From the first time Phillip C. McGraw, Ph.D.—better known as “Dr. Phil”—appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1998, dropping lines like, “My dad used to say, boy, don’t let yer alligator mouth overload yer hummin’ bird ass,” I was hooked. That accent! That no-nonsense, Southern sauce! From what fount of otherworldly knowledge did Phil drink? An insecure teen, gnawing and thrashing my way through high school’s convoluted social milieu (not to mention the murky waters of multiraciality), Dr. Phil’s frank, accented approach to life’s difficulties appeared as a god-send. It didn’t matter much what Dr. Phil was actually saying or whether his words when strung together formed logical thoughts, it was more the way he said things that affected me so. His deep, sing-songy lilt—preachy and avuncular—brought to mind a grandpappy smoking a pipe, whose wisdom was drawn from a hard day’s farmin’, not a god-forsaken textbook.
With Oprah’s endorsement, the Cult of Phil grew fast and strong. Dr. Phil became a national figure–the corporate media’s version of a public intellectual and my own personal hero. His daytime talk show provided him with a regular platform from which to dispense more of that golden, “Texan-dipped” advice, as The New York Times put it. Selling over 2 million copies, his 2003 classic Self Matters began the onslaught of McGraw-family oeuvre, including several by his wife, Robin, and son, Jay–the face of Phil’s teen self-help brand. Not just a sage, Dr. Phil’s commitment to the McGraw family brand let us know he walked the walk. As evidenced by Dr. Phil’s opening credits, which feature behind-the-scenes glimpses of Mr. and Mrs. McGraw canoodling and his smiley next of kin, this family was for real. They loved and laughed together while cross-promoting each other’s book projects. Teenage Me wondered, did white people get better than this?
Today, Dr. Phil’s star, and my admiration for him, have faded significantly, but one thing remains the same. Ever since I can remember, my older sister and I have communicated almost exclusively via over-the-top, celebrity impersonations and Dr. Phil became a particular mainstay; even now, we religiously observe the maintenance of the Phil “voice.” Pre-Phil, I can recall my sister addressing me in a raspy, befuddled tone startlingly akin to the Keanu Reeves of yesteryear. Not soon after Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure became a permanent piece of our home VHS library, Reeves’ trademark method of delivering lines amidst staggered, nonsensical pauses became an obsessive, sisterly tick. “Dude, shut the door when you pee” she might say, staring blankly at me and cocking her head abruptly to the side.
The use of certain impersonations shifted with the ebb and flow of popular culture’s somewhat predictable tide, depending on whose video was “TRL’s” most requested or whose face most frequently graced the cover of TV Guide. I rehearsed George Herbert Walker Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” campaign ad in front of the stained glass mirror adjacent to the family room television; after that, it was all about Phil Hartman’s witty and endearing impersonation of Bill Clinton.
It went on that way until Dr. Phil’s shit blew up, and everything became solidified–as if, finally, my sister and I had found our one true voice. With age, I came to understand that Phil wasn’t the prophetic genius I’d hoped he was and that our compulsive Phil-talk was an oddity, to say the least. I began to wonder why, even as adults, we continued to embarrass ourselves in public and take such pains to text each other in mock-“Texan” (thank goodness for smart phones’ “add word” function).
It’s actually quite common for people to adopt alternate voices or speech patterns. Take, for example, child-directed speech (“babytalk”) or pet-directed speech. Both are customized forms of vocal communication or “prosodic modification,” which, while differing dramatically from normative adult speech in their intonation and grammatical structure, are considered customary forms of address. In fact, cross-linguistic studies show that babytalk and pet-directed speech are common across other European languages, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. As such, parents and pet owners can rest well knowing that prosodic modification of the child and dog varieties are nearly universal human ticks. Unfortunately, research into child- and pet-directed speech didn’t provide much insight into the unique phenomenon of “Phil-talk.” I had hoped to find other accounts in the literature, a history of similar episodes that might lift the shroud of tomfoolery, explain it away as all too common or evidence of psychological disorder x, y or z, something treatable with an esoteric name.
While at this point in my life Phil-talk is more or less an asinine charade, it continues to function as a key component of our familiar vernacular. Interestingly, when re-visiting the many impersonations that have come to define our adolescent years (the Keanu years, the Bush Sr. years, the Phil years), one thing becomes clear: all the voices we’ve adopted have been those of white, male, cultural standard-bearers (Ironically, Keanu Reeves also happens to be Hapa, though I never knew as much. His breakout role as “Ted” helped to popularize the “California dude” archetype). Additionally, I should note, that at no time did any female impersonations enter my repertoire. If you’re going to gain a voice, better make it a male one, no? The racial and gender dissonance that Phil-talk begets drives the urge to perform it.
From an early age, my mother would tell me tales of her sacrifice—how hard she worked when she came to this country and how difficult life could be in 1960s post-war South Korea—all in a voice with barely a shred of mispronunciation or foreign intonation. My father, a second-generation Swiss-Italian American, scrupulously corrected her syntactical missteps and any other vocal nuances that sounded un-American. It was important to my mother to succeed as an American, and most importantly, that her children succeed too. The pressure I felt to make her content was borderline unbearable. When I started doing the voices, it made my mother happy. She sometimes tried joining in, attempting to mimic key Phil phrases like, “You have gawt to get reee-al,” but to no avail. “You do it better than me,” she’d say, “…my accent.”
When I was young, people looked at me and asked, “what are you?” OR “where are you from?” “America,” I would say. “I’m an American.” These questions were provoked by the racial ambiguity of my mixed-race heritage–the hint of Asianness that marked me as something else. I could not change the shape of my eyes, the contour of my cheeks or the fact that my mother was Korean. But, I could try my hardest to act and sound like an American. Phil-talk became a way to obscure the Asianness, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did, in fact, belong.
Rather than being merely a childhood performance of celebrity impersonations, I have come to think these various chapters were actually an attempt to perform sonic whiteness. Whether it was Keanu’s California dude cadence, George Bush Senior’s waspy nasality, or Phil’s prolonged Texan twang, I tried to perform in what Aja Martinez defines as “white voice” in her article “‘The American Way’: Resisting the Empire of Force and Color-Blind Racism” (593). She talks about Latino/a students using a “white voice” at school because they equate it with the voice of higher education, but I am really using it here as an explicit racial performance. As a a half Korean, half Euro-American teen girl (now woman) who decides to very literally adopt the voice of a White, 50-something, Texan, TV psychologist, “white voice” was the name of the game, and people loved it–especially my Korean immigrant mother.
For Asian Americans in particular, a people whose national belonging has been culturally questioned and legally denied, accents substantiate and make audible what the eye sees as un-American. In Shilpa Dave’s recently published Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, she explores accents as they relate to cultural citizenship, national belonging and “the allocation of power.” Someone with an accent is “designated as an outsider to the dominant culture,” writes Dave. In contradistinction to “foreign” sounding accents, Southern accents are a classic symbol of American cultural belonging, like apple pie for the ears.
Would Phil’s wisdom sound as powerful or palatable without the accent? His appeal stems not only from his sometimes entertaining “Phil-isms” (e.g. “You can’t hide the sunrise from a rooster”), but from all that he and his voice signify. A white, male doctor giving advice on TV is hardly noteworthy, but Phil’s recognizably Southern accent separates him from the pack and softens the blow of his often severe advice.Phil’s accent (and his ringing endorsement from Oprah, long a trendsetter for the white middle class) have a way of diminishing racial and class barriers and cleverly marketing his advice as “good ol’ common sense” that everyone can get behind. Though Southern African American vernacular is often represented, negatively, as “improper” or evidence of inferior educational attainment, a White doctor using many of the same linguistic nuances is considered “charming” and “folksy.” One of the reasons people listen(ed) to Phil is because he’s a good, moustachioed Southern doctor that’s gunna tell it to ya straight, ya’ll. This kind of cultural capital is hard to manufacture. This, I figured wrongly, was what I stood to gain, not considering for a moment all that might be lost.
Constantly searching for ways to be seen, heard, and accepted within an American system of racial binarism that privileges whiteness, denigrates blackness, and locates yellowness somewhere in a No Man’s Land of racial categorization, sound’s flexibility has always seemed to me like a means to belonging. Furthermore, as a multiracial, Korean/White woman, even no man’s land can seem out of reach. As Michael Omi notes in the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Multiraciality disorients and confuses insofar as it can discredit entrenched signifiers which make race perceptible to the eye and ear.
Previously on Sounding Out!, I discussed my identification with Nas and the rap world as both a move towards color and the formation of an authentic, multiracial self. A move in the opposite direction, experimenting with “white voice,” functions as another attempt to navigate America’s system of racial identification, albeit in a much more problematic vein. After years of Phil-talk and vocal impersonations of the white male variety, I am finally putting a stop to the charade. However earnest (or subconscious) an attempt to belong, the loss of time spent mimicking Phil represents an era of racial silencing that is somewhat difficult to stomach. Despite the amusement it has brought to friends and family, I am putting the voice to rest in service of getting real.
Featured image: “Dr. Phil” by Flickr user House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Christie Zwahlen is the Assistant Director at Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement, where she has worked for four years to develop, expand and promote community engagement opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Previously, Christie worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, designing Service-Learning courses in conjunction with faculty at Thiel College and as the Coordinator of the Bridging the Digital Divide Program at Binghamton University. Christie earned her Master’s Degree in English and a Graduate Certificate in Asian & Asian American Studies from Binghamton University in 2009. She is currently enrolled in the English PhD program at Binghamton University.
From Illegitimate to Illmatic: On Tiger Mothers, Ethnoburbs, and Playing the Violin While Dreaming of Nas
“I told you, I like it.”
“This is why we have so much trouble with you.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
“Listen to that cursing…it’s nothing but garbage!”
“What are you doing?”
“All of these CDs are going in the basement. No more rap until you start listening to your parents! Now, go practice your violin!”
Growing up, exchanges like these were common between my Korean American mother and me—a multiracial Korean Euro-American. In her eyes, there was no such thing as enough violin practice. Rap—the vulgarity! The noise! It was turning me into a juvenile delinquent! She was convinced I had it in me to be the next Korean-American classical music virtuoso, the next Sarah Chang—if only I would practice more scales and stop trying to imitate “black men shouting.” (However “conversational” the rap world considered Nas’s flow, my mother still heard yelling.)
It’s not that I didn’t like classical music—I watched Amadeus on loop until the VHS squealed—but my mother, like the mothers of most all my Asian friends, insisted on it consuming a fairly large chunk of my life. While immensely diverse in its makeup, most of the Asian population where I lived was either Korean or Chinese, and were forced by their parents to learn violin, piano or cello. Not only was it criminal to play an instrument other than one of these; but, whichever one (or two) you chose, you had better be the best at it.
Author and Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, recently incited an online firestorm when the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from hercontroversial new memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she recounts calling her daughters “worthless” and “garbage” if they couldn’t perform a piece of classical music up to her exacting standards. University of Hawai’i at Manoa Professor, Mari Yoshihara’s study, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music(2008) describes similar instances of “tiger mothering,” such as virtuoso violinist, Midori Goto’s, mother, Setsu Goto, who (it was rumored) was so strict that it forced Midori into a mental breakdown and an eating disorder. Many would likely agree that “Tiger Mothering” such as this is morally questionable (and in some cases abusive), but I should note that instances like these are only part of a much bigger picture. Scores of students and performers would no doubt concur with Dr. O’C’s recent SO! account of the potential for classical music praxis to have ameliorative effects. Despite this, however, classical music training seems to have become a central tenet of “Tiger Mother” methodology. In all the kerfluffle over Chua’s book, no one has been asking the most foundational question: Why is it so important to Asians and Asian Americans that their children play classical music?
In a recent interview on why she chose classical violin and piano for her children, Chua fancifully suggests that classical music is the antidote to materialism. She says that “classical music all about depth” and calls the violin and piano “very respectable instruments.” Indicative of more than just a love of classical music, Chua’s statements imply that other forms of music lack comparable artistic value and require less cultivation to perform and enjoy. In a similar vein, the Asian-descent classical musicians interviewed in Yoshihara’s Musicians From a Different Shore divulge their belief that playing classical music anchors one to a high social stratum. Acknowledging the contradiction between classical music’s high cultural status and its mostly poor compensation, the musicians identified social factors such as educational attainment and musical taste and ability as more important determining factors of class standing than income. Yoshihara thus links the importance Asians and Asian Americans place on classical music praxis to class consciousness and the production of cultural capital.
Class consciousness no doubt accounts for some of the zealousness exhibited by Tiger Mothers with regard to their children’s classical music training, but it’s not the only thing that keeps them roaring. Chua’s Battle Hymn illustrates that, in addition to class consciousness, the pressure to study classical music stems from an intra-racial expectation to perform Asianness adequately. Chapter 5 of Chua’s memoir, titled, “On Generational Decline,” is her cut-and-dried summarization of how subsequent generations of Chinese Americans become lazier as they’re allowed to revel in the comforts of middle class life. Chua chooses classical music for her children because it is “the opposite of decline, the opposite of laziness, vulgarity, and spoiledness.” Constructed as an appeal to Chinese Americans, Chua essentially argues that classical music training is key to an Asian person’s cultural and racial legitimacy. Unwilling to relinquish “the high cultural tradition of [her] ancient ancestors,” she expects her children to uphold a racially and culturally endorsed standard of melody-making that reinforces Asian gender norms and encourages other Asian parents to do the same.
In Ellicott City, Maryland, the wealthy, culturally diverse “Ethnoburb” of Baltimore where I grew up, Asian American classical musicians abound and Asian American rappers are few. Here, (where the community-wide motto is “Choose Civility”) Asian youth gained a sort of “cred” for mastering the violin or piano, and this pressure to “prove” oneself along racial lines was something I always felt—particularly as a teen of mixed race. It was probably the biggest reason why I didn’t quit the violin until I graduated from high school. I hated it, but resentfully continued attending orchestra and private lessons in the fear that I would lose the meager amount of “cred” I’d built up. It hardly mattered, though. There was no chance of me getting into an Ivy League school or playing Carnegie Hall—I listened to rap and sometimes didn’t do my homework. In short, I would never be a “Super Asian” (a term coined by my Indian music stand partner and me), and as any Asian kid knows, if you’re not the best, you needn’t bother trying. None of the “Super Asians” had any interest in rap, and one even joked that I was a “chocolate-filled twinkie” for wearing a Pelle Pelle jacket to practice one week.
People who looked like Sarah Chang were supposed to be in the business of making melodies, not rhymes. Chang performing a violin concerto is a comforting scene, a sonic image that reaffirms a familiar cultural narrative of femininity and class stature associated with Asianness in the US. A result of the gradual process of East Asian modernization (instigated by Western Imperialism), classical music was initially adopted by the people at the behest of the state, eventually becoming a integral part of middle class life in East Asia and a social marker of bourgeois womanhood that functioned to situate women vis à vis the domicile. Uncomfortable defining myself in this way (and feeling, also, that I never truly could), I gravitated towards something more “disruptive” that would allow me to show a different face to the world.
Rap became a vehicle for me to explain myself in more hybrid terms. On drives into Baltimore City, I heard it bellowing from the windows of the West Side’s crumbling row homes. The loud, curt, interjections! The spontaneity and candor! This loudness was initially what drew me in, but eventually I realized that rap had just as much profundity as anything classical you could throw at it. Listening to rap, I was finally on offense. It was a medium that spoke to me, because it made me feel capable of speaking back. And there was an entire legion of disaffected youth who seemed to feel the same way.
Despite this popularity, however, critics of rap maintain that the sounds that (predominately African American) rappers produce are nothing more than “noise.” In Black Noise, Tricia Rose observes that despite (and perhaps because of) rap’s widespread popularity and cultural relevance, it is often pitted as classical music’s polar-opposite—“unintelligible yet aggressive sound that disrupt[s the] familial domain” (63). Against charges that rap lacks “depth,” purveyors of hip hop (despite their hefty salaries) often accrue little to no widespread artistic acclaim. Evidence of what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman terms the “sonic color-line,” this demotion and “Othering” of non-white sounds into “noise” (discussed further in her recent SO! post) has historically functioned to both generate and underwrite public attitudes about race, class and gender and to create dominant ideas about listening that she dubs “the listening ear.”
It seems that dominant modes of listening have everything figured out. If you look like this, you sound like that. But, what about people who look like me? What are we supposed to sound like? With which sonic cultural productions am I supposed to ally myself, and do I have a choice in the matter? How does “the listening ear” interpret a biracial Korean Euro-American or any person of mixed race heritage? Was there a distinction to be heard? I was sure there was, but didn’t quite know how to voice it.
For most of my life I have lived on the precipice of Asianness and something else, leaving me to feel—at times—confused, demoralized and illegitimate. As Michael Omi and Howard Winant famously note in their seminal work, Racial Formation, “Without a racial identity [in America], one is in danger of having no identity.” Acutely aware of my difference, I searched for ways of being heard as a multiracial subject in a fiercely stratified, race-conscious society. In the Introduction to The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed-Heritage Asian Americans, Michael Omi notes that within the historical and political context of the United States, (the “one-drop rule,” eugenic fears of racial intermixing, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.) multiracial identities have consistently been “contained, disregarded, [and] denied.” Disruptive to fixed notions about race, it is often a challenge for multiracial subjects to be recognized or understood by the state or the ear.
Rap assisted me in my effort to be heard as a multiracial person. While my Asian friends in All-State Orchestra were polishing their four-octave chromatic scales for the judging panel at Julliard, I was conscientiously studying Rakim’s flow and the RZA’s beats, hoping that one day it might make sense for me to show my face at a rap battle, if only as an observer. After the realization that Nas wasn’t the reason I could never be a “Super Asian,” my mom returned my copy of his masterpiece debut, Illmatic. As previously, I spent the hours before bedtime reciting the lyrics to Nasty classics like “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” moved by every skillful turn of phrase: “Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian/half man-half amazin,” I would repeat over and over until I got the cadences just right. Whatever the hell he was talking about, I was sure it applied to me.