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.