By Michael Harriot
A few days ago, 17-year old high school student Savanna Tomlinson broke the internet when she tweeted this picture of her yearbook photo:
The hilarious quote not only garnered millions of chuckles, but it began a furious debate in comment sections when flabbergasted Caucasians began a debate about what it means to “sound white on the phone.” Because the basic precept of white liberal guilt is that we are all the same, they “don’t see color” and there are no differences, “they believe that “sounding Caucasian” is defined by using correct English. According to their logic, that is the only differentiating mark between “sounding black.”
But we all know better. Political correctness won’t allow many people to admit it, but even when you say the same words, with the same vocal inflection, one can usually tell the difference between when a black person and a person of no color on are the line. So to clarify what this meme actually means, NegusWhoRead offers a brief lesson in language linguistics on how to sound white on the phone:
1. Restrict your vocal cords This is the first and most important part to sounding white on the phone. One of the most overused comedic tropes is when comics tighten their voice box when imitating a white man. The reason it is funny is because that is actually how they sound to us. Part of what is envied as the “cool” or “swag” of blackness is a state of relaxation that often manifests itself in your voice. Being black in America is so fraught with peril that the constant state of awareness eventually gives way to a zen-like state of not giving a fuck about conforming to the larger culture.
I don’t know if it is a lack of testosterone or the underdeveloped vocal muscles, but white voices are generally higher-pitched than black ones. It’s why black men must be careful not to sound intimidating at all times. Black men are not afforded the same benefit of the doubt when raising their voices, so we have accepted the fact that we must take a little bass out of our voice when talking to white people. If you don’t believe me, listen to the difference in octaves in Kanye’s voice when he talks to Ellen and when he talks to Hypebeast:
See, he’s using correct English in both, but his voice is totally different.
2. Pay attention to the letter “R” Notice how Kanye hit the hard “R”s with Ellen. Every linguist will tell you that the R is the most important letter in sounding authentic. You can convince people that you know Spanish if you roll the “R” in any Mexican name. Well, the same is true in whitetalk. If you hit the R’s at the end of a word, you sound whiter. The R-sound is what differentiate between the stuff you use to eat chicken salad from racist white people.
One is a “cracker” and the other is a “cracka.”
The difference is very recognizable over the phone. The only difference between “Negus,” Niggas and “Niggers” is the hard R sound. One means “king,” one is a word that only black people can say, and the other means a white person is about to get their ass whipped.
3. Start with the opposite This is a subtle concept that many don’t recognize in the universe of whitesoundedness. Caucasians tend to preface many statements with the opposite of what they mean. For instance, whenever someone says “I don’t mean to sound racist, but…” they are definitely about to say something very racist. Or when someone walks up to you and says “I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to ask you to…”, they are definitely not sorry and they are about to tell you to do something they really don’t have to ask. Finally, whenever a cop says “Can I get you to do me a favor and step outside the car?”… They aren’t asking. It’s not a favor.
Turn your camera on and say your last rites.
4. Ask to speak to a manager Even if things are going your way. Wypipo love to speak to a manager because their innate sense of supremacy makes the idea of showing that they can go to a higher level of authority irresistible. In fact, whenever you speak to any Caucasian on the phone, don’t even start a conversation, just keep asking for managers, and you’ll sound very white. One time I called customer service to get help with my iPhone and kept asking for managers until I got Steve Jobs on the line.
This is part of the reason I think Barack Obama was hated so much. I have a hypothesis that most white people have never had a Black boss or supervisor, and when the world wanted to speak to America’s manager, for the first time it was a black guy and the idea of it irritated some people, even if they didn’t know why.
5. Be pleasant White people are always pleasant on the phone. I don’t know if it is because of etiquette, phone manners or the fact that they live in a country that has placed them at the top of the societal hierarchy since its inception, but they always sound chirpy as fuck when they call to remind me of a doctor’s appointment or try to sell me a vacation package.
It’s hard to imitate privilege in your tone, but when speaking on the phone, try to make your voice sound like you never worry about being mistaken for a thug, your daughter getting harsher discipline at school because of the color of her skin or a rogue cop pumping bullets into a car containing your 15-year-old because his life isn’t worth that much. See, it’s harder than you think.
6. If all else fails, pretend to be “one of the good ones” If you still don’t sound white, don’t worry, you might still be able to convince them that you aren’t one of the “other” kind of blacks. All you have to do is laugh when they say something borderline racist (don’t worry, they will all say something borderline racist). Pretend you’re on their side when they disparage another black person in your presence. Act as if you don’t know they mean “black” every time they say something is “ghetto.” Get good grades. Wear khakis and boat shoes. Don’t sag your pants. Smile widely because the white in your teeth is reassuring and comforting. Be benign. Now you can talk white. Now anything is possible.
Because that is what code-switching is. Every Black person in America has to wear a mask and muzzle every day to fit into the larger culture of America. The sizes and weight may vary, but we all do. It is not that black is that different, it is just unsettling to white people. The names. The skin. The way we dress. The way we walk. It all needs to be snuffed out if one wants to reach for the stars–because it reminds them of their terrible, bloody legacy. We are living reminders who are only equal in blind taste tests and behind the comfortable anonymity of the phone–if you can pull it off. It’s why a Boston accent, a Southern drawl or an Australian twang is cute, sexy and shows personality, but our voices carry with them a filthy, invisible witness. Theirs are indicative of a geographic region. Ours are a subtle shame. Theirs need not be suppressed, but ours must. Just blackness. Just us.
Even a 17-year-old high school student knows it.
Ain’t that funny?