It’s not just how I look, it’s how I sound too

CT Recruitment Coordinator, Leila Connage, reflects on the connection between language and race.

Recently, there have been a lot of conversations around race, diversity, and inequality. Conversations that I am glad are happening, because too often they are avoided as they are viewed as ‘uncomfortable’ topics to discuss.

I have heard many accounts of situations where individuals have felt the need to adapt themselves to avoid judgement/prejudice, so as not to come across as: ‘too young’, ‘too loud’,  or sadly in some cases, ‘too black’.

We live in a world where many people go to school, university or work and feel the need to mask or dim their identity. For those of us who feel this way, there are many aspects of ourselves that we consciously try to adapt.

I have often been in environments where I am the only black person, or one of very few. I have felt the need to edit myself i.e. make sure my hair isn’t too full or afro, in case I am seen to be ‘unprofessional’.  I will make sure my naturally vibrant personality does not come across too bubbly – so I am not depicted as ‘loud’ and ‘unrefined’.  Sometimes I have even thought, “do I need to speak differently too?”.

Language as identity

There are many different variables that come together to create our identity. Language and the way we speak can be an important aspect of racial identity. However, communication and language are among the factors that are mentioned less than appearance, in relation to profiling and prejudice.

During lockdown I have been reflecting on my time at university where I faced various instances of racial prejudice, assumptions, and discrimination, based on the way I look or/and speak. I have both experienced and observed how the way people speak, puts them into certain categories.

“Sounding white”

As part of a Language and Power module at University, my friend and I explored the connection between language and race. This seemingly controversial topic (according to my tutors) was titled: ‘Sounding white versus speaking fluently’.

The study aimed to discover what the phrase, “sounding white”, meant since it was something we heard all too often.  Is it an insult or a compliment?  Does it refer to an accent, a tone of voice or how an individual articulates themselves?

The phrase “sounding white” is often seen as derogatory. Whether it is used by a white person towards a black person, or a black person towards another black person – it really does not matter.

Our study confirmed that when a black person is labelled as “sounding white”, it is commonly inferred to mean someone who uses ‘standard’ or ‘good’ English.  Whereas “sounding black” holds negative connotations of broken or poor English, slang, hip-hop or other ‘sub’-culture. This is often characterised as a deficient or inferior, and in official studies, referred to as ‘verbal deprivation’.

Linguistic discrimination happens to be a prominent issue within contemporary society.  It is seen to be the auditory version of racial profiling with intelligence perceived in connection to the way someone may speak and express themselves.

Enough academics –  let’s move on to what the term “sounding white” really refers to. Honestly, I didn’t need to do this study to personally know what the term was really referencing as I repeatedly came across it.

Code switching

When a non-white person was told that they “sound white” – this refers to their lack of slang and use of ‘proper’ English!  Knowing that myself, I and many black or other ethnic minority individuals feel the need to change and adapt our identities to suit the environment, made me think about the idea of code switching.

Technically the act of code switching is the moving back and forth between two languages or dialects. However, the term can also be used to illustrate the act of speaking one way with one set of people in one environment, and another way, with a different set of people in another.

Due to the negative stereotyping of ‘black’ language and communication styles, many routinely feel forced to deny this essential part of their identity/personality, to fit into dominant ‘white’ cultural norms. It is unfair and quite disheartening that commonly there is this need to edit your own identity to fit in.

I think we can all agree that different situations and environments may require different behaviours. However, the pressure to edit your image, personality and use of language just to fit in and to avoid racial profiling is a sad reality that happens to be a part of the everyday experience for many black and ethnic minority people.

 

To discuss, please contact Leila Connage on: Leila@campbelltickell.com