns out, Americans are pretty good at guessing your race just by hearing your voice. It’s called linguistic profiling and we all do it. There are certain auditory cues that give us subtle hints about who we’re talking to. A lot of black Americans speak what’s referred to as AAVE, or African American Vernacular English.
John Fleming: AAVE is non-rotic meaning, that like a British accent, there are no “R” sounds at the end of words or at the end of syllables.
Ocbazghi: John Fleming is a speech and dialect coach for movies and video games.
Fleming: Generally speaking, there’s the “th” sounds, the “tha, tha” and, “the the,” get replaced with something. Generally a “T,” or a “D.” There’s a few other vowels and things, but it kind of keeps going and going, and it gets kind of, into the weeds a bit.
Ocbazghi: When it comes to being on the phone though, black people will often try to sound more white. It’s a form of code-switching. Or in this case, alternating between two different dialects. Black people talking white is having a real moment in media right now. “Sorry To Bother You” is a movie about a black salesman whose career only takes off when he starts talking white. And “BlacKkKlansman” is a movie about a black detective who infiltrates the KKK by pretending to be white over the phone. The idea is to speak in what’s called the standard accent.
Olivia Kang: The standard accent is the one spoken by the majority group or the socially advantaged group.
Ocbazghi: Olivia Kang is a psychologist at Harvard. She’s working on a project that explores the hidden biases we hold.
Kang: If you speak with a standard accent, you’re judged as being more intelligent, more competent, more credible, more hireable. Now, having a regional accent, or a non-standard accent, now you’re not getting those advantages. You’re seen as less credible, or less hireable.
Ocbazghi: These biases are implicit. This isn’t Charlottesville tiki-torch racism, it’s much more discreet than that.
Kang: The most basic way of understanding implicit bias is by thinking about the associations we make. If two things occur together over and over again in our experience, we link them together.
Ocbazghi: Salt and pepper, day and night, bread and butter. These types of associations are helpful, but there are some that aren’t. Now, if I say the word, genius, you’re probably thinking of some collectors edition white dude. Now, if I say the word criminal…
Kang: Voices aren’t just sounds. In a lot of ways, they’re auditory faces. So, when you hear a voice, you can in some sense piece together what the person on the other end of the phone, can look like. Roughly how old they are, their gender, where they come from. But, the interesting thing is that you can also form impressions about character. So, how intelligent someone is, how competent, how likable, how trustworthy. And, these impressions can be flawed, right? A lot of these things might have a basis in your implicit biases, or things that you’ve heard, portrayals you’ve seen on television. And so, when people are doing something, like conducting a voice interview, often the implicit biases they have about voice can influence the decisions that they’re making.
Ocbazghi: In order to combat some of these implicit biases, black people, myself included, try to sound as white as possible. I sound like Bill Gates impersonating your mailman. Why hello there. I’m wondering if there are any positions available. Oh no, I don’t mind waiting. But, does changing your voice actually work?
A study in 2001 found that landlords would make racist snap judgments to callers with certain dialects. Compared with whites, blacks were less likely to get callbacks, less likely to be told there was an apartment available, and more likely to get their credit questioned. However, blacks who code-switched fared better than those who didn’t. Code-switching helps in other areas too.
Fleming: Actually, Don Lemon is a very good example, because to become this main host that he is, he’s talked about how he had to change – because he’s from New Orleans – and he consciously had to change his accent for the sake of moving up at CNN.
Ocbazghi: Instead of changing the way we speak, maybe we should change the way we listen. I might be able to tell your race from your voice, but that doesn’t tell me anything about your character.
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