I give great phone. Chalk it up to the fact that I spent many a summer afternoon as a child hanging around whatever office my mom was working in at the time, thus eavesdropping on several different types of professional “phone voices,” that my mom could slip into as the situation allowed.
Disgruntled hotel guest? Her voice was low, comforting and affirming. Every syllable pronounced like she was paying very close attention. A contractor who didn’t finish his work on time? Her delivery was sharp but never nasally or high-pitched.
I was expected to affect the same manner of speech when answering our phone at home, “Hello, Andrews residence” not “Haaaaaay Guuuuurl!!!” Most people would recognize that as common damn sense and good manners but when it comes to the weird ways in which people think they can sniff out someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation and etc. by any means other than firsthand knowledge, “speaking well” is sometimes tantamount to selling out — i.e., “talking white.”
There are code words that black folk, and probably a lot of communities of color, look out for when others want to compliment our ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. “She speaks so well,” is chief among them. It was lobbed at Barack Obama more than once during his first run for president and my friend Lynette Clemetson wrote about it for the New York Times in an article called, “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.”
On any given day, in any number of settings, it is likely to be one of the first things white people warmly remark about Oprah Winfrey; Richard Parsons, chief executive of Time Warner; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Deval Patrick, the newly elected governor of Massachusetts; or a recently promoted black colleague at work.
But somewhere in there, besides the condescension, is the idea that those blacks that can “speak so well” are also somehow disguising themselves in order to slip into a secret society of articulate folks otherwise known as white people. And you know what? Sometimes that’s kind of the case, like when you’re talking to the insurance guy over the phone and you don’t want some rate to go up. But sometimes it’s just what happens when you’re, you know, just talking.
Recently writer Cassandra Jackson wrote about how hard it was for her to find a nanny all because of how she sounded. Over the phone, her interviews went well, but when it came time for the nannies to show up in person they got more melanin than they bargained for.
They looked terribly flustered when I announced that I was indeed the person that they had spoken with by phone. Some recovered from the shock. Others sat nervously peeping at every photo frame in the house to figure out if my husband was black too. One quickly announced that she would be raising her hourly pay rate. This happened so many times that I briefly entertained the idea of announcing my race on the phone.
Isn’t that cray cray? Can you imagine being so frustrated by “accidentally passing for white” that you considered started ever phone conversation with, “Hey there, this is Helena? The black lady? Right. I’d like to order a No. 2.” I can. It sounds ridic but I’ve totally been there.
Once, a comedian I was interviewing about roasting the president at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner kept referring to “the blacks” in a whispered conspiratorial way that let me know he thought I wasn’t one of them. Stunned, I just kept asking my questions.
Then this other time a driver I’d hired over the phone to chauffeur me around South Carolina during the last presidential election was stunned when I walked up to the sign that clearly said my name. “You’re Ms. Andrews?” he asked. “The reporter? From Washington? D.C.?” Yes, yes, yes and yes.
The whole thing sounds very “high class problem” when you consider most of the people who complain about it: presidents, college grads, people interviewing nannies. But it speaks to this larger issue of identity disambiguation that I found fascinating. All of us think we know exactly who we’re looking at, talking to and feeling up, but do we really? It’s comforting to think we have black-dar, gay-dar, and any homing device that let’s us know where the baddies are.
All of this came to head for me back in 2005 when while working at the New York Times in Washington, I would regularly get a call from an editor from New York named “Janice.” To me she sounded like a mix between a woman with a very bad cold or a man with butterflies in his throat. After months of being confused I asked my boss, “Is Janice a man or a woman?”
My boss looked at me and said, “What does it matter?” Then she explained that Janice was born Jack and that a memo went out to the entire staff before I got there. After I finished patting myself on the back, I realized my newfound knowledge was pretty useless. What did it matter? Janice couldn’t pass for normative as easily as I could over the phone, but neither had she raised some alarm. She doesn’t sound like a woman, batten down the hatches!
All this has got me to thinking about the tricks our senses can play on the rest of our allegedly tolerant brain. How many times have I unwittingly revealed someone else’s prejudice by just showing up and how many times has someone done the same to me?
Like the time I was in Paris and asked an Asian woman where the Metro was. I figured she was a tourist. She answered back in perfectly accented French.