I've Been Told I 'Speak White' My ENTIRE Life
In 2016, I produced a short documentary about black hair identity, which I also narrated. The video found a modestly sized audience (to date, it has just over 10,000 YouTube views). Most of the comments either offered praise (“great editing!”) or strived to foster a deeper conversation about black hair (“I don’t like the term nappy”). But of course, as is the case in any remotely positive space online, a handful of trolls reared their anonymous heads and killed the vibe.
“Bruh u sound white.”
“…yet the narrator is white.”
Their criticism is juvenile; they’ve got nothing positive or even constructive to say about the video or the subject matter, so they’ve gone for the low-hanging fruit. They’ve set out to offend me; they’ve failed. Little do they know, this is probably the millionth time I’ve heard someone say this about me or to me.
I was an Air Force brat, but I came of age in the mostly white suburbs of Dayton, Ohio and the Florida panhandle. I learned and practiced English as it was meant to be spoken. I excelled in school and was celebrated by my teachers but it seems the black community has never been happy about it.
The criticism about me “sounding white” has dogged me my entire life. From my high school classmates to co-workers to barbers, my embrace of proper English has been a source of ridicule.
I’m not bothered that people have mocked me for the way I talk. After all, that just reveals their own insecurities. But the choice of words, the accusation that I “talk white”, bothers me for a few other reasons.
Intelligence is Race-Exclusive?
First, it implies that correct enunciation, higher education, and articulate speaking are exclusively reserved for white people. Many black people view well-spoken black folks, like myself, as inauthentic or out of touch. Some white people think well-spoken black people are extraordinary, simply because they’re black, as though they’ve overcome some incredible odds to pronounce words correctly.
Actor Keith Powell, who made a name for himself on 30 Rock, assumed a British accent before going into auditions because he felt that was the only way he could be respected as a black man who “talked white”.
“Being smart, black, young and American had become a liability. People seemed to think I was some kind of walking oxymoron,” he wrote for HuffPost in December. He was often asked to speak in a more “urban” manner at auditions. This is a sentiment many other actors of color have expressed after auditioning for Hollywood roles.
Writer Christopher Norris worked as a telemarketer, selling AppleCare by phone. A customer once inquired about his race and marveled about how well-spoken he was. “You speak so well for a black man,” she said. Norris wrote about this experience in January for The Good Men Project.
There’s an unflattering stereotype about the way black people speak, and the belief is held by black and non-black people alike. Those of us who don’t fit the stereotype are subject to offensive marvel or we become the butt of jokes.
Ethnic background and racial identity shouldn’t dictate the way a person speaks, except in instances where a different language is spoken. As someone who’s lived in gigantic cities and rural towns, I’ve seen how geography plays a greater role in accents and the way people speak than the color of their skin. Yet for some reason, so many of us hold onto this narrow perception of how black people should speak.
This viral video from 2014 brought the conversation to the forefront. The young black woman in the video shares that there’s no such thing as “speaking white”. It’s actually just “speaking fluently”, or using the English language correctly.
She goes on to share how other cultures and international societies hold well-spoken people in high regard, yet somehow, the black community views it negatively.
When I think about the way I speak, the way I write, the way I tell stories, all of this comes from a place of showing what this community is capable of. I present this way because it’s natural for me but also because I want to show that there are many facets and realities of being a black person in America.
This isn’t to perpetuate the stereotype of the “acceptable negro”, a person who code switches or alters their natural behavior to fit in amongst groups of white people. In my personal experience, my embrace of proper English was never an attempt to appease people from different cultures or deny my blackness. It was a result of my education, of coming of age in the suburbs, of being an AP and dual enrollment high school student, of being a published journalist since the age of 16, of being a writer from the age of 10. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and the most effective way for me to tell those stories is with proper English.
So why, to some, does this mean that I’m no longer black? I can’t simultaneously excel as an effective storyteller and as a black person?
By no means does this indicate I look down upon or lack respect for black people who don’t speak proper English. As someone with family from the depths of Mississippi, I’ve grown up around relatives and friends who could care less about proper pronunciation, some of whom have accents so thick I feel like I need a translator to understand them. And my love and fondness for them is not attached to the way they speak.
I think of what’s currently going on with Cardi B, this fast-rising rap star from the Bronx who exudes clever wordplay in her lyrics but isn’t “well-spoken” in a traditional sense. I know that everyone loves her right now, but there are tons of women who speak like her who don’t get that same love. In fact, they probably suffer because of it.
It all seems small-minded, limiting a person’s value to the way they pronounce words, whether they do it too well or not well enough. It seems ridiculous to discredit someone or try to revoke their black card because they don’t sound like characters from Empire. It’s unfair, and it makes it difficult for me to establish friendships with or support from people of color who haven’t had a similar upbringing.
Because of how I speak, there’s an automatic assumption that I think I’m “better than them”. Again, that stems from their own insecurities. I never choose to speak this way to make anyone feel less valued or less intelligent; this is just how I speak.
I don’t “talk white”. I don’t “talk black”. I talk like me.