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November 5, 2009

the complexity of race

(Washington, DC) At a conference here today, I heard a college senior give a talk about interracial dialogs. She looked like a white woman, and in fact she is phenotypically white--descended from Europeans on both sides of her family. If you read the text of her talk, you would call it academic, formal, and professional, and you would be wrong to draw any conclusions from the transcript about her ethnic identity, which could be anything. But if you only listened to her speak, you would say she was an African American woman from a working class neighborhood of a northern city.

This wasn't a matter of idioms or vocabulary. It was her accent, some subtle aspects of her vowels, a hint of a "k" before the "s" in "ask," certain intonations (like a drop in pitch on the word "really"), and also hand gestures and her a way of emphasizing points with her eyes that made me think she was culturally or linguistically African American. In fact, she grew up in an African American neighborhood in Detroit and sounds like her friends and neighbors there.

If the audience had all been white people, no one would have said anything about her accent--maybe some wouldn't even have noticed it. But the audience included five or six African American academics, several of whom wanted to talk about this young woman's speaking patterns during the plenary discussion. In fact, one African American professor said right away, "I want to name it: you sound more Black than me." This was a relevant comment, given the topic of the panel: interracial dialog. There was general support for the idea that the student should be able to participate in dialogs as an African American if she wanted to. After all, she had been elected president of her high school's NAACP chapter. Her Black friends consider her Black.

Until 18 months ago, I always lived in jurisdictions where the majority of residents were African American. Although segregation has been pervasive, and I am white, I have lived long enough to have known many African Americans as well as many whites who live and work in daily contact with African Americans. I have never before met a phenotypically white person who genuinely speaks like an African American--not as an affectation, or by borrowing a few phrases, but even while she makes a highly formal and academic presentation.

This fact itself is noteworthy. There are many people of color who sound like the majority of white people in their communities (in terms of accent and intonation). But the reverse is very rare.

I would hypothesize that a phenotypically white person who always--without making a choice--sounds like an African American will face some degree of anti-Black discrimination in the United States. I think racism is strong, and accent is as much of a trigger for it as skin color.

I would never say that an African American "sounds white." That would suggest that the default or norm, if you happen to talk like me, is to be white. White people don't own the accent and dialect that I use. Barack Obama has exactly as much claim to it as I do, and in that sense it isn't a "white" way of speaking. To jump to the conclusion that someone is white on the basis of a phone conversation is racist, or at least narrow-minded. Yet today's speaker did sound Black, and I think that is mostly because crossing over as she did is so rare. It's empirically true that her accent was "Black."

I appreciated that African Americans in the audience considered her African American. I think one reason for my appreciation was simply that it's appealing to see individuals included rather than excluded. There is no need for symmetry here: I wouldn't be happy to see an African American welcomed as "white" on the basis of his or her accent. But symmetry isn't the criterion of fairness. There are deep inequalities that sometimes require asymmetrical responses. Even if money and power were equal between Black and white Americans, there is the simple fact that the former are far out-numbered. So I'm happy to see a phenotypically White person authentically identify as, and be embraced as, African American, even though an African American who sounds like the majority of white people is still fully African American.

Finally, this case emphasizes the complexity of racial identity. As one member of the audience noted, you can be "African American" and thoroughly white if you are an Afrikaner immigrant from South Africa. You can have black skin but no roots in Africa if (for instance) you are an Aboriginal Australian. You can be African American and just arrived from Ghana, or an African American whose ancestors all lived in the American colonies before George Washington was born. You can have fifteen out of sixteen white great-great-grandparents and "count" as Black, or you can be white and never even know that some of your ancestors were Africans.

Complicating the issue doesn't make race or racism go away, but at a minimum, it makes life more interesting.

November 5, 2009 9:34 PM | category: none



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