“Someone complimented me on my English last summer. This was my response.”

This is a new performance piece I wrote for the VASTA Cabaret in London this summer at my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I workshopped it at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, which I am quite proud to say that I am now summer faculty there, teaching Voice and Speech.

This piece has lived in me for over a year now, as the actual incident that opens the performance happened during the summer of 2013 in Brooklyn. I felt like it was important to highlight the idea that oppression does not come in only explicit, hateful forms but from the educated and millennial peers that I hang out and work with in my progressive circles.

When microaggressions happen, I don’t always want to confront the person and give them some diatribe about social justice; sometimes, I just want to drink my fucking cocktail. Storytelling and performance allow me to express all the things I think and feel in that moment when I was made to feel small. And hopefully, I can share it with more people this way and they will be more open to seeing their own complicity in these structures because performance leads to a type of distanced perspective that gives us more space to reflect.

A number of people have asked me what my process is for creating this type of work. For this piece in particular, I allowed it to sit in me for many months, not putting anything on paper. A month or so before Perry-Mansfield, I made a basic Mind Map of major milestones that I wanted to cover. Then I began to look up songs and lyrics to see how I could weave them into my stories.

After over a year of blogging about voice and identity and culture and social justice and theatre, it is wonderful to create something that is exactly the thing I’d find online and want to post about anyway. I’m grateful to my Hofstra, Seoul, Perry-Mansfield, and VASTA families for all their support through this process.

Black vocal cadence: when our tone can mean life or death

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis (do I need to say there have been many more?) has prompted some important discussion about the way we view these young men in public spaces and how we interpret the way they speak. John McWhorter recently examined the Black male vocal cadence in an article at The Root, in a piece titled, “Do White Folks Fear Violence When Black Folks Are Just Being Blunt?”

He writes,

“Yet in an honest, and perhaps more productive, discussion of this topic, we have to allow something uncomfortable— the possibility that language plays a part in the stereotype. To whites, I highly suspect that often, black boys and men have a way of sounding violent.”

And I would add to this: the stereotypes of Black women being thought of as confrontational, aggressive, loud, and angry. I experienced this directly during my undergraduate degree on Long Island. I was on a Peer Counselor team for a few of the summers. PCs were in charge of the incoming students during their 3-day overnight orientation for the school. It was the first time I was ever put on a staff that was roughly half Black and half White. The first year I did the job, it didn’t take very long for racial tensions to begin. The White women were complaining that the Black team members were too loud and aggressive during the staff meetings and they found it intimidating. The Black women responded with frustration and resistance as they were “just talking how they normally do and didn’t mean anything personal by it.” But others were interpreting it differently and taking offense. Despite the tensions, the upper management did a fairly decent job forcing us to talk this out openly and come to level of understanding that allowed us to work together and forge friendship with each other for the rest of the summer. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson about tone, communication signals, and assumption.

McWhorter writes,

“However, if outsiders hearing it don’t get the joke and wonder whether black people, especially boys, are feisty souls, then the problem is less racism than an intercultural misinterpretation.”

As someone who teaches accents, dialects, and EFL pronunciation, I try to engage my students and clients with this idea of intercultural misinterpretation. I talk about the prejudice of our listening and try to make explicit how our communication is heavy with cultural signals. To an American, Mandarin speakers can sound angry, British people sound posh, Eastern European speakers can sound serious. We make judgements based on people’s vocal tone all the time. I liken our use of language and tone as a type of computer program or a genre of music. When another person hits the notes or code in a different way, we misinterpret the emotional state, personality and/or intentions of the listener. If you add in a healthy dose of privilege, hegemony, and Standard Language Ideology, now you have a sense that an interpretation of how someone speaks is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate. Suddenly there is an authority, whether it is the justice system, teachers, businesses, or the media.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to share and teach this idea to those from a dominant White culture, so they can critically reflect a bit more about language, tone, and identity instead of interpreting things through their own privileged experience and lens.

When we work with the voices of actors of color or those from a pluralistic background, we must bear all of this in mind as educators. Hegemony and the privilege of our own interpretation do not stop at the door of our classrooms and rehearsal studios. And in trying to find our students’ “true” voices, we must acknowledge that this navigation may be complicated given the socio-political dynamics between classmates and faculty. And we must acknowledge that we may not always like what their “true” voice sounds like and are potentially prone to misinterpret it culturally.

Lastly, sometimes People of Color ARE actually angry. And that is totally okay too. Considering the severe inequity in our country, there is a lot to be upset about. McWhorter points out that “for a people whose history has been so confrontational, maybe it isn’t surprising that their speech reflects it.”

“Isn’t it sad that I can’t use my real voice with White people?”

Someone asked me recently what strategies I propose or support in encouraging effective and progressive engagement about race and identity. One such way I often respond with is different types of comedy and performance. Some of the most interesting cultural criticism and reflection can come from comedians, particularly comedians of color or from pluralistic backgrounds like Aziz Ansari, W. Kamau Bell, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannibal Buress, etc (although it should never be a PoC’s responsibility to discuss or educate others about these issues and people like Louis CK are doing a great job talking about Whiteness).

Aamer Rahman is a stand-up comic of Bangladeshi descent who spent much of his life in Australia and a lot of his material deals with identity, race, and White privilege. I first heard of him through this brilliant bit debunking the myth of reverse racism, which is I think still one of the most concise ways of commenting on this idea thus far.

Rahman has another bit from his show, Fear of a Brown Planet, where he talks about what workshops he wants to create for White people. As a voice teacher, this part struck a particular chord.

You know, we actually have speak differently, to White women? If I’m in a bank or any kinda of job interview, any kind of professional setting, I have speak differently, to a White woman, just so she doesn’t get scared. I have to smile more, I have to appear less threatening. I don’t pull out a knife or a gun, suddenly I actually have to make my voice higher, this is not even my real voice, this is my White voice. Isn’t that sad I can’t use my real voice with White people?

I think a lot of PoCs have a “White people voice.” It can vary depending on our background. Women in general can often change their resonance or pitch to be taken more seriously by men as well. My “White people voice” is actually louder and more forceful and masculine to convince White people that I’m not a passive, subservient geisha-type of Asian person. I believe that as a result, accessing a more vulnerable-sounding head, face, and mouth resonance has been most challenging for me in my personal voicework journey and that I tend to push or create unnecessary tension in my throat.

Rahman’s point here is important as many voice teachers in the US/UK/Australia, etc still are nice White ladies. And acting students of color are often trying to assimilate and code-switch in order to successfully navigate the socio-cultural constructs that still continue to play out in our education systems. Given the goals of many voice teachers to free the voice and make it a reflection of who a person truly is, I would say that we must be aware of the power relationship our own identities create and how they impact our students, no matter how caring and well-meaning we may be. And this is not to say, of course, that ALL PoCs have a “White people voice” or that people from White, monocultural backgrounds don’t have socially induced vocal hang-ups. But I think what Rahman’s talking about is a very real phenomenon and we should be dialoguing and reflecting about it more.

“Turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking”

In his article, “Why don’t the French speak English” in the Daily Beast, David Sessions uses anecdotal evidence of recent French faux paux (yeah I went there) in relation to English and political correspondence and highlights France’s poor showing in the TOEFL, English First speaking test, and the “European Survey on Language Competences.”

When speculating about why this might be the case, he quote’s Pamela Druckerman’s French-parenting guide Bringing Up Bébé,

“Even at home, we tend to teach children to be quiet, discreet, and not make too much noise,” Fleurot told me. “Perfect work is called sans faute in French, which is a negative way to go about it. And the expression, ‘turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking’ reflects the idea that you shouldn’t speak unless you are really sure about what you are going to say. There are many small things like these that tend to show that our culture is less outgoing than, say, American culture, where kids are encouraged to speak out.”

In my experience, many English teachers don’t often realize the intricate relationship of one’s culture and the readiness, willingness, or sureness with which one speaks even in their 1st language. These cultural differences should be discussed and addressed and the learner should feel that he or she is making a choice to push against certain beliefs in order to progress in a different language that has different cultural implications. Foisting it upon them while making assumptions that non-Native English speakers have the same relationship to language as we do will not help.

Sessions also quotes a linguist to raise cultural judgments about pronunciation changes in English.

“Pronouncing English seems very hard to French students and very ‘funny,’” said Jean-Philippe Schmitt, a French professor at New York University and the founder of JP Linguistics. “For example, the th- sound seems in French like a speech impediment or lisp. French people really have to be willing to step out of their comfort zone to pronounce it.”

It amazes me how sensitive we are to certain sounds and how it can really make us feel something without even realizing it. If you are teaching a French learner of English the th sound and they believe that this makes them sound deficient, then your job as their pronunciation teacher will be all the more challenging. As Schmitt says, we all have to step out of our comfort zone to make such pronunciation changes laden with cultural judgments.

There are a few grammar forms in Korean such as 나요(nah-yo) where they are considered softer and are used mostly by women as opposed to men. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it makes me feel to say this grammar form. I start to feel a tightness in my chest and my face gets hot. As a non-classically feminine woman, it is incredibly difficult for me to use this verb form. But sometimes, in situations in Korea, it’s necessary for me to use it in order get what I want. Out of one’s comfort zone, indeed.

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, how are youuuuuuu?

I’ve heard a few voice teachers, particularly accent coaches, bemoan technology such as texting and chatting and how it’s clearly the dearth of good speech. We often present a foundational binary to our students, that vowels are emotion and consonants add sense to speech. And those whippersnappers these days, are sending texts like, ” r u gtg 2 the prT?,”  which is sucking all the feeling and emotion out of written speech and negatively affecting spoken trends.

In her article, “Why Drag It Out?,” Jen Doll explores the linguistic phenomenon of the written text elongation through the adding of extra vowels (and sometimes consonants). She writes,

But why is anyone adding extra letters in the first place? Blame our ever-loosening standards for written language, our desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely, and the brief time we devote to creating an electronic message. Perhaps, suggests Michael Erard, a linguist and the author of Babel No More, we’re simply trying to incorporate aspects of verbal speech into our digital communications. “When people talk, they use intonation in a number of varied and subtle ways,” he told me. “There’s a lot of emotional nuance that can be conveyed that you can’t do in writing.”

My emphasis. A desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely sounds pretty great to me. It sounds like something I am working towards in all my voice students/clients. I think there some legitimacy to the narrative that texting/chatting is has a potentially negative impact on our speech (especially if these young thangs are trying to work with something as challenging as heightened text). However, it’s important to also see that people are using also technology to explore intonation and other verbal nuance. They are finding ways to put that shit back in.

The reference to extra vowels in texting is a great way to practice vowel explorations with students. Some of them might even benefit from examples or seeing them typed out. Henry Giroux encourages teachers to include popular culture (like texting) within a student’s learning experience. He warns,

“By ignoring the cultural and social forms that are both authorized by youth and simultaneously serve to empower to disempower them, educators run the risk of complicity in silencing and negating their students. This is unwittingly accomplished by educators’ refusing to recognize the important of these sites and social practices outside of schools that actively shape student experiences and through which students often define and construct their sense of identity, politics, and culture. The issue at stake is not one of relevance but of empowerment.” (2005, 159)

I’m aware of the implications of my point here. It might sound a bit dramatic to equate the poo-pooing of texting to the disempowerment of students. But if texting and chatting is something I do all the time and is embedded within my view and experience of popular culture, I might be more motivated to learn voice work if the teacher is finding positive examples within said popular culture example. Doll’s article is a nice reminder that there are such positive and dimensional things about our interactions with speech and technology and that our spoken cultural norms continue to evolve as a result. Yesssssssssss!

“I’m a burger.”

Pakistani-born writer Omar Akhtar reflects on how his Pakistani accent has become Americanized from living in the US.

Nothing wrong with an American accent on its own. But for someone like me, who had grown up in Pakistan, there were all sorts of connotations. I was a sellout. I must be ashamed of my own culture and identity. I must think I’m better than everyone else. I’m a burger Back home, there was a special kind of loathing reserved for kids who had American accents. British accents were acceptable since all our post-colonial teachers held it as a gold standard and we still related to that culture. But if you had an American accent, it conjured up the most irrational rage in the people around you.

These are great reminders as to how we make cultural judgments based on how a speaker sounds, particularly if they used to sound like us and don’t anymore. This is a common experience for acting students who go home to see their families after they begin training in a ‘standard’ stage accent such as Received Pronunciation or General American.

Akhtar goes on to question the change in his accent:

I justified it to myself saying that I spoke in an American accent to Americans while maintaining my native accent when speaking to friends or family from home. But isn’t that sort of phony as well?

No, it’s not phony. It’s code-switching and we do this all the time depending on the status of the person we’re speaking with the relationship between us. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tone and vocabulary, but it can also shift into accent/dialectical changes as well.
The rest of Akhtar’s article discusses why many of us shift our accents to succeed in things like getting jobs and improving our credibility. It’s well worth a read and is a good reminder that it is the listener who has the power to make judgments about a person based on how they sound, whether they are consciously doing it or not. As Patsy Rodenburg says, “To the ears of others we are what we speak.”