Voice: how powerful can it be? For many people, a voice is just a way of relaying messages, information, or feelings to another being. But for me, a voice is much more powerful than just that. Growing up with a completely deaf mother, voices and messages are assorted in our household. Not only are voices diverse in my home, but also in my neighborhood where there is a tremendous linguistic gap. When I walk outside, in what most people would call an impoverished African American neighborhood, I see faces that are not similar to mine, but I hear voices that sound familiar. However, as I walk up to the corner of my Price Hill neighborhood, there stand two highly ranked Catholic High Schools in Cincinnati—Seton and Elder High School. These are beacons in my neighborhood of middle-class superiority and speech. As I wait for the bus, the white faces rushing into school look at me quizzically because I am not walking into their school. To them it seems strange for a white girl to be standing alone on the sidewalk in the heart of the “ghetto,” and NOT to be rushing away from the black world into the white one.
As I stand there watching students shoot judgmental stares my way, all I can think of is how can they judge someone just by the surroundings? I’m simply waiting on my metro bus to take me less than one mile up the road to my public high school full of African American students who don’t look the same as me but sound like family. For me, growing up in my neighborhood and attending a mostly African American high school is normal, whereas other whites wouldn’t dare walk down that street even in the daylight or feel comfortable with the way we communicate. Though I felt comfortable on my street, I always felt the isolation from the unknown white world when I was in other neighborhoods that seemed superior, and I felt insecure when I opened my mouth to speak. I have constantly been judged because of my neighborhood, my school, my lack of money, and maybe, most significantly, my lack of a white voice. I’ve always been told, “You sound like a black girl.” Is it because my language isn’t white enough? Or is it because I’m a product of a household where my mother’s speech is formed neither by the white nor black world but by the deaf world? What does a black girl sound like? Illiterate? I ask myself this regularly.
Provided with the ultimate chance to become integrated within the white world, I took the biggest step of my life to become a University of Cincinnati student majoring in Communication. What I would like to do with my education is eventually to help my neighborhood close and finally abolish the linguistic gap that separate neighborhoods and attaches a restriction label on who belongs and who doesn’t. More importantly, I would like to change the white world’s view of my speech, or at least to fully understand why my speech, and the speech of those who sound like me, are considered inferior.
At home my mother could not teach me proper grammar or how to convey my language to sound a certain way because her education was taught so differently than most. My mother went to St. Rita’s school for the deaf and blind as a child, but as an adult, in order to grasp how to read lips, my mother sat in front of a mirror for hours with her teacher, looking at how words look as they form. As a deaf person, my mother had conversations with me that were often difficult because we didn’t always understand one another. In addition, my mother often used sign language, only some of which I could comprehend. But hers was not the only language barrier. My father has a fourth grade reading and writing education; my mother has to fill out all of his documents for him. I feel like my mother has advanced more literacy her own way. All of our televisions are in closed caption, so she learns new words and sentence structures this way. However, there are times when my mother needs further explanation on language conveyance. Therefore, many times I had to teach my mother language, and our roles then became switched because she felt it her duty to teach me.
My goal was to be better than them both, not only as a communicator, but to be more integrated in the black and white worlds, and to learn from their mistakes. School is where I really took an interest in literacy, but it was hard to focus when people always judged as soon as I opened my mouth: black girl voice with a white girl face. If I were black, my voice would not have been so unexpected. The relationship between color and sound is and will always be a mystery to me. The sound for me is simply a transfer of sound waves within the world, and color is simply a cultural ethnicity. There is a sound wave to color, but it is not attached to a speaking voice. Yet for many, my color called for a different sound. This disconnect between color and sound raises the question: what really consists of a white or black sound? Is there color to sounds? I have so many unanswered questions, and my voice has certainly created trouble and pain for me.
One experience that really emotionally disturbed me was when I went to a college house party in Clifton one summer night as a college student. As I walked into the house, I was so excited to be in college and to be at a party with other students whom I thought were like me. When I walked in, all I saw were white faces similar to the ones of the Catholic school kids in my neighborhood. It felt strange that there were no black faces in the room, but I wanted to be a part of this scene so I started to engage in conversations, and throughout the night it seemed that each conversation got shorter and more awkward. When things couldn’t get more awkward, this guy who looked like he graduated from Elder High School, the elite boys school in my neighborhood, walked right up to me and said, “Are you white?” I replied, “Ahhhh, yes.” He had this look of disappointment on his face and said, “Well, then talk white. Stop talking like a nigger!” I was in such shock. I immediately flipped him the finger and walked right out of the house. My face was burning red with anger and embarrassment. I never felt so guilty for just being who I am. Jazz musician Esperanza Spalding sums up the way I felt: “I may have wisdom and knowledge, but if I SPEAK wrong then what is it worth?” I left and never wanted to have a voice after that day. I hated speaking in classes from there on. I told my mother about the incident and she cried, as if she felt guilty about the incident–my mother, who has never heard white nor black speech, who has never even heard her own daughter’s voice.
From that point on, I tried to hide my black voice or any accent that I might have. I would try to “code-switch” with the group I was talking to. I thought I was the only one who did this until I took a Communications class for my major. It wasn’t until then that I learned code-switching is something all humans do to fit in with the group they are in conversation with. Code-switching is common within any community, white or black, where people change the tones of their voices in relation to their environments. I tried very hard to sound white, like the boy at the party said I should. It wasn’t until I talked to Jessica, my mentor in the Big Brother Big Sister program, that I actually started to love my voice again. She taught me about the boundaries of language and how to “fake it until you make it.” I explained to Jessica my experiences of the white face/black voice and she agreed that I had an inner city Southern accent, but she too was puzzled by the color aspect that people associated with a sound. Or maybe she just did not want to hurt my feelings. She mentored me and helped me gain confidence in myself and pushed me to excel in school. She was the one who helped me apply to colleges and knew it was my dream to be the first person in my family to even apply to the university, let alone get a degree. With all her dedication and influence, I applied to the University of Cincinnati as a Communication major. This major would let me excel in my journey of expressing my true voice.
As I progressed through my college education, I have come to gain proper linguistic knowledge and become more conscious of the formal words that describe the way I speak. “Linguists have documented substantial differences between Standard American English (SAE), variants of which are spoken by whites (and many blacks) in the United States, and African American English (AAE), variants of which are spoken by many African Americans. At the same time, research shows that almost no one speaks a pure form of either SAE or AAE. Rather, regardless of their primary dialect, speakers mix standard and nonstandard features” (Grogger 1-2). I understand now that individuals have a mixture of both speech patterns and usage varies from setting to setting. It’s embedded in humans to adjust to settings where one feels more comfortable; in fact, changing speech patterns often happens without notice. Being a Communication major, I am drawn to understanding language as “code-switching.” “Code-switching (CS) has typically been defined as “the use of two or more linguistic varieties in the same conversation or interaction” and has continually “been subject to objections” (Gross, Koch, Kolts 31). In my own life I try to code-switch because I have found that people pass their first judgments about you based primarily on language. Code-switching also comes along with a lot of expectancy violations. Many people do not want to violate another’s cultural indifference; therefore, many do not know how to adjust or interact with a group or audience. I did not have to read many articles to find this out, however. I know that judgment is passed on me from the white world every time I open my mouth to speak. Code-switching involves breaking through conversational constraints when expressive interaction surfaces (Gudykunst 95). There is a certain discourse that is associated with each culture and people learning how to adjust or manipulate their audiences isn’t found only in textbooks. We analyze and adjust our behaviors according to the uncertainty levels we experience when interacting within an assorted audience.
Even though my speech has changed so much from high school, where every one of my friends were African American, to now where some of my friends are white, middle class college students, I still do not understand why my accent is considered “wrong,” while other accents like those I hear from students from New York or Boston are considered cool or right. These questions are not answered from the books I read in college. However, after experiencing the linguistic collide of two races, I value my experience. I realize that my voice does reveal my culture and socioeconomic class. My voice is unique because I am white, yet I do have that black sound. This will always cause me problems throughout my life, no doubt, but it has also given me a unique perspective. Those kids from that elite high school may have their pockets full and have the latest fashions, but as I stand on that sidewalk with a similar face, I realize now that I have a balance of diversity that they can never change. I have lived in a black world, and I have lived in a white one. I have lived with a white face and spoken with a black voice. Though the journey has sometimes been painful, I cherish it, but more than the journey, I value most the power of my voice.
Tiffany Hendrickson is a senior at the University of Cincinnati. She wrote this essay when her English composition professor asked students to “bring experience into a research community of literacy.” Tiffany said, “Developing our voice and place in society helps us understand our experience in terms of the cultural and intellectual world. Some may struggle to find a place of belonging or may be afraid to break out of their shell: at one point I was that person. I want people to read this essay and learn that our world isn’t just black and white, that there are areas of gray in the world.” Tiffany dedicated this essay to her professor, Michelle Holley, about whom she wrote: “I never thought of myself as a writer until her beautiful and inspirational words touched me.”
Grogger, Jeffrey. “Speech Patterns and Racial Wage Inequality.” The Journal of Human Resources 1st series. 46 (2009): 1-25. Print.
Gudykunst, William B. Theorizing about Intercultural Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005. Print.
Koch, L. M., A. M. Gross, and R. Kolts. “Attitudes Toward Black English and Code Switching.” Journal of Black Psychology 27.1 (2001): 29-42. Print.
Spalding, Esperanza. Tell Him. Rec. 12 May 2009. Creative Commons, 2009. Youtube.com. Creative Commons, 24 Nov. 2011. Web. 02 Sept. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2wlZV6iap4>.