In Sorry to Bother You, the wily satirical debut feature from Boots Riley, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lands a job at a telemarketing company, where the first rule is "Stick to the script." He stumbles during his first few calls, unable to connect with the strangers on the other end of the line — that is, until an older colleague named Langston (Danny Glover) shares some advice: "Use your white voice."
Riley renders this affectation literally in Sorry to Bother You, dubbing white actors' voices over the black faces on screen, including David Cross, of Arrested Development fame, for Stanfield.
In doing so, Riley offers a zany twist on the performance of whiteness by black actors, a tradition stretching back hundreds of years: As long ago as the New World, enslaved and free blacks participated in dramatized communal appropriation of "white-identified gestures, vocabulary, dialects, dress or social entitlements," as Marvin McAllister writes in his book Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African-American Performance. These performances were in public and private spaces, sometimes on a theatrical stage or in the form of a leisurely stroll in the street alongside white people.
Vocal imitation in particular has proved an especially fruitful creative choice, and is often as subversive as it is in Sorry to Bother You. Below, a look at some of the notable ways black performers have used the "white voice" in popular culture.
In an episode of the '90s sitcom Martin, a plumber dies suddenly while fixing Martin's toilet. The plumber remains in the bathroom for hours because the authorities do not view the incident as an emergency — "They said if there's no crime, there's no rush," Martin (Martin Lawrence) explains to his friends and girlfriend — and he believes the reason is that he lives in a less affluent, predominantly black part of town. After exhausting all other options, he tries calling 911 again, this time in a manner connoting whiteness (overenunciation; emphasis on a hard "r"), giving his name to the operator as Thurston O'Reilly III.
The person on the other end of the line asks Martin to prove that he is white, quizzing him on topics that only white people are supposed to know: America's favorite pie, Barry Manilow song titles, the ideal sandwich condiment. With help from his friends, Martin supplies the appropriate answers to the first two questions, but the guise is ruined when Cole (Carl Anthony Payne II) snatches the phone and responds to the third query in his "black" voice, with a "black" answer. The operator promptly hangs up.
Martin's attempt to sound white and the operator's reaction shrewdly emphasize how the perception of whiteness grants a measure of access often closed to people of color. The episode also slyly suggests that while cultural differences do exist, black people, by virtue of being in a minority group in America, should understand white people as much as possible; their comfort and livelihood depend on it.
An element of the trickster persona underlies this premise and others: "White Like Me," Eddie Murphy's 1984 sketch on Saturday Night Live, in which he adopts whiteface and an uptight speaking style for a day; the 2004 movie White Chicks, in which two black FBI agents who are brothers go undercover as white sisters; and BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee's forthcoming feature based on the true story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white racist over the phone.
Unlike Martin, these characters mostly manage to pull off the ruse, and when they do, it is simultaneously gratifying and mortifying. The black characters make fools of the racist whites without selling out: They are disguised not because they are ashamed of themselves, but because they are out on a mission. Yet the treatment they receive when perceived to be white only further emphasizes the systemic disparities they regularly encounter because they are black.
In a 1984 Vanity Fair profile, Whoopi Goldberg talked about her difficulties getting cast in dinner theaters early in her career. In the interview, she said she was often told, "You are good, but our economy rides on people coming to see what they expect. And they are not expecting you." This is what led her to create The Spook Show, her breakthrough one-woman act that eventually found its way to Broadway retitled as Whoopi Goldberg.
In it, she subverted expectations of the kinds of characters a female black actor could portray, morphing into 13 different personalities, including "the surfer chick" who talks in an exaggerated California teenager style — an abundance of "likes," "okays" and upspeak. As McAllister points out in Whiting Up, there was nothing about the recorded stage performance that explicitly renders Goldberg's surfer chick white — viewing her as such arises from the audience's assumptions about the limitations of blackness.
Goldberg would adapt this character for NBC's short-lived 1985 variety series, Television Parts. In one segment, she wears a boyish Hawaiian shirt and her signature dreadlocks, standing in stark contrast to the white, blond women in bathing suits who flank her. In another, the extras are predominantly white as well. In each instance, Goldberg challenges and expands our ideas of blackness by conjuring up an audible signifier typically identified with whiteness.
What it means to be black has frequently been defined and scrutinized by those who are not black, particularly through the performance of blackface. Adapting a white voice as a black performer, then, is sometimes a deliberate attempt to turn the gaze back on white culture. In her viral video "S--- White Girls ... Say to Black Girls," comedian and activist Franchesca Ramsey dons a blond wig and talks like Goldberg's surfer chick, calling attention to the uncomfortable interactions she has had with white women.
Two decades before Ramsey's video, Sir-Mix-a-Lot's hit Baby Got Back took a similar approach: The rapper's then-girlfriend, Amylia Dorsey-Rivas, who is black and Latina, narrated the song's opening, in which a woman criticizes another woman's body for its curves. "I mean, gross, look," Dorsey-Rivas says, in a voice she would recall as inspired by the Paris Hilton-types she grew up around in Seattle. "She's just so ... black!" (In the song's video, Dorsey-Rivas' voice is dubbed over that of a female white actor.)
Ramsey's video and Baby Got Back are critiquing the dominant value system. Ramsey imitates a white person attempting black slang ("Holler!") while claiming to appreciate those who are not "stereotypical, like, black"; Dorsey-Rivas' narration precedes Sir-Mix-a-Lot's ode to the derriere her character loves to hate. Both deftly unpack the absurdity of a white culture that simultaneously fetishizes, and is repulsed by, blackness.
In his 2000 comedy special Killin' Them Softly, Dave Chappelle uses observational humor to point out how whiteness translates to an exclusive version of freedom. He describes how his friend Chip manages to get out of a speeding ticket — or potentially worse fate — because he is white. Chappelle has two distinct voices for Chip and the police officer who pulls them over: The officer gets a high-pitched, nasal Southern drawl reminiscent of cinematic small-town sheriffs. Chip, on the other hand, evinces a calm, if slightly nerdy, demeanor when he tells the officer, "I didn't know I couldn't do that."
Chip embodies Langston's definition of the white voice in Sorry to Bother You. That voice, he explains to Cassius, is not so much about timbre as it is about a feeling — a carefree nature that comes with having your bills paid. "You've never been fired," Langston says. "Just laid off."
Once Cassius taps into his inner "white voice," he quickly becomes a power caller, negotiating deals with the world's wealthiest people. At the office, power callers must use their white voices at all times. But this begins to take a toll on Cassius as he becomes privy to the company's evils. The affectation becomes a symbol of conformity, and worse, a betrayal of self.