I began working when I was 16, ringing up orders at a fast food chain. It was then that I first truly began to be cognizant of the impression my voice made, raising it a couple of octaves to communicate “friendliness” or “helpfulness” to my customers. I occasionally refer to this as my “Snow White Voice.” It has a lilting cadence with a girlish pitch, and while it does seem to help put people at ease, it’s grating on my ears.
Why do I think that voice conveys a willingness to assist when my naturally deeper tone with its often-noticeable Southern twang does not? It’s a topic I recently brought up while doing some part-time event work and my supervisor’s response was both spot-on and intriguing. She brought up the infantilization of women — how we are expected to play younger in order to seem sweet or approachable — and explained that she long ago stopped altering her speaking voice for others. “I speak in my exact same tone, but I’m just as polite. And I only laugh when I am amused,” she said. In that moment, she became my hero.
Speaking with a higher pitch was something that has come almost naturally to me. I instinctively do it when I speak with elders in informal settings and as I began working it just seemed natural to put strangers at ease by appearing as “sweet” as possible. It has only begun to bother me now that I am a full-fledged adult. But when I began to work in more diverse professional settings, I learned that there was one other thing people heard when I spoke: the inherent Blackness in my voice.
It started when I had one of my first, real internships. My supervisor was a man with one of the thickest Georgia accents I’ve ever heard. He loved my work. His only critique? I needed to “work on [my] diction.”
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a Black accent, except that in a society where whiteness is normative, it’s judged as less desirable. Making a call without your “white” voice could mean the loss of a job, an apartment, any number of opportunities,” wrote Indianapolis writer and speech professor Tami Winfrey Harris in a 2010 Psychology Today piece, “What’s so wrong with “sounding black?”
“At the time, I was a columnist for Psychology Today and I wrote a lot of articles regarding race and that topic was one that had long bothered me. There was this idea that even if you had perfect grammar, you spoke perfectly, if you had an accent that people associated with Blackness, then somehow, you were not professional,” said Harris in a phone interview.
I Googled “Black women diction” to research this article and one of the first results that popped up was the Urban Dictionary definition for “Ghetto Black People.” I’ll spare you the details because it’s just as gross as it sounds, but the point is this: speech patterns associated with Blackness are too often considered inferior. It seems that it is not enough to round ones gerunds and hit consonants firmly. Any trace of one’s cultural heritage in their voice or language could be deemed by some as “unprofessional” or “ghetto.”
“I think for a lot of us, it’s ingrained in how we present ourselves. Most of us code switch. You’re in the office and you have one voice and then you have another voice when you’re at home and you’re talking to your friend,” says Harris. Her upcoming book, The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, unpacks stereotypes about Black women, their historical contexts and anecdotes from individuals Harris interviewed. It will be released on July 7.
For many of us, code switching may not be totally regulated to the workplace. I find myself inadvertently altering my speech while doing everything from asking for directions at the airport to booking an appointment at a new salon.
Harris says this is a prime example of the way that Black women are at the intersection of sexism and racism. “Women face this idea about the way we speak and speaking too high, so that people think you’re childish and girlish and then don’t take you seriously, even if that’s your normal voice. You have to take it down a few octaves so you can sound ‘strong’ or ‘forceful,’” she says. That’s upspeak, or “the tendency to make your voice rise at the end of sentences so that statements sound like questions,” as an example.
Also referred to as “talking like a Valley girl,” upspeak is an affectation that has been said to make women sound dumb, less confident and often, shallow. The same blatantly sexist criticisms have been made about the U.S.’s newest “linguistic fad,” vocal fry.
“In regular speaking mode, the vocal folds rapidly vibrate between a more open and more closed position as the air passes through. In vocal fry, the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives it a characteristic sizzling or frying sound,” writes linguist Arika Okrent in this comprehensive vocal fry explainer.
It goes by many names (including “creaky voice” and “talking like a Kardashian”) but the backlash against vocal fry has been so swift that “This American Life” did an entire segment on the trend. Listeners were complaining about the voices of young women, saying that they simply could not listen to reporters who spoke that way. Women who fry are at particularly risk of missing out on job opportunities because potential employers might not take them seriously. Of course, there are also men who also speak this way, but, young, college-educated white women are typically the face of the fad.
“I don’t think it’s an overall thing that women do. I think it’s just an affectation of a certain group of women that has gained importance because they are the women that are seen as important,” says Harris.
Contrast this with the persistent, negative connotation associated with African American Vernacular English (AAVE). During my freshman year of college, my psychology professor made a statement about language that has stuck with me for years. He referred to AAVE as a dialect of English — a dialect that is considered inferior because the people associated with it are seen as such.
Of course, this not a phenomenon that is unique to black people. Harris, cites both southern and Heavy New York accents is one example. A certain scene from “My Fair Lady” also comes to mind.
This balancing act I do, alternating between my work voice, my Snow White voice and my real voice, is tiring. So is worrying about it all. And, to be honest, I’m not even sure how much these efforts matter in the long run. My voice is my voice. My only goal is for people to listen to my words and not get caught up in the way they are pronounced, which is probably why I prefer to write rather than speak.
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