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.”