“Who uses a ‘white voice’ at work?” I asked my students at the college. The class was on Black Literature and nearly every Black, Latinx and Asian, raised their hands. Even a white male did too. We curiously eyed him as he turned and said, “It’s complicated.” Everyone laughed. An older Black man confessed, “I put it on extra thick, so when they come to the store, they’re shocked.”
Talking “white” is an old skill for people of color. It is part of a whiteface tradition that is a survival mechanism and a theme in Black Art. Whiteface is in slave narratives, comedy and has been updated by Hollywood in the films Sorry to Bother You and BlacKKKlansman. Of the two, it is Sorry to Bother You (warning: spoilers ahead) that sets whiteface as part of a bourgeois, racial integration project that sacrificed working class solidarity in favor of tokenism. Integration widened the class divide in communities of color. The film heralds a socialist revolution led by a generation who know their real voices and can rebuild America.
The Tradition of Whiteface
“Use your white voice,” Langston (played by Danny Glover) tells the new telemarketer, Cassius Green (a jittery Lakeith Stanfield) in an early scene from Sorry to Bother You. Langston points at his chest, “You have a white voice in there. You can use it … it’s about sounding like you don’t have a care in the world. It’s what they wish they sounded like.”
Later, Green gives a toast at a bar with his white voice, hypnotizing everyone with the breezy carefree music of its privilege. At work, the voice boosts his career but at the cost of his real life. Green is faced with a question; can he use whiteness? Or will it use him?
Black culture has answered this question in three ways. One is using whiteface as camouflage to escape racial violence, as some runaway slaves did. Another is reverse minstrelsy, when people of color wear white makeup to mock racism. The last is passing, where people of color destroy…