Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Inflections, Judgments, and my Journey to Understand Both

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.


Taylor Lambert said...

Gary, thank you for sending me this blog. It was very good, and I shared it with a few people in the office. I hope that you were able to convey some good insight that can help your friend. I have to say that it is very unfortunate that this was even a topic, but you handled it well, as always.

Cedrick said...

Last week my little girl came home crying and saying that people are calling her a "nerd" and "white girl", because she does well in school. I about lost my shit! We have a parent-teacher conference on Friday. Man, you don't know how timely this one is for us. Stay cool, bro.

Mashoud said...

"a lesson: even the advocates of progress cannot necessarily be sure of what that progress will look like when it meets them."

Bet they know what progress looks like now and won't forget it. Keep on taking them to task, G!

Anonymous said...

Ignorance is ignorance, and when people fear what they don't understand they lash out.

Your friend needs to remember that if God called him, then God must have loved and anointed that voice. He needs to know who he is in Christ Jesus, and he needs to just continue spreading God's word. If people don't understand, let those fools keep being ignorant. They forget that we are living in uncertain times and that God might come to them in any form to offer them salvation. They don't have a right to try to dictate what form they want. They should be happy someone cares enough to offer it.

-Kayla :-)

Jonathan Melancon said...

Mashaoud, that line stood out for me too. I wasn't really going to say anything and just leave it alone but since the line was brought up, I'll add my 2 cents.

I am really troubled with the fact that the left has hijacked the word "progressive" to fit their own narrow vision of what they see as progress. As I find them to be anything but advocates of progress and rather closed minded and intolerant. Organizations like the NAACP and NOW or not interested in the progress of the groups they claim to represent if those individuals do not conform to the organization's own "groupthink". Gary's experience, NOW's fierce opposition to Sara Palin, the fierce opposition to Clarence Thomas. These are examples that highlight the irony of their so called progressiveness.

Anonymous said...

Well said, and I think you should be defensive when you hear comments like those. That is a big part of the cultural gap our country faces, simply put, communication. No one should be judged, or placed in a particular category for speaking proper grammar. I would take it as something very deragatory. Especially when you do have a gift to articulate better than almost anyone I know, including myself. That shouldn't place you in a, "white," category. It should place you in a, "speak better than 90% of our country," category. I wish our country could get over some of these cultural barriers during my life time, but I don't know if it will.


Mashoud said...

LOL. Good point, but Jonathan, I think you are going to get us into trouble here.

mike carson said...

Being a part of the legal profession, particularly... Being a part of the legal profession, particularly in this part of the country, everyday I meet talented blacks and Hispanics who don't necessarily fit into Hollywood stereotypes of their culture. I, of course, never give this a second thought as we go about our work, but every once in a while, you hear things that make you wince. There are not just the racist comments from a few backwards people, which are to be expected, but the comments from people of the same ethnicity, alleging that another person has "forgotten where they came from". To me, both types of comments are one in the same: they are statements rooted in fear.

I should have suspected that you ran into these obstacles for yourself, Gary, particularly because you are uncommonly vocal. Even still, I am sure you know that the types of people who would make these statements are doing so because the very existence of something they don't understand suddenly makes them feel smaller and maybe less significant. Consequently, when the leader of a small-town group has a hard time envisioning a young black at the helm of a company like Axiom, it is owing to the fact that such a thing wasn't supposed to happen without his group's influence. Better than that, a business owner who casts others as less intelligent is doing so to mask his own inferiority complex. Therefore, both of these examples support Kayla's point that fear is the primary culprit for this problem, and I contend it to be a fear of obsolescence.

I applaud you for writing this for your friend, as I cannot imagine that such criticism is easy for him. In fact, for as long as there remains this implicit stereotype of black culture, I suspect that he will encounter difficulties, particularly in white communities. The truth is, we tend to also have preconceive ideas about young guys who act or speak this way, and it is less flattering than someone claiming that speaking too well is acting white. I suspect that your friend will have to unearth the versatility to communicate effectively to different groups on their different levels in order to reach them. Unfortunately, since this world is not perfect, that may be the only way he can avoid this kind of scrutiny in the future.

Anonymous said...

Some of you don't need to make this political. I don't think this post points this out to be a left issue or a right issue. It is just a statement about faulty social measurements. Just as much blaming can go to the right like the businessman as it does to the left. People need to remember that.


Digger in LV said...

Absolutely one of your best posts, Mr. Harrell. I like all of the comments too. You must have really struck a cord with people on this one.

BTW I personally love the G. Harrell pronunication of words like "Baton Rouge". Now can you say "Anamanaguchi"?


Jonathan Melancon said...

Sorry Will, but I didn't make Gary's entire blog post as a left or right issue only the hijacking of the word "progressive" by leftist political entities. Which is why I keyed in on one specific statement.

It bothers me and it should bother everyone when any political faction claims to have a monopoly on progress.

And btw, what makes you think the businessman Gary spoke of was a conservative? Could it be possible that because of preconceived notions you simply assumed since he was a business man that he must be an advocate of the right?

And if so, wouldn't that be similar to the NAACP guy assuming Gary was white and from out of town simply because he was well spoken? Although to lesser degree.

And speaking of the NAACP guy. I find it to be somewhat digressive, judgmental and hypocritical considering what the NAACP is supposed to stand for, for a guy who represents the organization to unfairly assume that because Gary was well spoken, he must not be black but rather white and from out of town since he speaks well.

But for the record I don't really have a problem with people making assumptions about others based on varying characteristics so long as those assumptions are fair and the person making the assumption is open minded and aware that their assumption can and will be wrong at times.

The problem is when we make unfair judgments and assumptions.

efos said...

First of all, let me say that I just referenced my "Guide to Being White", and nowhere does it state that proper elocution is the domain of my race. In fact, most of the people that I know are white, and the vast majority of them butcher their native tongue on a regular basis. I think this blog entry illuminates a major flaw in society as a whole. Specifically, that people shun diversity, and prefer the comfort of similarity. The average Joe/Jane has a preconceived notion of how things should be (sound/act/smell, etc.) and react strongly, and often incorrectly when something opposes that notion. In the interest of brevity, let me just say.......Ya'll know, in the South, we all talk funny!

David Tanner said...

I am a black man. I am 29 years old, and I have been to school. I pay my mortgage without a problem every month and I own my truck and my bike. I love my little boy and his momma (some of the time.) And I find it discouraging to be judged by anybody before I ever say a word or even move a muscle.

It disappoints me when I hear my own people say something that would be a self-imposed limit on what we can be. Even now with Obama as President. We worked to hard to not believe in each other now. So yes I also get how you feel, Gary.

But it is more infuriating to have some white people judge me just because they don't like or don't understand the way I look in the street. You don't know me, and just because you see my clothes or hear my music, that doesn't mean I am any less of of a man. That doesn't mean I am not an educated nurse anesthetist making a good living and trying to raise a good family just like you.

Forgive me if I don't see all of this as the same thing. They aren't the same and that's why that guy Gary talked about is having his problems. People think that because he likes black culture he must be dumb, and they base that bullshit on their "fair judgments" when we know there is nothing "fair" about any kind of judgment. I know how that guy feel to have people look at you like some kind of criminal and then claim they are being "fair". These people just need to learn to keep all their opinions to themselves.

Mashoud said...

Dave, sup, man! Of course you know that I did with it, too. People ask where am I from, and I love to see how they look when I say Atlanta, Georgia! You got that part about people's opinions right; they need to keep them to themselves. But being fair in some judgments does have a basis. I do not think anybody was saying it's okay to use fairness as a mask for prejudice.

Jonathan Melancon said...

Thank you Mashoud. You hit the nail on the head.

I never implied that fairness should be a code word for prejudice or anything of the sort. Its amazing how some can be so quick to jump to conclusions or assume things that aren't even implied. Pretty unfair if you ask me.

The truth is we ALL make judgments about others, whether or not we like to admit it. Not only is it human nature but its also an instinctual survival tactic. Isn't being a "good judge of character" a virtue? Of course it is. But, like I said, the problem is when judgments are made unfairly and judging someone based simply on the color of their skin or inflections in their voice is grossly unfair. Just as it is grossly unfair to assume that I would consider a "fair judgment" to be based on race.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Gary. It was great. Keep up the good work.

nick bailey said...

People are always going to talk and think crap about other people. That ain't nothing new. I just know that back in 2005 when we didn't have anything and nowhere to go, I am happy it was your voice that kept us sheltered and fed for weeks. I know my family will say the same.

Bridget said...

I am not one of many words, but I will not hold my tongue on this issue. Like my brother, I too have been accused of speaking like a white person. I have learned to live with this. My mother made sure that her children were educated. If someone has a problem with my voice, it is their problem.

Anonymous said...

Hey Gary..

Woooooooowwww....I love that blog....I did....I understood it..I really did...I loved how you said "voices are like snowflakes" none are the same...I could relate to it because me trying to build myself as a professional, over time my public speaking is getting better....but I appreciated you emailing that because it reassured me that the way that I talk is in fact okay and regardless of how you speak or sound you will always be cretiqued....hope your day is going well..


Christy "CeCe" Chapman

Anonymous said...

We are all the same race, the human race. What sets the human race apart from the
other animals is a developed brain and a voice box. Misused, this combination is a great
divider of humans. Used properly, a great uniter. It's nice to meet others on the high
road of humanity.

Remember: The tongue is like a sharp knife that kills without drawing blood. -- Buddah

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them
and be influenced by them for good or ill. -- Buddah

When anger takes over your heart, guard your babbling tongue. --Sappho

Bless you Gary. May you continue to shed light on those in the dark.

S.B.D. said...

Excellent post! I personally think you sound like an educated man. Hell. I know too many white people here who murder English and you don't sound anything like time. HA HA HA

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