Is anyone else tired of the “talking White” narrative?
Don’t get me wrong: it is a valid narrative. Still, although there are commonalities, including linguistically, between people who culturally, economically and politically share the same space, there is no one way to talk properly as a Black or White person. Therefore, no one should feel ostracized for speaking in a way that is supposedly not common linguistically for Blacks.
But I am quite bothered by the fact that every few months, we see a new narrative. One that, once again, makes special snowflakes out of those who adhere to linguistic standards, a.k.a., those who “talk White.”
In this case, it is Keith Powell’s essay for the Huffington Post entitled: “‘You Talk White:’ Being Black and Articulate.” In it, Powell writes about his earlier years as a struggling actor and going on auditions where he would introduce himself by using a fake British voice before actually auditioning in his regular speaking voice.
He explained that he did so because he was exasperated:
The truth of the matter was this: I did it because I was frustrated. Being smart, black, young and American had become a liability. People seemed to think I was some kind of walking oxymoron. I was often asked to be more “urban,” and it never seemed like the right time or place to launch into a diatribe about how I was born in West Philadelphia and I already sound like a real urban person. Pretending to be British just made life easier.
In fairness, black British actors are generally rather talented. And stylish. And handsome. So so handsome. So who WOULDN’T want to be like them?
But it seemed to me at the time that some people would be more comfortable hiring a foreigner – someone far removed from our current racial and political quagmire – than hiring someone who lived next door but had an entirely different background.
I think it’s because we are uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. And when we get uncomfortable, weird things start to happen…
Weird things like talking in British accents.
Powell goes on to talk about how he shares this problem (not the talking in a British accent thing–that’s all him) with many of his other Black friends. They too have been accused of “talking White” over the course of their lives. He believes the entire accusation is based on the faulty premise that Black people naturally sound like “uneducated thugs.”
He further writes:
When I was told I talked white, my natural instinct was to get offended, think the racial divide was hopeless, and then passive aggressively speak in a British accent. What I’ve come to understand, however, is that in these moments, revealing more about myself is exactly what’s needed.
My response to being told I “talk white” has now become a non-confrontational, genuine question: “How do you think black people are supposed to talk? Because for me, every black person I’ve ever known talks like I do.” This is either met with defensiveness or apologies or a genuine desire to understand the bias – but it is always met with some form of engagement. I try to treat it as an open door to a further dialogue. Some people walk through that door, some people don’t. But through it all, I get to remain steadfastly myself.
I don’t see that response as being more tolerant in the face of racial bias. It’s not about taking the high road. I see it as avoiding a diversion from the road I’ve already chosen. It’s about not getting angry or frustrated in the presence of prejudice; but more about being open and forthright.
I simply speak my truth. No matter if someone wants to hear it or not.
Maybe it won’t solve anything. Maybe it will encourage more discrimination thrown my way. Or maybe it will even preclude me from being seen for certain jobs. But it at least makes me happy and healthy in all of my interactions.
Powell has a point: many of us have heard this before. In fact, it is a common occurrence that I too can understand. There was a time when a neighbor of mine who long had a crush on me, told me that the reason he thought I wasn’t interested in him was because he assumed I only dated White guys. It was the way I talked, which gave him that impression. Little did he know (or even pause to consider), I just wasn’t interested in him. Nevertheless, the assumptions around diction and dialect are there.
But discrimination? Come on now…
Yes, it sucks. Yes, it is cumbersome to know that in spite of all of our efforts to adhere to cultural and linguistic standards, they still find reasons to discriminate and oppress us. Still, I would say it’s probably harder to get away with not meeting such standards. While Hollywood may have a thing for “urban” sounding Black folks, the rest of the world’s industries aren’t all that accepting.
Like corporate America. Or even main street America. We see examples of this daily, too. For instance, on social media, which is flooded with memes and angry status updates lampooning those Black folks who “can’t speak well” or in “proper English.” Heck, sounding like a typical Black person may even hurt your chances of getting decent housing.
We justify our linguistic prejudices by telling ourselves that an adherence to standard English is a rule, which everyone, regardless of color, must abide by to be taken serious professionally. But that is simply not true. Just look at the two examples running for President of the United States.
On the right, you have Donald Drumpf, whose language patterns have been described by linguistic experts as simple and incoherent, and yet, he is surging in the polls. And on the left you have Bernie Sanders, who despite speaking with a brash and aggressive New York tongue, is still considered highly intelligent and a viable candidate for the highest office in the land.
I can’t see an “urban” sounding Barack Obama being taken as serious. Not in a country where so much of what we do as Black people is centered around whiteness. Not in a country where Black people who linguistically are “typically Black” must code switch to be taken seriously. And not in a country that values assimilation over actual diversity – be it how we talk to what we are named.
Again, I appreciate the “talking White” narrative for what it is. An expression of the diversity of the Black spirit and voice. But I just wish we had more narratives that spoke to the hardships of speaking in cadences associated with Blackness. I want to read and hear the stories about going on an interview for that job and what happened when you didn’t code switch. Or stories about that time when your co-workers laughed at you because you misappropriated or mispronounced a word in a misguided attempt to sound “professional,” and White. Or that date you went on with that dream girl/guy who pegged you as uneducated, unskilled and incapable of achieving anything of value in life because you sounded both Black and country.
I want to read narratives about the frustrations of not being able to speak in our own voices, including dialects, articulations, and colloquialisms, without having our questions, opinions and intellect second-guessed.
The truth of the matter is that those of us who have mastered the Queen’s tongue are taken more seriously in this world than our folks who have not. And while the “talking White” narrative is valid, it in no way begins to address the discrimination we linguistically face, both interracially and intra-racially.