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.”

“So, Harry learned how to be still, to camouflage, to be the least.”

This video (Harry Shum Jr., Ze Frank, & Elana Farley) has been making the rounds recently and there are many things that resonate with me.

  1. Harry’s childhood pain being bullied as part of a diasporic community.
  2. The fact that Harry healed, grew, and blossomed through theatre and dance.
  3. The acknowledgement that so many of us have lived in shells but one day they may not have such a useful purpose anymore. Perhaps at that point, they actually limit us and our potential.

“And if someone carves into a sapling with a knife, the injury is as wide as the entire trunk. Though that mark will never fully heal, you can grow the tree around it, and as you grow, the scar gets smaller in proportion.” ~Ze Frank

This is a stunning metaphor and something so many of us (especially those from diaspora) work through during our lifetime. It’s not about ignoring or burying our painful experiences, it’s about the fullness of our being expanding around those things that will always be part of who we are.

My only (slightly nitpicky) thing as a voice teacher is the reference to Harry getting into theatre and speaking through the words of others- which is a huge part of theatre, of course, but I also advocate for the type of theatre where we speak through our own voices and writing as well. Because they are just as valid and powerful as those who have been published beforehand. I’m grateful that Harry is using theatre and dance to express all of who he is now.

“You give voice to your grief”

This week I am in Cape Cod, MA exploring voice and movement through Archetypal Journeys with Janet B. Rodgers (formally of VCU) and Frankie Armstrong.

We started with the Archetype of the “Spiritual and Temporal Leader” (think of Mandela, Gandhi, Dalai Lama) and this part always resonates with me.

Now you round the corner, and for the first time in such a long time you see the habitation. You see the destruction that has happened. Many buildings have been destroyed. Many people walk thin and hungry. You give voice to your grief as you lament for the people and your community.

Especially given the devastating Zimmerman verdict yesterday, I always feel like I have so many communities to grieve for. And I am hyper-aware of how I am publicly perceived in that I am not allowed to appear as angry, hurt, or frustrated as I really am.

So yesterday, I had permission to grieve. And I grieved. I grieved through the Archetype and its narrative journey. I made sounds that are not acceptable or appropriate for a young woman of color in a Western society. I grieved for Trayvon’s family, I grieved for young black men in America, I grieved for my birthmother, I grieved for all 200,000 adoptees whose lives were manipulated from the moment of their birth.

The Archetypal mantra for the Spiritual and Temporal Leader is:

I have the right to be here./ And I have nothing to prove./ I am who I am.

I will keep saying this and believing it. Some days I’ll believe it more than others. I hope you are saying it too.

“Embracing the complications and the contradictions”

In a recent roundtable discussion in Minneapolis, Asian American artists came together to discuss the current state of Asian American theatre, their influences, and the relationship between their creative work and their identity.

Key quote from poet Bao Phi:

I feel like America’s narrative talking about race and all of these things – gender, sexuality – is becoming more and more complicated, for the better. And I’d like to see media coverage embracing the complications and the contradictions, rather than figuring out what stories fit into preexisting narratives and paradigms.”

As educators, we can embrace this challenge as well and provide our students with more opportunities to express their own stories and explore identity intricacies. A number of students have told me that they have been given text to read/perform in class by authors that maybe shared their parents’ nationality or just the color of their skin and they sometimes felt pressure to connect with this writer.

Linda Her, a spoken word artist and activist, reflects on the intersectionality of their identity locations and the challenges this sometimes presents:

“My experience as a Hmong American queer woman and performer has been that when I’m invited to a LGBT specific event it’s filled with all white folks, and then when I’m invited to a Hmong space to perform it’s filled with majority straight folks. I would love to have a space that is inclusive of all your selves, your identities. For example, how is the notion of marriage equality different for couples in which at least one person is an immigrant? How can we include those experiences?”

I would also love such a space, Linda. When I’m with adoptees, I’m rarely able to articulate the deep somatic experiences I’ve had as a trained actor and voice teacher that have impacted the trauma caused by the separation from our birthmothers. When I’m with theatre people and academics, it is hard to articulate the part of me that is non-White and frustrated. Interracial adoptees and other diasporic have to deal with this fragmentation their whole lives. I’m used to it but never comfortable with it. And like these artists in this roundtable, I’m manifesting spaces that are more inclusive of all our different selves.

Bao Phi’s poetry is really stunning and full of complex layers. I will be posting some of his work in the future.

Why blog?

After 2 decades of playing Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, my first role as a Korean-American. photo by Jeanne Modderman

After 2 decades of playing Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, my first role as a Korean-American. photo by Jeanne Modderman

I’ve started this blog for a number of reasons.

  1. I like to share stuff. Like good poems. And avocado recipes.
  2. After years of collecting internet bits and bobs, it will be helpful for my research for me to have them all in one place.
  3. Talking about race, identity, and privilege is hard. There is still an outdated belief that if you bring these things up, you are racist yourself. So instead, as educators and those working in the theatre industry, we stay silent, we don’t engage. If we are teaching our students to use their literal and figurative voices, shouldn’t we be using ours to pursue our epistemological curiosities?
  4. I’ve found that teachers and those in the creative arts can actually be the most resistant to examining privilege in their own practice. Working in theatre or working in higher education can give someone a grand sense of progressiveness that can convince us that we are the ‘good guys’ when it comes to horrible things like cultural marginalization. After all, we are smart and we are artsy! I’ve been guilty of this in the past, myself. This can be incredibly insidious and therefore, much harder to address and examine. I hope that some readers will be able to reflect on their own practice within some of the contexts I present or in light of some of the questions I raise. And I invite you to engage and call me on my own bullshit. Because this is still a process for me, and I openly and happily admit that I know very, very little.
  5. If I am to support and nurture my students in a way that encourages them to use their own voices in a truthful way, I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that I must assimilate my own figurative voice for a still very conservative academic context. If I want to write for a journal or give a presentation, I often need to adhere to specific guidelines in order to legitimize myself academically (there are some enclaves of academics and creatives who are getting together to revolutionize this! More on that soon!) I know I’ll need to assimilate at times, but this blog allows me to write in a way that is free from such constrictions. And perhaps there I will be able to experiment with other ways to legitimately express oneself academically while still being creative, unconventional, and myself.
  6. bell hooks was devastated when her White teachers told her that people who looked like her didn’t have much to offer when it came to good writing. I hope to post lots of amazing text, voicework, and poetry from all over the world. This begs the question, however, of cultural appropriation in our classrooms and when/how it is okay to use something from another place. I’m looking forward to this discussion!

You will probably dig this blog if you:

  • are a voice teacher. Or if you just are interested in the voice. Or sociolinguistics. Or accents. I  will post loads of voicey things and good poems to use in your classes that are hopefully not mostly written by White, dead, men (maybe some, though. I do love me some Jack Gilbert. And he is newly dead, so).
  • are interested in exploring your own identity and relationship to privilege.
  • are an English language teacher and are concerned with your role within an international context. Are you empowering or disempowering your students by continuing to teach English as a tool for success?
  • are someone with a pluralistic background and are interested to see how identity and voice intersect. I’m interested in this myself. It’s pretty much my jam.
  • like interculturalism. Or if you really hate the term ‘interculturalism’ because it connotes that cultures can manifest some sort of authentic essentialism and borders (pssst: I don’t think they can).
  • are a pedagogue who is interested in ways to be more inclusive to diverse student bodies.
  • aren’t too easily offended. My household is full of New York/Glasgwegian cussin’.
  • like avocados as much as me. If that’s the case, we’re pretty much BFFs already.

Soooooo enjoy. And engage. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.