03.16.2011 - I was on the telephone with a professional acquaintance today, and he asked me if I had plans for St. Patrick's Day, even though my day was filled by a colossal effort to close a new deal. Well, to be honest, I told him, I was not even aware that it was St. Patrick's Day. "I did not even know it," I said, "perhaps because I am not Irish." To that, my acquaintance, another black man in his early forties, replied, rather evenly, "Well, that's true, but it's not like anyone would confuse for you a brother, if they just heard you speak."
When I hear people say things like this, particularly when their words are not meant with malice or indignation, I get very upset. This time, there was no exception. Rather than rip this guy to shreds for his remark, however, I politely excused myself from the call, and I tried not to think about it. Instead, I decided to re-post this blog entry from March, 2009, and email it to the person. With any luck, perhaps he will read it, and he will know better than to say such patently stupid things in the future...particularly if he wants my business.
I am not being boastful about this, but the one problem I usually do not suffer from is having something to say. I also have been tremendously blessed with the ability to communicate my thoughts in ways that most people cannot easily do. Indeed, if I have something to say, speaking publicly, or writing those thoughts down, or typing them for my blog or an AxSA document, or firing them off in an email, has usually never been a real challenge for me…And so, the irony is that this post—one written on a topic that strikes me so personally—took me over a week to actually write, simply because I did not know how to articulate how I felt.
I guess that I ought to begin by telling you what that topic is. Actually, as silly as it may sound, the topic of this post is about the natural inflections of a person’s voice…Silly, isn’t it? It’s silly that something so superficial, so meaningless and trite, could take up space on this blog when there are so many serious issues in the world, right now. Moreover, it is silly that such an immaterial topic could mount an effective assault and silence me for over a week, while I struggled to find the right words to combat it. But, as silly as it may seem, the natural inflections of our voices matter more than any of us know, for, whether we realize it or not, these involuntary elements of our person help to set the stage for how we frame and judge the world around us.
As I write this, perhaps I should quickly acknowledge that these subsequent judgments are really the things with which I have taken issue, because they have a tendency to be misguided or just flatly baseless. But there is no room for another lecture on the judgments of folks. Rather, in seeking to address this issue, I guess I have felt it prudent to find another angle…so here we go.
I had never noticed it before I was 13 years old, or around that time, but I do remember the first time that someone brought it up. While dressing out for PE at Houma Jr. High, another kid in my class asked me, very simply, “Gary, why do you talk white?” I did not know what he meant. My voice had started to change while I was in the sixth grade at Mulberry, and it had not fully made its transition through those years of puberty. What’s more, I never thought that I spoke well, at all, because teacher after teacher at Mulberry kept shepherding me to the speech therapist, trying to insist that I needed to be there, due to poor pronunciation habits. (Strangely, though, the therapist never took me under her tutelage.) Well, in spite of what I might have thought from Mulberry, my reality was forever changed on that day at Houma Jr. High, particularly when this kid proceeded to tell me that everyone thought this, including a lot of my teachers.
I was extremely embarrassed. “My teachers are talking about me? They think I am trying to be white?” I remember thinking exactly those words. Other kids standing near us in the locker room—some of them, good friends at the time—were all thunderstruck. I guess they thought that a fight was about to happen, but this kid was not trying to insult me. In fact, if anything, he was trying to inform me of something of which I probably was not aware. I remember also thinking that this had to have started at Mulberry, and that I grew up around too many white people, and that I was going to be constantly humiliated because how I was growing up. And after that, with a strong poker-face, I told the kid, “I don’t know. I guess that is just who I am.” And so, the other kids went about locking their lockers and strolling into the gym, probably never thinking twice about a moment that would live on in my head forever.
The memory of that incident would come up many times in my life. Throughout my secondary education. When I offered a job in radio. At Birmingham-Southern. In random conversations. During a memorable stop at a convenience store. When people met me as an HTV reporter. And so on…and so on…I cannot count the number of days in my life when the topic of the nature inflections in my own voice has been a matter of discussion for others. All I do know is that it was so many times, in fact, that I often just grow bitter and defensive about it. If someone accused me of speaking “white”, I would pointedly reply, “Then what’s talking ‘black’?” If someone would say something presumptuous like “you’re not from here”, I’d immediately, and rather impatiently, asked them to justify why they thought that. If someone teased me for the way I pronounced words like “Lafayette” or “Baton Rouge”, I quickly prod them to invalidate my pronunciation and legitimize their own. As the years passed, I vowed to myself never to be as embarrassed as I was on that day in PE class, and I also vowed that anyone who dared to question the way that I spoke was going to just have their weltanshauung rocked to its very core.
I doubt, seriously, that defensiveness actually worked, though. I was not leaning on it for security or to prop up my self-esteem. In truth, as I began to understand what I wanted to do with my life, I just became even more comfortable with the fact that I was probably pretty different from most people, and I accepted the possibility that something as trivial as the natural inflections of my voice was just a part of what made me unique and what would make me the person I had yet to become. Rather than continue to take offense to people’s words, or turn inward and insecurity, I found solace in the fact that God’s purpose made me this way, perhaps because effectively communicating thoughts, opinions, ideas, and strategies to people and organizations was going to be so important to my livelihood. (And if my Big Momma B was alive, she’d quickly add, “…[A]nd because it’ll be important when he finally follows the family tradition, and preaches.”) What’s more, whereas I might have thought that defensive rebuttals were enough to change the way people casted their judgments, in truth, I think that the real change in people’s perceptions was coming, albeit slowly, as our social norms began to change. In fact, I think that surge of change is still slowly trickling in—and may not fully arrive in our society for quite some time.
Evidence of the fact that many people’s framing of, and their judgments about, the world have yet to change does come up from time to time. In fact, I guess I see it now more in the professional world than in any other setting, but these days my responses are vastly less intent on changing the minds of those around me. In 2006, for example, AxSA had been retained to consult its first political campaign, and as part of its communications services to that campaign, it was my job to negotiate the terms for a debate on a radio program, which was, interestingly enough, hosted by the director of a local NAACP chapter. I convened a call with the gentleman on the Friday evening, prior to Labor Day, and our chat appeared to be a good and productive one, laying the groundwork for the debate’s format. Unfortunately, what I later learned from multiple sources, on the following Tuesday, was that the gentleman had told a number of people that my client had hired some white-owned, out-of-town consulting firm. When an individual who did indeed know the truth attempted to explain that to this gentleman—that I am, indeed, a black man and a native one, at that—the gentleman replied quickly, saying that only his own assertions were right, and that he knew this because he had spoken personally to the white business owner. And while it took everything within me to remain tight-lipped, I had to follow the advice of my mother and my client, and to simply chalk the experience up as a lesson: even the advocates of progress cannot necessarily be sure of what that progress will look like when it meets them. Indeed, at times, people just cannot move ahead fast enough.
That was also the case in 2007. I had worked diligently to secure yet another new account for my young consultancy, eager to make headway with middle-market enterprises in the region, and so landing the particular account in question was a watershed moment for me. I was excited to be sitting at the table with the company’s owners—some of whom, I knew—as they gladly signed an AxSA Letter of Engagement, when one of the owners looked to me and spoke. He was a 40-something-year-old, soft-spoken man who tended to ask more questions than make statements, and so, when he uttered them, his words pierced me like bullets. “ I’m not going to lie…I had my doubts about hiring a black firm...just hearing you speak…I know we are in good hand…amazed by how bright you are, and you speak so well for a black man,” he said. Immediately the room became quiet, and my blood pressure had to have shot skyward. I wanted to stop right there, perhaps renounce the engagement before it ever began, but before anyone could say a word, another partner in the business politely asked this one to join him outside of the conference room. Then, in their absence, a third man maneuvered quickly to move on, as if nothing had ever happen, only explaining how soon the engagement could began and what resources their company would generously put at my disposal. A few hours later, the offending partner went to great lengths to apologize for his words, and he stressed that he really meant no harm by them. In fact, he added, he thought that he was paying me a compliment…These days, while that partner and I are not street buddies, we do maintain a solid and congenial professional relationship, and admittedly, he does work harder each day to broaden his personal perspective.
Indeed, the challenges posed by the natural inflections of my voice, as I traverse the professional world, where one’s creed or color or religion or whatever is supposedly trumped by intellectual prowess, are no less daunting than they were in the early years of my upbringing in Houma.
Dredging up these old memories and writing about this topic does actually have a purpose. Two Sundays ago, a good friend of mine asked me two troubling questions—if he sounded stupid when he spoke, and if I thought he sounded “too black”. The reason that both of these are quite troubling is that my friend, who happens to be white, holds a college degree, works in a highly-coveted profession, and ministers The Word of God to hundreds on any given week. That anyone would think his grasp on his profession or his calling are undermined by the nature inflections of his voice, or that he was even beginning to become insecure and doubt himself, was a dangerous precedent. It meant that one of the few good lights in this world—a young man whose own upbringing afforded him the ability to bring The Word to so many diverse groups—was slowly being put out by ridicule from some people’s misguided judgments. And so, while I cannot recall ever writing about this topic at any length prior to now, it seemed the right thing to do.
In this life, voices are like snowflakes. There are no two that are exactly identical, and one on its own warrants no attention, whatsoever. In fact, much like a snowflake falling to the earth, the words riding on most voices are gone and are indiscernible in the very moment that they are spoken. Therefore, whereas it would be a frivolous waste of time to focus one’s attention on the form of a single snowflake, it is too an equal waste of time to concern ourselves with the triviality of inflections. Rather, we might be better served to focus more on the messages that a voice carries, or even on the broader conversations in which it participates, for these things all matter more in the long term, and from these things we find ways to enrich and improve our lives.
Unfortunately, I have to simply admit that, while I am often idealistic, I do not expect much about this world to change quickly, particularly when it comes to the way we develop our views of it and how we judge the people, the things, and the events in it. Indeed, for as long as men continue to cast any judges based on their personal framings of the world, then it is likely that their judgments will be skewed for many generations to come. That does not sound hopeful, but it is a realistic assessment. And that also explains why something of such little importance—i.e., the natural inflections of a man’s voice—seems to be an critical measuring tool in our society.
I have, nevertheless, learned in this life that, while this world may be slow to change, I do not have to concede or cower to its expectations. I must, instead, hold fast to my own resilience, and that resilience is strengthened by two things—a confidence in my purpose and a willingness to show grace. First, no man should ever think that he is not the man that God made him to be, for we all serve a purpose in His divine order of things. That fact should grant each of us the confidence to believe in ourselves and to accept those things about ourselves that might run contrary to the ways of the world. And what’s more important, we must also understand that, while it might be easy to become angry or impatient with a world that challenges us, but that bitterness is not necessarily right. We must, instead, allow the world its own time to change, and we must trust that it will happen inevitably.
During our discussion, my friend said that he wished he could have been different, and I could only think to myself, “This is wrong.” Unfortunately, there was not anything profound and reassuring that I could have said to him to dissuade this sentiment. Of course, at the end of the day, I am confident that this man of God is not inclined to change his person, or sink into a bout of insecurity, over this trivial issue. And that is the most encouraging part of this whole matter. No matter what gets said, and no matter how stinging the judgments might feel—I have learned that you rest on the confidence to continue to be yourself, maintain the faith to proceed with your purpose, and show mercy on a world that might have a long way to go to understand you…And that’s it. That’s how this ends.