‘Sorry to Bother You’ and the White Voice: An Important Distinction

July 18, 2018


If you have not yet seen the recent directorial debut of Boots Riley, “Sorry to Bother You”, you are most definitely missing out. 


The film, which he declares is “an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism in science fiction” acts as a heavy criticism of the very fabrics of a capitalist society.  This is just a cursory analysis though, as the 1 hour and 45-minute film leaves you a lot to think and overthink about beyond just a standard theme.  One of these things to think about is a very important distinction made during a conversation in the film between Langston (played by Danny Glover) and Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield).


In the conversation, Langston tries to explain to Cassius how to get ahead in the job by using his “white voice.”  At first, Cassius doesn’t see the point, as people tell him he talks white all the time.  This is a situation that many American Black people experience.  Cassius doesn’t speak AAVE or African American Vernacular English, at least not by default (he may code switch with his friends from time to time).  When Cassius is assumed to “speak white” it’s an assumption made with the connection between white people and proper speech which whether intentional or not, is harmful. 


Langston continues to educate Cassius and tells him the distinction.  He says the white voice isn’t like “Will Smith white” that’s just speaking proper.  The white voice is a sort of cadence in which you speak.  The carefree nature attributed to being a part of the societal majority and is something you can pick up in the voice, allegedly.  Langston tells him to speak like his bills are paid and everything is going well in his life.  The resulting voice is what would make him more approachable and patrons more willing to listen to him.


So if you’re not paying close attention this message can get lost.  Essentially this means there is a dialect which would be that of AAVE or Ebonics, the Standard English speech (Will Smith white), and the white voice cadence which the upper crust white people speak with.  The latter of the three forming as the basis for the concept of “Sorry to Bother You.”


In an interview with Vice Stanfield went on to further explain the voice, “The voice itself represents more of a feeling.  A positioning in society... something that is the opportunity mostly afforded in this country, to white people,” he continued, “one can be white and put on the white voice, it isn’t race specific.”


In an interview on the Breakfast Club with the cast of “Sorry to Bother You,” DJ Envy detailed his early experiences in telemarketing.  He talked about shortening his name from RaaShaun to “Shaun” as well as putting on his white voice.  However, both Omari Hardwick and Terry Crews who star in the film gave their own experiences with the white voice.  Interestingly enough, they both claimed they haven’t had to use theirs in their careers to get where they are.  Which is how it should be.  Because for many people of color in America, the white voice is a very real thing.


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