Posted on July 11, 2018

When Black Performers Use Their ‘White Voice’

Aisha Harris, Associated Press, July 10, 2018

In “Sorry to Bother You,” the wily satirical debut feature from Boots Riley, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lands a job at a telemarketing company, where the first rule is “Stick to the script.” He stumbles during his first few calls, unable to connect with the strangers on the other end of the line — that is, until an older colleague named Langston (Danny Glover) shares some advice: “Use your white voice.”

Mr. Riley renders this affectation literally in “Sorry to Bother You,” dubbing white actors’ voices over the black faces onscreen, including David Cross, of “Arrested Development” fame, for Mr. Stanfield.

In doing so, Mr. Riley offers a zany twist on the performance of whiteness by black actors, a tradition stretching back hundreds of years: As long ago as the New World, enslaved and free blacks participated in dramatized communal appropriation of “white-identified gestures, vocabulary, dialects, dress, or social entitlements,” as Marvin McAllister writes in his book “Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African-American Performance.” These performances were in public and private spaces, sometimes on a theatrical stage or in the form of a leisurely stroll in the street alongside white people.

Vocal imitation in particular has proved an especially fruitful creative choice, and is often as subversive as it is in “Sorry to Bother You.” Below, a look at some of the notable ways black performers have used the “white voice” in popular culture.


Martin’s attempt to sound white and the operator’s reaction shrewdly emphasize how the perception of whiteness grants a measure of access often closed to people of color. The episode also slyly suggests that while cultural differences do exist, black people, by virtue of being in a minority group in America, should understand white people as much as possible; their comfort and livelihood depend on it.

An element of the trickster persona underlies this premise and others: “White Like Me,” Eddie Murphy’s 1984 sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” in which he adopts whiteface and an uptight speaking style for a day; the 2004 movie “White Chicks,” in which two black F.B.I. agents who are brothers go undercover as white sisters; and “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s forthcoming feature based on the true story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white racist over the phone.

Unlike “Martin,” these characters mostly manage to pull off the ruse, and when they do, it is simultaneously gratifying and mortifying. The black characters make fools of the racist whites without selling out: They are disguised not because they are ashamed of themselves, but because they’re out on a mission. Yet the treatment they receive when perceived to be white only further emphasizes the systemic disparities they regularly encounter because they are black.

{snip} This is what led her to create “The Spook Show,” her breakthrough one-woman act that eventually found its way to Broadway retitled as “Whoopi Goldberg.”

In it, she subverted expectations of the kinds of characters a black actress could portray, morphing into 13 different personalities, including “the surfer chick” who talks in an exaggerated California teenager style — an abundance of “likes,” “O.K.s” and upspeak. As Mr. McAllister points out in “Whiting Up,” there was nothing about the recorded stage performance that explicitly renders Ms. Goldberg’s surfer chick white — viewing her as such arises from the audience’s assumptions about the limitations of blackness.

Ms. Goldberg would adapt this character for NBC’s short-lived 1985 variety series, “Television Parts.” {snip} In each instance, Ms. Goldberg challenges and expands our ideas of blackness by conjuring up an audible signifier typically identified with whiteness.

What it means to be black has frequently been defined and scrutinized by those who are not black, particularly through the performance of blackface. Adapting a white voice as a black performer, then, is sometimes a deliberate attempt to turn the gaze back on white culture. In her viral video “_______ White Girls … Say to Black Girls,” the comedian and activist Franchesca Ramsey dons a blond wig and talks like Ms. Goldberg’s surfer chick, calling attention to the uncomfortable interactions she has had with white women.

Two decades before Ms. Ramsey’s video, Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” took a similar approach: The rapper’s then-girlfriend, Amylia Dorsey-Rivas, who is black and Latina, narrated the song’s opening, in which a woman criticizes another woman’s body for its curves. {snip} (In the song’s video, Ms. Dorsey-Rivas’s voice is dubbed over that of a white actress.)

Ms. Ramsey’s video and “Baby Got Back” {snip} unpack[s] the absurdity of a white culture that simultaneously fetishizes, and is repulsed by, blackness.

In his 2000 comedy special “Killin’ Them Softly,” Dave Chappelle uses observational humor to point out how whiteness translates to an exclusive version of freedom. He describes how his friend Chip manages to get out of a speeding ticket — or potentially worse fate — because he is white. Mr. Chappelle has two distinct voices for Chip and the police officer who pulls them over: The officer gets a high-pitched, nasal Southern drawl reminiscent of cinematic small-town sheriffs. Chip, on the other hand, evinces a calm, if slightly nerdy, demeanor when he tells the officer, “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.”

Chip embodies Langston’s definition of the white voice in “Sorry to Bother You.” That voice, he explains to Cassius, isn’t so much about timbre as it is about a feeling — a carefree nature that comes with having your bills paid. {snip}