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Monday, February 2, 2015

Microphone Check: On NPR, Race, and Code-Switching

When my husband emailed the link to an NPR news story last week, I rolled my eyes, as I usually do when he shares all things NPR with me. I'm not a fan of NPR. And it's not because I worked on commercial radio in a market where the local NPR station was competition for us. OK, it's not just because of that. No, NPR has always irritated me because of the vocal delivery of the on-air hosts and reporters. Their measured, vibrato-less speech, the vocal equivalent of wrapping oneself in a warm, but not too warm, blanket for a nap in your perfectly shabby-chic fixer Craftsman house with the assurance that everything is alright. The NPR voice has always been, for me, the voice of smugness. And so, I've rejected the NPR worldview as they report from war-torn ports of call around the globe while putting a reassuring hand on your tummy, rubbing gently and cooing, "There, there. It's OK."

So, back to the link forwarded to me by my husband. Well, the title sounded promising - "Challenging the Whiteness of Public Radio".  The author, Chenjerai Kumanyika, an African American man who is an assistant professor at Clemson University, had been putting the finishing touches on the script for a piece he'd done about fishermen, but as he was doing a final review of the piece before he recorded it, the only voice he could hear internally was what he considered to be the kind of white voice typically heard on public radio: "Without being directly told, people like me learn that our way of speaking isn't professional. And you start to imitate the standard or even hide the distinctive features of your own voice."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Throughout my life, I've been ridiculed by other African Americans for "talking white." My mom had always "talked proper", which I think was code back in the day for "talking white." Mom had been a studious child, and a voracious reader at one of the top schools in the area during segregation. Mom had occupied the hours of her childhood taking piano lessons, and watching great Hollywood movies, or visiting with her school teacher aunt who loved reading out loud. By second grade, I had transferred to a predominately white school and was also spending my free time at the piano, reading, and watching old movies with my grandmother. And so like other children, my vocal patterns mimicked my environment. 

So I wasn't aware that there was a problem until high school. My high school was about 70 percent African American. This was the first time since first grade that I was in an environment where most of the people looked like me. But, not everybody sounded like me, and so I learned that this could be a problem. I became socially isolated. It was a small school so you knew everybody, but friendships were rare for me. Mom was still over-protective and I wasn't allowed to socialize with anyone beyond the school day. So no parties, no Friday nights at the movies with my girlfriends, and definitely no sleepovers. I was missing out on first-person interactions with black culture. I relied on cable TV to educate me, with shows like "Rap City" and "Yo!MTV Raps." There were the trips to the beauty parlor and the ready supply of Ebony, Jet, Essence and Black Enterprise magazines. But even among the black women gathered for our relaxers and press and curls, my manner of speaking was either cause for laughter or alarm, though they all seemed to excuse me when they saw one of my textbooks tucked under my plastic cape, and then they'd all cluck that I was getting my education and so "talking white" was just a way of getting by and getting ahead. 

By the time I'd made it to undergrad, at another predominately white school where I was a super-minority, my fluidity in "talking white" was more muscle memory and no one made mention of it, not even the ladies at the hairdresser. All was well until just a few years after grad school when I took a job at a classical music radio station and listened to my voice on my first aircheck tape. In my head, my voice sounded deep and assertive but on-tape, it sounded leaden and overly formal. My boss coached me to smile more, get conversational and more friendly, to sound like the other women DJs on my station. Did I mention that those other women were white? What he failed to understand was that part of my on-air problem was a continual inner dialogue on race that I was having every time I opened the mic: Did I sound too black? Would the white listeners reject me for sounding black? And so I dug in, trying to hone my voice into a listener-friendly level of whiteness. This, in the days before we talked about things like code-switching. 

In the end, I failed. Anonymous listeners posted nasty comments about me, wondering if I was black and, if I was, what I was doing on a classical music station. The constant anxiety of trying to keep my black from showing distracted me from loving my job. Scrubbing every script so that my cultural references weren't too...exotic. Carefully crafting on-air smalltalk that embodied the smug familiarity of public radio. I had enough!
I remember one conversation with my former boss before we called it a day, where he was critiquing my on-air performance. He wanted me to get more comfortable, more relatable, to share my authentic self with the listeners. I didn't have an answer for him that day, but I do now. It's hard to give your authentic self when you've been suppressing so much of it for so long. I don't actually know what I really sound like. Writing this makes me so sad because that part of me - my voice - is gone and I can never reclaim it. Maybe that's why I don't listen to NPR. Maybe it's the realization that one of those highly-educated people of color reporting across the airwaves had to black-check themselves before they did their job. Maybe it's knowing that there is a cost to that behavior.