Being black, sounding white

People think his face and his voice just don’t go together. I’ve met John McWhorter and I’ve never been away of any mismatch at all, which just goes to show, I guess, how non-Americans can miss the subtleties:

I have lost count of how many times callers-in to radio shows I appeared on have assumed I was white (including plenty of black ones) or asked whether I was. Radio hosts often gently advise me to, when commenting on racial issues, mention my race on air—which indicates that it’s not evident from my voice that I’m black… Once, answering the phone for a white roommate, I listened as an old man drifted, when a news event came up, into a diatribe about “niggers” coming over the horizon; clearly, he did not hear blackness in my voice…

My noting that I don’t have a black-sounding voice has, on a couple of occasions, seemed to peeve the black person I was talking to. I think they were wondering whether I was claiming that, unlike other black people, I speak “properly.” I mean no such thing… There has also been the occasional white person who has sincerely suggested that I just take on a black sound if I feel so uncomfortable. But they were unclear as to what I meant when I referred to “sounding black.” One white woman said, while making vaguely vernacular street gestures, “Can’t you just, like, ‘Heyyy…’?”

About clivedav184z

Chief theatre critic for The Times. Twitter: CliveDavisUK Facebook: Instagram: clivephotos
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