Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #7: #RachelJeantel asks: Are you Listening?

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation  [German Klatsch, from klatschento gossip, make a sharp noiseof imitative origin.] (

Dear Readers:  Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question was inspired by Regina Bradley, SO! regular, as a follow up to her recent post, “To Sir, With Ratchety Love: Listening to the (Dis)Respectability Politics of Rachel Jeantel” as well as Rachel Jeantel’s now famous question to George Zimmerman’s defense attorney: “Are you listening?”Bradley’s post provoked us to consider how “[Rachel Jeantel’s]  emotionally charged question ‘are you listening?’  jolted not only West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?” Let’s do our best to listen, to think, and to answer these questions to the best of our knowledge.  —JSA

Today’s SOCK: How do racial ideologies impact listening practices?

Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.


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8 responses to “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #7: #RachelJeantel asks: Are you Listening?”

  1. Liana Silva says :

    As I was out and about today, this week’s SOCK question was in the back of my mind. Two things kept on coming back to me, and I think they connect to Aaron’s question in his comment below ( The first thing that came to mind was how important it is for Latinos and Latinas to be visible *and* audible in academia. I have been in situations where I was the only person of color in a classroom–and I was the person at the front of the room. I am aware that, like Aaron, I sound a certain way when I am teaching or presenting at a conference–and I am also aware that I pay close attention to the way I sound when I am in an academic setting. But this week’s question made me think about how often Latinos and Latinas feel the pressure to either erase the accent in their speech or explain why they *don’t* have an accent. I have lost count the number of times people have said I don’t have an accent or that I don’t “sound” Puerto Rican. I used to brush off their “attempt” at a conversation with a chuckle, but in the last few years, ever since I started to think critically about sound and race, that statement weighs a lot heavier on me. And so the same way academia needs more Latinos and Latinas as faculty and as administrators, we also need to break with the idea that well-educated Latinos and Latinas sound a certain way.

    The other point that I kept on thinking about today was something I hadn’t thought about in a long time, something more personal. I grew up in the countryside in Puerto Rico, and even though I was a smart, well spoken student, when I went away to college in the capital (San Juan) I often heard remarks from people about how I sounded. Specifically, they would say they could “tell” I was from the country (“de la isla”) because of my slang or because of a certain word choice or because of how I pronounced something. Those comments often came with a not-so-subtle hint of mockery. I became very self-conscious about my speech and internalized to a certain extent the sonic discourse about class but also race. (It’s never just about class in Puerto Rico…) So, going back to Aaron’s question, passing for me, as a first-generation college student who moved to the city from the country, was directly related to sound: I had to learn how to sound a certain way in order to make sure that I was heard by not just my peers but also my professors…


    • Robin James (@doctaj) says :

      Liana & Aaron, your posts have me thinking about how, now that I’m explicitly in the South, I audibly slide around within whiteness. It’s not something I do in Chicago (where my partner’s family live, and where I went to school), and it’s something I rarely do in Cincinnati (where I learned it–the on-the-border-ness of the Nati means that some white ppl talk with mainly Appalachian drawls, and some are more neutral, and this can but doesn’t perfectly or necessarily map on to class..Everyone but my nuclear family lived in Kentucky, so I grew up with both sorts of models/influences), but I often do it in Charlotte.

      I think I use sonic class-inflected whiteness to deal with gender and misogyny (obv bc of white supremacy I don’t have to use it to deal w racism). I don’t really “look” like a tenured philosophy professor, and pretty much anywhere I’m not on campus, telling people what I do leads to a lot of incredulity. So, perfoming my drawl can be a way to moderate anxieties/cognitive dissonance. Or, if I’m at a traditionally gendered situation, performing my drawl reaffirms my femininity whereas speaking like I”m from the proper Midwest butches me up a bit.

      Huh, I hand’t consciously reflected on that. I’ll have to think more about it.


    • Aaron Trammell says :

      Thanks for sharing, Liana! Your story makes me think even more that there is something going on at the intersections of race and class with the sounds of our voices. I wonder if our voices code primarily our social class and background which is then decoded as race by listeners?

      On a separate level, I bring up the NJ thing, because in a more comical way (but no less discriminatory), I get “you don’t sound like you’re from Jersey” all the time. Fortunately though, Jersey is only really the object of discrimination in South Park, Colorado, so it’s cool to laugh that one off 😉


  2. Robin James (@doctaj) says :

    In my Philosophy of Music class last month we were talking about the possible disjunction between affect & implicit understanding when non-white identities or cultural practices are appropriated by whites. Affect would be the _feeling_ associated with a musical/sonic practice, implict understanding would be the bodily, haptic, pre/non-conscious knowledge that the affect embodies. Affects are more fungible than implicit knowledges are; we were thinking the latter are more strongly connected to specific historical/cultural contexts. For example, a white rapper could use black American English dialectal tropes, and perform the affects without necessarily having much/any sense of the implicit understanding that goes along with them.

    “Race” can be a lot of things and work a lot of ways, but if you follow Linda Martin Alcoff’s account of race as an “interpretive horizon” or, in my terms, a horizon of implicit understanding, then this sort of cultural appropriation could be seen as a kind of assimilation or cultural violence or deracination, maybe.

    But then how does one listen so that one can hear affect but not hear the implicit knowledge that goes with it? You’d think that you’d have to also have the contextual understanding embedded in those implicit knowledges to “get” the affective practices. What would a sonic epistemology of ignorance be? How would it work?


  3. Aaron Trammell says :

    Listening is a funny thing. It always has an alibi. Try to pin a particular set of ideological nuances on a friends listening practices, and they will likely attempt to dissuade you of them. This isn’t to say that the ideology isn’t there, but it is to say that it may not be the sort of thing that is articulated by the listener.

    Once again, this Klatsch puts me in a strange place, as I don’t want to generalize past the my own experience. So I’ll just say one thing, and I’ll make it personal. As someone who identifies as both white and black, and also experiences the phenomenon of “passing” fairly frequently (for anything, really, it depends on the crowd I show up with), I feel that my voice is used, almost as a rule, as a means to determine who I am.

    I’m an academic, right? I throw GRE words around like money. And even though I speak with a New Jersey accent, I don’t pronounce “coffee,” “cAWfee.” My point is that through the act of speech I sound more-or-less “upper middle class,” and what tends to be heard as “white.”

    I’m almost certain that this is what prompts people to code me as “white,” when I open my mouth to place an order, ask for directions, or introduce myself to a colleague. This is an example of the “sonic color-line” that Jennifer mentioned in this Klatsch, but I want to raise one additional question in this thread: I guess I’m wondering, for better or worse, does anyone else have a similar experience?


  4. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    Race and listening is a subject I think and write on daily–and I believe each have a PROFOUND impact on the other. In fact, I have come to believe that sound is a primary way in which race operates in the U.S. and that we are socialized to understand race (both our own and that of others) through a “sonic color-line” that is conditioned and enforced, by the listening ear of white expectations, norms, and ideas about respectability, as Regina’s post has so deftly amplified this week.

    As I am fairly sure George Zimmerman’s defense attorneys know, one of the many impacts of the Othering of Rachel Jeantel and Trayvon Martin (sonic and otherwise) has been to heighten the image of George Zimmerman as rights-bearing American citizen who acted in his own self interests and in the interests of the law (there being a naturalized affinity there for white men). While we have, importantly, parsed out and attempted to understand on a very deep level the gendered/classed “blackness” of Jeantel and Martin–and how it is heard and constructed on a sonic level– I also think it would do us well to think about the patriarchal “whiteness” of Zimmerman and the way it can be heard in court and on the 911 call.

    Since being unable to escape listening to those tapes last February–one of the ways in which race impacts listening is that the American news media feels it can play the sound of a black teenager dying as a ratings-gathering sound effect–I have been struck repeatedly and very deeply by the tone of Zimmerman’s voice: the calmness, the certainty, the conspiratorial quality (as if the 911 operator were a co-worker), not to mention the coldness in his voice when describing Trayvon. When George Zimmerman, called that 911 operator, he expected to be heard, believed, and supported–NO MATTER WHAT–and that he was justified in any and all of his actions based solely on whom he perceived Trayvon to be (and where he perceived him to “belong”). The grain of his voice betrays this certainty, this authority, this centrality–and reveals the sonic constructions and codes of whiteness–its powers and its membership privileges–particularly its immediate lived connection to American citizenship.

    The speaking attitude of Zimmerman finds its analogue in the listening attitude of Michael Dunn, the man who killed the 17 year old Jordan Davis at a Florida gas station just 125 miles and 9 months away from Zimmerman’s murder of Martin. Like Zimmerman’s self-policing of the Sanford, Fl neighborhood, Dunn took it upon himself to police the soundscape of a gas station in Jacksonville. Thinking the music emanating from a jeep driven by a black teenager and his friends “too loud,” he decided it was his right and his duty to demand that the young men turn their radio down or off. Never mind that a gas station is a quasi-public space where people of all kinds listening to musics of all sorts pass by each other in moments–or that gas stations often pump their own music loudly into the air–it was Dunn who felt that he understood, represented, and embodied the “normal standards” of sound in public space and that the gas station’s shared soundscape should be tuned to his listening ear’s expectations and desires (in regards to musical genre and volume). And Dunn understood it to be his right to act on these perceptions and enforce these sonic boundaries–as both a white man and an assumed representative of the “public” interest–walking over to the young men, demanding they turn their music down (rather than leaving or tolerating the music until the young men left). It was undoubtedly his belief that he would be listened to and believed NO MATTER WHAT that contributed to his murder of Davis, who sat unarmed in the back seat of the teen’s jeep, and Dunn’s claim of “self defense” in a situation that was entirely of his own making. In both of these cases, sound and listening are not only key to understanding racial identity, but they actively construct it and shape ideas about which types of bodies belong in which spaces (and why).

    The fact that there has been little attention paid to the problematic sonics of Zimmerman and Dunn–and so much to Trayvon’s suffering, Jeantel’s multilingual testimony, and Davis’s music–perhaps speaks the loudest about the importance of understanding how race and listening mutually impact each other.


  5. Reina Prado says :

    The question “what were we listening for?” is provocative especially how it plays out in the arena of justice and politics. The exchange between Rachel Jeantel and Zimmerman’s attorney implies that the “system” can only hear particular ways of speaking. The constant phrasing of “we can’t understand you” sets up how affluence racializes listening practices. I saw this again in the Frontline piece “Rape in the Fields” where the women of Evans Apple Orchard filed rape charges against one of their employees. The jury dismissed their testimonies because “they couldn’t understand them”. Them: immigrant women, laborers who are perceived to have no rights. Them: who don’t speak English that is familiar to one’s ears. Them: mujeres of another country.

    Then there’s the one who doesn’t speak out. Here, I’m thinking of Justice Clarence Thomas whom we never hear on the bench. Yet, he was quite outspoken when he recently concurred with the Court’s decision to overturn Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. ( I bring up Justice Thomas because there’s an opportunity to discuss how listening informs how we hear race through particular phrases. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas “controversy” is really one of the few times we hear Thomas speak. When he challenged Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment he responded with ”a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.”( The discussion about how he harassed her created a series of phrases that became part of our lexicon and perpetuated already racialized imaginings of sexual conduct by black people. When he got confirmed to be the next Supreme Court Justice, we really haven’t heard much from him.

    What are we listening for? also plays out in popular media. A recent piece posted on Slate Magazine, brings up the point about Tonto’s character’s “halted speech”. ( This is what the American public came to recognize going hand-in-hand with the “indian” character of the series Lone Ranger. Joanna Hearne, a professor of English at the University of Missouri states, “Silverheels’ Tonto didn’t have power to articulate his point of view in a way that had any eloquence with the viewing public. It didn’t reflect the eloquence of indigenous people and it certainly didn’t reflect the knowledge embedded in the language systems of indigenous people.

    I’ve been thinking much about how we listen and how it informs our ways of seeing, particularly after working on a piece for SO! on a concept of “sonic brownface”. The Zimmerman case makes more prominent that questions of gender and class are also at play on how we hear as well.


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