Let’s talk about the “white voice”

This weekend I had a chance to see the delightful new film “Sorry to Bother You” by rapper/filmmaker Boots Riley.  Have no fear, I am not about to offer any spoilers other than to say that you absolutely must get out to see this film. For me, Black-made films are precious and offer a moment to see outside of the manufactured lens of white norms. They allow me to “go home.”  The home of Blackness where the jokes don’t have to be explained and everything is familiar. That said, there was a concept from the film that I do want to discuss: the notion of the white voice.

As a Black woman, born into a Black family in the early 1970s, one of my earliest memories is the recognition that how we spoke at home sounded different than how we spoke in the presence of white people. Our conversations at home were warm, raucous affairs that were loud and loving. Our conversations in the presence of white people by turn were monotone, a tad nasally, emotionally bereft and every word was clearly enunciated. No slurring of words lest you be considered less intelligent.

I would later learn that what I experienced at home is part of the longstanding tradition known as code switching. In the United States, code switching is altering the way you speak to appeal to the mainstream norm, which is often considered the language patterns of the Midwest. Lucky for me, Chicago is in the Midwest, so altering my speech patterns has never required a big leap.

So why do people code switch? In short, because whiteness and access to the fruits of whiteness requires our conformity. Despite the fact that linguists have long recognized that African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Black Vernacular, is a legitimate dialect with its own accent, grammar and vocabulary features, it is still considered by many to be inferior and a sign that the speaker of AAVE is less intelligent.  As a result, when playing in educational and professional spaces where white people are present, many of us eschew AAVE and instead code switch and adopt what in many cases becomes our “white voice.”

I landed my first job at 14 as a telemarketer at a home improvement company. The first things I learned early on were (1) to not use my legal name, which was too “ethnic”  and (2) to sound as much as possible like a bubbly white girl. Between a slew of telemarketing jobs throughout my teen years and early 20s along with theater classes, my ability to code switch and affect a white voice was almost a work of art.

The only problem was that as I grew older, what was the personal price of relying on the white voice? Much like the decision to change my name to something similar but less ethnic than my given one, what was lost when I spoke in my white voice? How much of myself was I giving up to get ahead and, more importantly, what was the cost to my personal well-being?

In a world that centers whiteness as the norm, and caters to white comfort and sensibilities, I worry about what happens when we hide part of ourselves. In my early years, my white voice was about Black shame and not knowing and understanding the richness of the Black experience. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans. Resilience runs in my blood; no shame needed. I am strength. I am joy. I am life.

In my current life, my white voice is a business tool used strategically and increasingly even in professional settings, I find myself speaking and looking at the duality of what is required to be a Black woman in this culture. It pains me to admit that even in anti-racism spaces, a white voice has value. The white voice is also used when I am feeling the need to protect myself in all white spaces.  It is a the barrier between my authentic self and the self of creation that is shared publicly. As a pal posted on my Facebook page today: “Regarding ‘white voice,’ the task seems to be to remove all sincerity, add a touch of superiority, and then channel 1950’s infomercials.” I wholeheartedly agree.

In this moment, when white supremacy threatens us all, perhaps one shift we can make is taking away the power of the white voice. No one should have to alter their speech patterns for opportunities, not when that alteration is about appeasing the dominant group. A group whose dominance was built on the oppression of others.

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Calling All White People, Part 26: Minding one’s own business

Calling All White People, Part 26

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Instead of calling the police, you could call MYOB instead  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I would like to assume that I don’t need to tell you there have been a lot of stories over the past several months about white people calling the police on Black people for doing very normal things (or even when committing infractions, they are not harming anyone or are doing nothing more wrong than the un-harassed white people around them). But I should assume nothing. Too many of us white folks have the privilege of “unplugging” for our mental health (which too often is abused until it becomes “burying our heads in the sand” or “ignoring the decline of civilization and the impending apocalypse”).

But, rather than give you an exhaustive list here, how about this nice piece from The Root (which has links to some of the stories as well as a pointed and witty commentary on the issue) or this story that just happened the other day about a Black man getting the cop-call treatment for wearing socks in a pool or this story which has a lot of links like The Root commentary does, with some overlap but also some other similar stories.

All caught up? OK, even if you didn’t read the pieces but at least skimmed to see how many links there are to stories of police being called to deal with normal activities of life committed by people of color, can you see the problem? I mean, one problem is that those links still don’t represent all the stories that have graced social media feeds in the past couple months, much less all the stories that didn’t get any traction online or in print and broadcast media. But doesn’t it seem like that’s a lot of stories for a pretty short period of time?

It’s not as if white people haven’t had a history of calling the police on Black people (or other people of color) for generations. They have. But lately, in the age of Trump—when people who bottled up and hid their racism before have now decided to let it all hang out—police have been weaponized more than ever. And they were already weaponized enough, as the law enforcement system we have today is in many ways simply an evolution of the institution of capturing escaped slaves. Which goes a long way to explaining why we have more than 22 percent of the world’s prison population, though we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population—and those prisons are disproportionally filled with people of color.

But while police have often historically been weapons of the state (whether to terrorize and harass certain groups or collect income for the state) rather than enforcers of justice—and have often been more about maintaining white supremacy and maintaining white comfort than anything else—things have clearly gone up a notch or two or twenty now.

What we have is a whole lot of white people—collectively losing their minds over the perception that they are somehow about to lose out to people of color by (*gasp!*) having to actually maybe share the pie fairly instead of hogging all the pieces and leaving the crumbs—who are striking back maliciously. They are trying to exercise a feeling of power or superiority over people of color and they are doing so by sending the police to do the dirty work. Bad enough when white people “only” threaten or intimidate people of color face to face (and do so with police refusing to intervene on behalf of the non-white victim, as happened here recently), but a growing number of them aren’t even bold enough for that. They are too fearful of retaliation or exposure that they send the police in instead. Often for things that aren’t crimes or even violations of actual rules.

Given how many stories we have from the past several years, along with video evidence and statistics going back decades, that show how much more likely police are to use force (deadly or otherwise) against people of color compared to white people, this is basically an act of violence. It is a form of assault that puts people of color at great risk. And even when no physical harm comes to those people of color from such acts, it harms them psychologically, emotionally and socially—not to mention being a waste of taxpayer money by sending police to handle things police ought not to be handling.

All those words for me to say something simple to you: Leave the police out of it.

Yes, you too—even if you’re a regular and supportive reader of BGIM Media. Liberal white people do this too. Probably not nearly as often, but still they do it. Maybe because they are afraid of looking racist by personally complaining to or hashing out a problem with a person of color—so they do a racist thing by calling the police instead, without even considering the inherent racism of it. Or they have a legitimate beef with a person of color that might involve some kind of violation of something, but instead of reporting it to the landlord to handle or filing as small claims court case or something else, they feel like the police can come in and sort things out. But police aren’t good at de-escalating situations or negotiations or “sorting things out” peacefully and fairly. They are designed and trained to give people citations or arrest them or to direct traffic during accidents. They aren’t primarily problem solvers. They were never meant to be. They clean up for society and often they are trained to see certain types of people as the “messes” to be cleaned up, based mostly on skin color.

Rather than bringing the police into a situation involving a Black person you might want to consider a little something called MYOB rather than 911. No, not “make your own beer”—Mind Your Own Business.

Do I mean that you shouldn’t call the police if a Black person is committing a violent crime right in front of you? No. Do I mean that you don’t serve an eviction notice on a tenant you need to kick out because they’re a person of color and your state or city requires law enforcement folks to serve such notices? No. I acknowledge there are times and places when calling the police is necessary and they may be called on people of color. But there are so many times it isn’t necessary. Or at least it’s no more necessary than it would be for the white people doing the same things around you all the time.

And that’s what I’m aiming to get through to you about MYOB: You need to consider whether you are calling the police because you need to or whether you are doing it because the person you are concerned about isn’t white.

For that matter, confronting a person of color yourself over some real or perceived infraction—would you even consider doing so if the person were white? I suspect, if you are to be honest with yourself, you will find that any time you’ve done that, or been tempted to, or consider doing it in the future, you will be hard-pressed to find times you did the same to white people as often or as vigorously.

If you saw a white person at the pool in your private community whom you did not recognize, would you demand identification? If you saw a white family barbecuing in a park and it wasn’t technically a BBQ zone, would you call the police on them? Think of the myriad times you’ve seen sketchy white people and neither said a thing to them nor called police. The many times white people have exhibited potentially violent behaviors and you turned your back on the situation because you didn’t want to get involved or didn’t want to escalate the situation. How many white people have you seen crawl into the window of a house and not called the police, because it’s broad daylight and you figured (probably rightly so) that the person got locked out and just wants back into their own place? How many white people have you watched loiter with no concerns, even as you fidget because a Black man is hanging around an area? How many times have you been irritated at Black people being boisterous in public while letting any number of ethnic white groups who are also traditionally (or stereotypically) known for the same kind of public energy completely off the hook in your mind?

I ask two things of you above all:

  • At the very least, apply the same standards to everyone, regardless of color, when you complain, confront and/or call the police
  • And if you do call the police on a person of color, be prepared to be an accessory to a lynching

Sorry if that last one sounded harsh. Sorry if it sounds like maybe I’m saying you should be less inclined to call police on Black people and other people of color than you are with white people. Because I am saying that. You need to think not just twice but three or four times before you call police on a Black person unless you are prepared to be responsible for that person’s death.

Simple as that. I don’t advocate tucking your head down and ignoring misdeeds. But I believe in MYOB. If you’ve been minding your business with white people, mind it with the non-white ones as well. If you’re gonna insist on not going the MYOB route with Black people (and continue using police against Black folks as a reflexive action as has become the hot new trend), I expect you to be just as vigorous and dedicated against the white people. Just bear in mind if you take me up on that latter challenge because you’re one of the relatively small number of asshole racists who read BGIM Media, you’re gonna be one busy so-and-so because the white people vastly outnumber the Black people, and with the sense of entitlement so many white folks have—and the small and large misdeeds they routinely commit because of white entitlement—you’ll be lucky if you can find the time to hold down a job or take care of your own life while you’re calling the cops on them.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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We are the change and now is the time! Use your voice

“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”- Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

Our nation’s relationship with the truth is often tenuous at best. We are a nation that has always espoused values and visions that, frankly, have never squared with reality. After all, we were seeking to create a perfect union while settling in on stolen land and using the labor of enslaved people.

As a nation, we have never fully and publicly acknowledged the irreparable harm done to innumerable displaced and massacred native people and to the enslaved Africans whose bodies, labor and land were the ultimate sacrifice in creating this so called perfect union.

Instead, as the sun settled on this new nation and allowed for growth beyond belief, we sold our brand of righteousness around the world and people gobbled it up. America as a beacon of hope and new starts, a place to be free. And yet, the lies on which this nation was built lay beneath the surface. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, I have always been critical of this nation and the message of hope which we marketed to the world and of the lies which we have fed to our own people—so heavily and so consistently for so long that far too many of our own people are ignorant of our own roots.

To be clear, America has never given a damn about non-white people and has long been cruel to those who are not white and who lack the ability to one day be considered white (like Irish or Italian immigrants generations ago, for example). The hopes and dreams that fuel America require the American-made creation of whiteness. Whiteness is the key in America and unless we are willing to face that uncomfortable truth, we are trapped in a circle that we destined to stay in forever.

In this moment, millions of Americans are horrified at the scene that has unfolded in recent weeks. As the Trump administration looks to crack down on what it calls rampant illegal migration, it has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy where migrants and their kids who now  arrive at our borders are separated, the adults face deportation and their kids are taken away and we now know are being housed in conditions that no one should face. Abandoned Walmarts now house kids who, after enduring what the average white American could not fathom just to make it to the land of dreams, are being warehoused in a strange new land away from their parents. In a six-week period, the U.S. government separated almost 2,000 kids from their parents.

The reports are heartbreaking and rage-inducing given that this policy belongs to the Trump Administration and yet Trump won’t own it; instead, it looks like these kids are being turned into a political tool for the man child/POTUS to get his way (aka, the border wall he campaigned on).

While some of our politicians are speaking out against these atrocities, most are mum, because at the end of the day, it’s just politics and too many of the white men and women who we elected don’t give a damn about these families.

Social media is filled with heartbreaking stories and inside the silo of social media, many are repeating the tired words “This is not the America, that I know.” Well, it is the America you know because if you can utter those words, it means you don’t know the real America. A country that from the late 1800s to the 1970s forcibly took Native American kids away from their families and sent them to government-run or church-run boarding schools also known as “Indian Schools” where the goal was to strip these kids of their identity and instead force them to assimilate into the dominant culture and abandon all aspects of their family culture. In other words, wear a mask of whiteness that was forced on their faces.

During slavery, enslaved Africans were constantly under threat of having their loved ones sold off, and with the fugitive slave laws the state was complicit in ripping apart Black families. While the technology has made it a lot easier, one of the reasons it’s hard for Black Americans to trace our lineage is because of how our families were constructed, ripped apart and reconstructed often at the whims of white people.

Let us not forget that during World War II, President Roosevelt, by executive order, declared that people of Japanese descent would be interred in isolated camps. From 1942 to 1945, this country imprisoned Americans on our own soil simply because of their heritage.

Again, I say that as we watch this current humanitarian crisis unfold, this is us. This is our nasty truth. This is how we have always treated non-white people. America is that aging beauty whose beauty we now know was artificially enhanced, the beauty we thought existed was more a figment of our imaginations and desires rather than our reality.

If we are to move beyond this moment, now is the time to become really clear on just who we really are. And commit to who we actually want to be.

It is time to understand that racism and bigotry are the foundational building blocks of our nation and once we own that ugly truth, we can work to change the narrative moving forward. But nothing changes beneath the surface without that honest acknowledgement. It means making sure that our people are not ignorant of our history so that we can stop repeating the mistakes of the past. In this moment, we must not allow ourselves to become desensitized or overwhelmed because frankly that is what the Trump folks are counting on. Trump is a chaos master and it is tiring but now more than ever we must have the courage to use our voices and our talents to say “No more!” How many times must we go down this path of state sanctioned dehumanization?

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang from Unsplash