Celebrities

BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, and the Thrills and Perils of “White Voice”

In Spike Lees BlacKkKlansman, a black police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is able to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan simply by picking up the phone and cold-calling the hate group himself. A few racist epithets, a made-up backstory about his (white) sister being assaulted by a black man, and hes in. No one, not even K.K.K. Grand Wizard David Duke, has any idea that the man theyve been speaking to on the phone isnt actually white.

In Boots Rileys Sorry to Bother You, Langston (Danny Glover) advises his new colleague, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), to do something very similar. The two men are working at a call center, cold-dialing strangers to try to get them to buy whatever nonsense product theyre selling. But Cash—whos black—cant seem to get anyone to stay on the line. Hence Langston (also black), sharing this professional wisdom: “Use your white voice.”

Its more than just a certain pitch or timbre: the point, says Langston, is to sound “like you dont give a damn. Youve never been fired—just laid off.” The white voice is a fantasy of whiteness, as Langston explains it; even white people dont really live up to it. But they know that they could. “Its what they wish they sounded like, what they think theyre supposed to sound like,” he says. Its what success sounds like—with the added implication that when it comes to race, success is not meted out equally. Note that Langstons advice isnt to use your “educated black voice.” Why? Because educated, successful black people use white voice.

The next thing we know, Cash opens his mouth and the voice of a white man—David Cross—comes flying out: a monied, confident, three-piece-suit voice, an “I dont really need this job” voice, with no trace of black vernacular. Suddenly, people start taking Cashs calls. And he ascends the professional ladder accordingly.

Sorry to Bother You has more than its share of brash, humorous set pieces, visual gags, and outright laughs, but the “white voice” bit is still its best, most memorable idea—maybe because it draws its power from an old comic tradition. “White voice,” as Aisha Harris of the The New York Times recently reminded us, is a joke thats been volleyed by black performers and comedians for over a century, from whiteface minstrels of the 19th century to contemporary black comics like Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Lawrence, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, and Richard Pryor.

The obvious joke, in both Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman, is that white voice can be used to the detriment of white people—and the benefit of black people. And the implicit joke is that white voice is, itself, a universal language amongst blacks. Its a joke so common weve lulled ourselves into taking it—and our power to tell it—for granted.

But the deepest joke in BlacKkKlansman is that Stallworths white voice actually doesnt sound all that different from his normal speaking voice; his white voice is his voice. Yet because the Klan has reduced whiteness and blackness to a set of codes and stereotypes, they fall for his ruse. Thats the secret to white voice that both Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman understand: because white voice is a fiction, because its a matter of drag, anyone can try it on—even white people.

What you should sense from the outset is that though these jokes all lean on something called “white voice,” the trope contains multitudes. Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman both remind us that white voice is merely a signifier: a signature of higher status, whether of race, class, or their inevitable combination.

But then theres Richard Pryor, whose white voice bit, for my money, was probably the funniest of all. While every variation of white voice makes white people uncomfortable, Pryors flips the voices power on its head. He makes white voice into a token of white inferiority—of white fear.

“I love when white dudes get mad and cuss,” Pryor joked, in his Live in Concert set from 1978. “Cuz yall are some funny motherfuckers when you cuss. Like, they be saying shit like, Yeah, come on, peckerhead.” With this, his eyes widen and his head bobbles. He takes on the posture and drawl of a John Wayne clone gone wrong, which is its own powerful reference: in America, the power rankings of white mythic superiority dont put much above John Wayne. In Pryors hands, that power becomes a limp-dicked imitation of itself.

Its a joke predicated on pointing out everything that white people arent. Heres Pryor: fast on his feet, dripping with jive, with a take-no-prisoners tongue thats lightning-quick with wit and wielded like a lash. Now here, according to Pryor, is the white guy: spineless, slow, lacking any modicum of cool. He cant even curse right. (“Cut the fuckin crapola,” Pryor says, in full-on white voice, earlier in the bit.)

Pryors white voice is a true minority in-joke—one told not to make white people uncomfortable, but without much regard for their comfort to begin with. White people are not the imagined audience for this particular riff. Pryors white voice is the voice one would use to mock white people behind their backs. By performing it on the stage, he in effect doubles down on the exclusivity of the joke; hearing it, a white audience has no choice but to take offense, or laugh along at their own expense.

That clarifies the risk of these jokes in our modern context, awash as it is in debates over the uses and abuses of offensive humor. The common defense is that jokes like “white voice” are acceptable because they punch up: they ridicule the people in power (in this case, white people), rather than compounding the humiliation and social injury of people who lack that power. White-voice jokes are for people who dont believe in reverse racism—for people who dont believe that, say, blackface and whiteface, or imitating white people vs. black people, are morally equivalent.

Fair as this may be, it almost concedes one tricky point: if punching up is a matter of calculating who has the power and can thus afford to be made the butt of a joke, its also implicitly predicated on the powerful having so much power that the joke simply doesnt matter. Except: great comedy, comedy that punches up, has a way of exposing that power for the weak, vulnerable posture that it truly is. Hence the complexities of another white people joke: white tears.

So what happens when the powerful cant take the joke—a joke about white voice, white tears, male tears, “Ban all men,” a joke made at the expense of straight or cisgender people? We get something like the recent drama over past tweets by newly hired New York Times columnist Sarah Jeong, who was subject to a right-wing campaign online that ripped years of Twitter jokes about white people out of context to present them as, at worst, actionable calls for violence against white people. The uproar reminded me of a certain freedom many of us seem to have taken for granted: our ability to make jokes at the powerfuls expense—to laugh at them collectively, communally, as people at the margins.

Unlike Pryors audience, Jeongs couldnt be assumed to “get” her tweets, to remember the source and history of every verbal jab—which were made in the spirit of someone trying to troll online trolls. In the Twitter era, we can no longer pretend that our audience is in on the joke. As Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker has rightly reminded us, that audience is always much more vast than we imagine. Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman are, in that sense, instructive: some wont laugh, but tell the joke anyway.

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