‘White Voice,’ Blackface, and the Ethics of Representation

‘White Voice,’ Blackface, and the Ethics of Representation

‘White Voice,’ Blackface, and the Ethics of Representation

When is it fair to speak with someone else’s voice?


In Boots Riley’s new film Sorry to Bother You, Cassius, the movie’s black protagonist, struggles to make a living as a call-center salesman. An older, more experienced black colleague named Langston comes to his rescue: “Use your white voice,” he advises. As K. Austin Collins noted recently in Vanity Fair, “The white voice is a fantasy of whiteness, as Langston explains it; even white people don’t really live up to it…. It’s what success sounds like—with the added implication that when it comes to race, success is not meted out equally.”

Indeed: Some years ago, I lost the audition to record the Audible.com version of one of my own books. A talented professional actress won the role of speaking me. She did a fine job, and her delivery was probably much better than mine—although I had to learn to hear myself in her, and to own this rendering of my words. Later, I was told that the reason I failed the audition was that my voice “did not sound black enough.”

The rub, in both scenarios, is between the “sound of success” and stereotyped accents of woe; between the plain meaning of a message and the social context that renders its messenger credible, or incredible. Who is empowered to say what about whom? That question is at the heart of many recent debates about the uses of “white voice,” “brown voice,” “blackface,” transgender casting, minstrelsy, mockery, and the complexities of appropriation. The politics of representation are never easy. “Pussy” can be a cat in Britain, a hat in New York, a satirical Riot in Russia, and a vagina in the mind of Donald Trump. It all depends on context, intent, history, time, place, and diction.

Trump impersonated a call-center worker during a 2016 campaign rally. Transliteration is dangerous, but it sounded something like “we yahr frum Indy-yah.” The “joke” was prelude to his expressing disgust at the worker’s not being American by abruptly hanging up the phone. Trump was speaking in a voice he disowned in order to mark racial and ethnic difference as contemptible; that’s why it was hurtful.

By contrast, in Sorry to Bother You, identical ideas are heard as not-identical when spoken in a white rather than a black accent. Cassius used a voice that was not “his own” to mock illogical assumptions of racial difference. That made it fair game.

At another rally, Trump delivered a ham-fisted “Asian” accent to ventriloquize Chinese and Japanese businessmen (“We want deal!”). A self-described “Asian guy” then wrote on Twitter that he wasn’t offended because “I mimic southern hicks [in the US] all the tiimmmeeeee.” The self-serving disingenuousness of such a tit-for-tat misses the point: It’s not about political correctness, or freedom of speech, but that “the voice” is a crude reduction designed to diminish anything substantive said by “hicks” and greedy Asian businessmen alike. The implication of this type of speech is that we don’t have to listen to someone who is nothing more than a funny accent.

The deeper ethical dimension of this argument centers on the use of metaphor. Metaphors allow us to give form to a phenomenon by invoking a likeness as it appears to us. They inevitably reveal our inner sorting mechanisms: Recently, I heard a man call to his small dog, “Come here, Mommy!”

What attributes does he assign to dogs and/or mothers in joining them taxonomically? How does such joinder affect his behavior toward either?

Metaphor, catachresis, anthropomorphosis, code-switching, “passing,” inflection, speaking in a different voice, satire—these all reflect versions of what we receive as truth. It follows that the relentless typecasting of underrepresented religions, cultures, or ethnicities—i.e., populations generally unable to present themselves in mass media—keeps us stupidly naive. Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu makes this point brilliantly by examining the intent, connotation, and effect of Hank Azaria’s “brown voicing” of Apu, The Simpsons’ most prominent South Asian character.

Everyone on The Simpsons is a caricature: bratty kids, deadbeat dads, mad scientists, stupid teachers, and so on. But the problem with Apu is that he’s a meta-caricature: an animation of white Americans performing what they imagine South Asians to be. Apu is little more than the avatar of a specific team of white television writers and producers carelessly and inaccurately mouthing how they think Indians speak—despite more than two decades of complaints from actual Indian Americans and South Asians who get bullied with Apu-isms every day, and who resent relentless requests to “do the accent.” Kondabolu repeatedly points out the faulty syllogism: In The Simpsons, Apu is the singularized cultural representation of his parents—but his complex, plural parents are not Apu.

Kondabolu’s film looks at the wider social injury of various forms of minstrelsy that are too often romanticized as “funny” or “exotic” or “typical” of “them” and “their culture.” On-screen and off, the show’s producers grow anxious when Kondabolu explains the lived consequences of their misrepresenting Indian-American experience with no humanizing countercurrent. Over and over, they question whether criticism of Apu means that they can never use accents or speak for another.

Yet humor without wholesale misrepresentation or diminishment is not impossible. What it does require are thought and research, as well as a disciplined refusal to crudely generalize. If we can’t see that Apu is a projection of white self-regard and not a “real Indian,” then we probably won’t ever grasp the insidious irony of Donald Trump blackfacing and brown-voicing the world beyond our borders, while White House–voicing—and thereby legitimizing—Alex Jones, David Duke, and possibly Vladimir Putin. When comedic reductionism becomes (sur)realpolitik, it is no longer just minstrelsy; it is disenfranchisement. We cakewalk to the polls.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy