I'm Not Sorry to Bother You
If you are a person of color or have seen the satirical film Sorry to Bother You, (or both) you’re familiar with the term “white voice” also known as code switching. It is the colloquial lacking and higher pitch voice people of color, particularly black people, use when they are in a situation primarily surrounded by white people in order to fit in or seem less threatening. Cassius, the main character of Sorry to Bother You, discovers while working at a call center that if he uses his “white voice” he is able to retain the attention of his caller longer and thus become more successful in his business. His phrase “Sorry to bother you” opens up the satirical idea of him apologizing for bothering people with his very existence.
Unlike the Cassius, I learned how to code switch early in life, as I tried to navigate how to express myself. I grew up on playgrounds in Brooklyn and Manhattan, surrounded by a diverse group of kids. I never noticed the way I spoke, until family members began to point it out to me. They’d screw up their faces when I popped my tongue or if I said “okaaaaaaaay” instead of “okay”. On the bus, my mother would correct my “y’all” to “you” or pinch my ear for sucking my teeth too loudly. All of these things were their Pavlovian way of saying “don’t do that here”. It taught me that existing in the way that felt most natural to me was inherently wrong, and not to be done outside of our home or community.
Growing up, I’ve struggled with the concept of “white voice.”:; I have one. I use it every single day at work. And every time I put it on, it feels like I’m stepping onto a stage, performing to entertain someone who doesn’t even realize that I have to give them a show. It makes me feel dirty, like I’m hiding myself in order to convince this person that I’m worthy of being respected. Why is something as natural as the pitch of my voice enough to dictate the way I deserve to be treated? Why is it that if I use words that someone else doesn’t understand, I’m somehow the one that’s ignorant?
Using my white voice also often makes me feel like a traitor to the black community. How could I say I was an empowered black woman, when every day at work I was folding into myself out of fear of being deemed “ghetto”? In a generation of strong black voices being seen and heard more often, was I not weak for not challenging this one dilemma? I often hear my black peers tell one another that we can’t succumb to the pressure. That it is our job to showcase our natural selves, everyone else be damned.
But the sad truth is white voice is an unfortunate tool of survival for people of color. The reality is, until we live in a country that doesn’t punish black people for simply existing in ways that make white people feel uncomfortable, we will feel the need to edit ourselves in order to be safe. Code switching is just one of the many forms of silencing people of color in order for others to feel “safe.” We straighten our hair before job interviews to seem more professional. We check dress codes for parties to see if Air Force 1s and Timbs are banned, because if those are allowed, then it’s attracting the wrong crowd. We turn down our music if it’s playing too loudly in an unfamiliar neighborhood. We don’t hang out too late at night alone in large groups.
These unspoken rules are passed down to us in order to keep us safe, to help us move forward in the world without upsetting the status quo. But I will no longer apologize for trying to exist in a world that’s scared of me before I even open my mouth. And if my tone is too low, my laugh too loud, my slang too strange and unfamiliar to you, I’m not sorry. I am not sorry to bother you.
About the Author
Iyana Jones is starting her graduate program in Media Studies with New School. She found her passion for writing in high school for writing for the school paper and now has expanded her interests to lifestyle, pop culture, and identity. Her goal is to write as the missing first generational black female voice she wish she had found earlier in life. Outside of writing, she's likely to be found feeding stray cats or watching bad MTV shows unironically. You can read more of her work on her blog here.