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The problem with ‘sounding white’

Alyssa Kapnik Portraiture

This story originally aired on January 5, 2016 and again most recently in the February 7, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

We are always adjusting the way we sound. It especially depends on the social situation we are in. Linguists call it "code-switching," a term originally used for people who would switch between two different languages like Spanish and English.

But the term has evolved to embrace the tone, accents, and inflections that we use when talking to people. Many of us do it.

Growing up, I heard plenty of jokes about the way I spoke. But I couldn't help the way I sounded. It’s a default voice, just how I speak. You see where I grew up, in Las Vegas, there were two types of black kids in school: those who hung out only with other black kids and those who bounced back and forth between black and non-black friends. I was in the second group. With all of that switching back and forth, my voice switched too. And it still does. For example, when I’m on the phone with my sister, the “sistah” comes out. It's not something I’m always conscious of. Sometimes it just sort of happens.

Now as an adult I have fun with it, but as a kid it wasn’t always this way. Finding my voice was just painful. At school, being told I “sounded white” meant only one thing. I wouldn’t be eating my corndog and tater tots at the black kids’ lunch table.

But that was then. Nowadays, in some schools, corn dogs and tater tots have been replaced withtofu dogs and green salad. It got me wondering if the conversation among teens may have changed too. So, I went to a place where I thought I might find some black teens who’ve been accused of “talking white”: the skate park.

Here’s what they had to say:

“Black people have told me I talk white before. I don’t know what it means to talk white or talk black.”

“They be saying, I talk white all the time, I get pissed off. My mom is white and I have to speak respectable and they think since I’m black I have to act ghetto and be stupid."

“I guess talking white would be like speaking proper, like how most white people talk, or what most normal people sound like.”

“It’s saying I’m weak, because when you talk black, ain’t no black people weak people.”

“They are saying you’re fake, like a wannabe or something.”

This conversation got me interested in talking to someone whose job depends on his voice. Joshua Johnson is the morning news host at KQED radio. He’s African American, and he sounds pretty similar when he’s on the air and when he’s talking with me in person.         

“This is my voice,” Johnson says. “People ask me that a lot. They’re like, ‘Do your radio voice. ’ I say, ‘This is it.’ My goal on the radio is to sound like me. I don’t want to sound like the host who is e-nun-ci-at-ing the headlines to you.”

But Johnson says he has experienced surprised reactions when people realize he’s black.  

“I got an email from a listener who wrote, ‘I never would have guessed that you were black.’”

Johnson says he doesn’t let these reactions to his race really bother him. Like me, he’s heard it all, including the patronizing tone of “You are so articulate!” or “You speak so well!” But Johnson thinks this ignorance can also be a lesson in disguise. It can show us assumptions we often make about race.

He responded to the email. “I told him it was a very good thing," says Johnson. "And that you as a white person need to stop looking at me as a black person and expect that I sound like everybody on BET.”

I ask Johnson if he’d ever been accused of “sounding white” when he was growing up. He tells me that he not only heard that accusation, but he grew up with black adults insinuating that it was preferable. To sound white was to sound high quality.

“I sang with a youth choir in West Palm Beach," says Johnson. "And the director Ms. Richardson said, ‘I want you to sound so good that if I put you on stage behind a curtain that everyone would swear you were white.’”

To sound “professionally marketable” or “proper” is the goal most parents and teachers set out for kids. Johnson says he was very aware of this as a child.  

“I always knew there was something blessed and something cursed about the way I spoke. I knew that it would open doors for me, but I knew none of my friends were behind those doors, none of my neighbors were behind those doors.”

But what is it about the fear of those doors closing because of the way we sound? There’s actually a name for it: "linguistic profiling." The term was coined by Professor John Baugh of Stanford University. He did a study where he selected five racially diverse cities in the Bay Area to inquire about housing for rent.

First he called using an African American accent, then a Latino accent. With these accents Baugh was told nothing was available. But when he switched to what he called a “neutral accent," he was often invited to see the properties.

I was linguistically profiled recently. I was working on a story that involved a support group for African Americans, many of whom had a criminal record. At first they seemed open to being interviewed, but then they turned cold. Days turned into weeks of messages without a return phone call.

When we finally met, one of the coordinators laughed, “I would have gotten back to you sooner if I knew you were black.” I was in. Although we both laughed together about her comment, inside I had a moment of deflation. I felt like a kid again, eating that corn dog alone at lunch. But as for my voice -- whether it works to my advantage or not -- it’s just the one I got.

This piece first aired on 01/27/2015

Crosscurrents Crosscurrents
Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.