Cal Professor Tom McEnaney Explores the Bias of Speech

In his class Sounding American, his students put the sound of speaking in the racial crosshairs.


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Telemarketer Cassius Green deftly uses a “white voice.”

Photo courtesy Annapurna Pictures

There are few phrases more inherently fraught than “sounding American.” In a nation predicated in no small part on genocide, slavery, and the systemic silencing of women and minorities — which is to say nothing of America’s lengthy and complicated relationship with immigration — it’s nearly impossible to parse out just what an American voice “should” sound like.

America is often celebrated as the proverbial melting pot of nationalities, a bastion of freedom, self-expression, and individuality. But American’s multiculturalism and ethnic diversity belie whose voice actually dominates the national discourse, literally and metaphysically.

Tom McEnaney, a professor at UC Berkeley specializing in the history of media and technology, teaches a course called Sounding American, which explores this potent piece of American identity. Just how has the history of sound in America fundamentally informed contemporary culture and the lingering biases the United States still struggles with today?

“To say there is an ‘American sound’ is to suppress 80 to 90 percent of how most of us speak,” he said.

McEnaney explained that early on in the history of phonograph, gramophone, radio, and microphone development in the 19th century, there was an inherent bias toward male physiology, as men — particularly white men — dominated radio and television. Biologically, cisgender men tend to have longer and thicker vocal chords, which tend to give their voice a bass-ier sound, and the burgeoning technology was developed to best suit that kind of physiology. When voices don’t “match up,” listeners experience distortion, which, in turn, undermines any voices that don’t sound like, well, white men.

In the 2016 election heard round the world, criticism of Hillary Clinton’s voice raged; people experienced her speech as loud, aggressive, nagging, and shrill, but Amee Shah, who researches hearing and perception at Cleveland State University, found that while people perceived Hillary’s voice as louder, it is actually average in pitch and loudness for her age and gender.

“When it gets to presidential speech,” McEnaney said, “you have sound engineers who are trying to ‘clean it up.' They’re thinking about producing this louder, deeper sound. But of course, that makes us perceive presidential speech as bass-y and loud and connected to a male body. ‘That’s what a president sounds like.’ So when someone else gets up there — like Hillary — and starts speaking, her voice doesn’t match our picture of power.”

There is an intersection of socio-political prejudice coupled with the actual development of technology that has rendered the female voice “lesser than.” “How we hear is this strange and exciting place; it’s where physiology and social life combine,” said McEnaney. “But what happens is the dominant forces that ‘decide’ what is worthy, intelligent, respectable, etc., are typically white men whose power is threatened by the shift in the power and prestige of a certain vernacular or way of speaking.”

Boots’ Riley’s genre-exploding film Sorry To Bother You follows the rise of a young black man in Oakland who ascends a dark ladder of corporate telemarketing using his “white voice” (played by the incorrigibly “nasal and nerdy” voice of David Cross.)

Photo courtesy Annapurna Pictures

Cassius, left, in confrontation with creepy Steve Lift.

What’s interesting to note, however, is that while “whiteness” is the sound of visibility and social currency — “whiteness is an invisible standard against which everything is judged against,” said McEnaney — codifying what it means to “sound or act white” is highly problematic as well, he argued.

The “white voice” — epitomized in its extreme by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story or F.D.R, both of whom boast a mid-Atlantic faux British accent — is a fallacy, as no race or gender is a monolith, physically, culturally or otherwise. What listeners hear as “white” is actually a collection of biases that human beings have internalized as a culture.

“The way we interpret the sound of people’s voice has to do with listening; it’s not just production,” said McEnaney.

Timbre, however — the sound that identifies a guitar from a mandolin, for example — is also present in one’s personal physiology; one’s voice is wrapped up in the way one uses this vocal instrument. “When you call your friends or parents, and they immediately know it’s you, that’s your timbre.”

McEnaney said that people “tend to throw adjectives at timbre” in an attempt to tag a voice as female, male, black, gay, South Asian, etc., but it’s impossible to reproduce what’s being experienced as a pattern on a spectrograph — a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies of sound.

Author Faedra Chatard Carpenter discussed this conundrum in her book, Coloring Whiteness, in which she explains that traits like nasality, high-pitch, or overly enunciated speech are often associated with whiteness. Nasal tone hints at awkwardness, high-pitched voices are feminine, and over enunciation is equated with being hyper intellectual.

“Then we start indexing these sounds to certain kinds of intellectual ability and social positions,” said McEnaney. “These sounds are racialized. We start associating them with a particular race, even though you could be of any race and speak in that style.”

Identity is a hugely complicated performance of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Everything from our voice and clothes to our body language and vocabulary communicates who we are, and the communities we hail from or are part of.

“These messages can become powerful emblems of culture, which we can hold up against systems of oppression,” McEnaney offered. “What’s important is to pull the veil off of it and see that this voice, this ‘whiteness,’ is not the ‘natural’ sound of America.”

 

Student Opinions Speak Up

Those taking the Sounding American course share a few thoughts.

“The more we as a country can provide platforms for minorities to speak and represent themselves, the more we can abstract ‘whiteness’ from its position as the norm.”

—Sofia Betteo​

“Your voice is your physical voice and the sound waves you emit; it is the voice of words and the meaning you connote from them; it is the voice of the history you have to tell, whether that be blood or ethnic or religious.”

—Dylan Miars​

“If we don’t become conscious of these things, we are prone to moving in the direction that these powers push us in, something like an untethered boat on a lake.”

—Natalya Foreman

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