I first realized there was a problem with my voice on the first day of tenth grade English class. The teacher, Mrs. C, had a formidable reputation of strictness and high standards. She had us sit in alphabetical order row after row, and then insisted on calling roll aloud while she sat at her desk. Each name emerged as both a command and a threat in her firm voice.
“Here,” I mumbled quietly. I was a Honor Roll student with consistent good grades, all A’s and one B on each report card, yet I was shy and softspoken in classes. This was an excellent way to make teachers amiable but largely go unnoticed. The softness of my voice made me less visible and less recognizable.
Mrs. C repeated my name. Caught off guard, I repeated “here” a little more loudly. She rose to her feet to get a better look at me. I knew what she saw: a petite girl with long ash blonde hair, big brown eyes, and overalls embroidered with white daisies on the bib. When her gaze finally met mine, Mrs. C frowned at me and cleared her throat loudly. I curled into my desk, hoping to disappear.
“Miss Barfield, did you hear me call your name twice? In this class, when I call roll, you respond.” I gave a quick nod, but Mrs. C wasn’t finished: “We use our strong voices in here, not our girly, breathy ones.” My cheeks flushed red while Mrs. C droned on about confidence and classroom expectations.
“Do you understand me?”
I stammered a “yes.” Mrs. C turned her attention back to the roll call. Her harsh words rang in my ears. I sank low in my chair, humiliated and angry. I couldn’t help that I sounded girly: I was, in fact, a girl. This was the way my voice sounded. It was not an attempt to sound like the dumb blonde she appeared to think I was.
That day I decided that I would never speak up in her class. Forget the Honor Roll. If the sound of my voice was such a problem, then my mouth would remain firmly shut in this class and all of my others. I would never speak up again.
My vow to stop speaking lived a short life. I enjoyed Mrs. C’s serious fixation on diagramming sentences and her attempts to show sophomores that literature offered ideas and worlds we didn’t quite know. At first, I spoke up with hesitation and fear of the inevitable dismissal, but I continued to speak. Becoming louder became my method to seem confident, even when I felt anything but.
Throughout high school, my voice emerged again and again as a problem. Despite the increased volume, my voice still sounded tremulous, squeaky, hesitant, and shrill to my own ears. Other girls had these steady, warm voices that encouraged others to listen to them. Some had higher voices that were melodic and lovely. I craved a lower, more resonant voice, but I was stuck with what I had. In drama club, our director scolded me with increasing frustration about my tendency to end my lines in the form of a question. My nerves materialized as upspeak. The more he yelled at me, the more pronounced the habit became. He eventually gave up, disgusted by my inability to control my vocal patterns.It wasn’t just the theater director who commented on my voice; fellow students expressed shock and occasionally dismay that the soft-spoken blonde had smart things to say if you stopped to listen to her. Teenage girls were supposed to sound confident (but not too confident), loud enough to be audible (but not too loud), warm (never cold), and smart (but not smarter than the boys), all while cultural norms suggested that voices of teenage girls were also annoying. Teenage girls were supposed to be seen, but when they spoke they had to master the right combination in order to be heard. I could never master it.
Meanwhile, at a big state university in my native Florida, I learned quickly that a Southern accent marks you as a dumb redneck from some rural town that no one had heard of. Students in my classes asked me to say particular words and then giggled at my pronunciations. “You sound like a Southern belle,” one student noted. This was not really a compliment. According to my peers, Southern belles didn’t have a place in the classroom. Southern belles didn’t easily match up with “college student. As a working-class girl from a trailer park, I learned that I surely didn’t sound like a college student should. I worked desperately to rid myself of any hint of twang. I dropped y’all and reckon.
I listened carefully to how other students talked. I mimicked their speech patterns by being more abrupt and deadpan, slowly killing my drawl. When I finally removed all traces of my hometown from my voice, my friends both from home and from college explained that now I sounded like an extra from Clueless. My voice was all Valley girl. I was smarter, they noted with humor, than I sounded and looked. My voice now alternated between high-pitched and fried. Occasionally, it would squeak or crack. I thought I sounded too feminine and too much like an airhead, even when I avidly tried not to. I began to hate the sound of my voice.
My voice betrayed me because it refused to sound like I thought I needed it to. It refused to sound like anyone but me.
When I started teaching and receiving student evaluations, my voice became the target for students to express their displeasure with the course and me. According to students, my voice was too high and grating. Screechy, even: one student said my voice was at a frequency that only bats could hear. In every set of evaluations, a handful of students declared that I sounded annoying. This experience, however, was not something I alone faced. Women professors and lecturers routinely face gender bias in teaching evaluations. According to the interactive chart, Gender Language in Teaching Evaluations, female professors are more likely to be called “annoying” than their male counterparts in all 25 disciplines evaluated. The sound of my voice was only part of the problem, but I couldn’t help but wonder if how I sounded was an obstacle to what I was teaching them.
Once again, I tried to fix my problematic voice. I lowered it. I listened to NPR hosts in my search for a smooth, accentless, and educated sound, and I attempted to create a sound more like them. I practiced pronouncing words like they did. I modulated my volume. I paid careful attention to the length of my vowels. I avoided my natural drawl. None of my attempts seemed to last. Some days, I dreaded lecturing in my courses. I had to speak, but I didn’t want to. I wondered if my students listened, but I wondered more about what they heard.
The sound of your voice is a distinct trait of each human being, created by your lungs, the length of your vocal cords, and your larnyx. Your lungs provide the air pressure to vibrate your vocal cords. The muscles of your larnyx adjust both the length and the tension of the cords to provide pitch and tone. Your voice is how you sound beyond the resonances that you hear when you speak. It is dependent on both the length and thickness of the vocal cords. Biology determines your pitch and tone. Your pitch is a result of the rate at which your vocal cords vibrate. The faster the rate, the higher your voice. Women tend to have shorter cords than men, which makes our voices higher.
Emotion also alters pitch. Fright, excitement, and nervousness all make your voice sound higher. Nerves would make a teenage girl have an even higher voice than she normally would. Her anxious adult self would too. Her voice would seem tinny because her larnyx clenched her vocal cords tight. Perhaps this is the only sound she can make. Perhaps she is trying to communicate with bats because they at least would attempt to listen.
Biology, the body, gives us the voices we have. Biology doesn’t care if we like the ways in which we sound. Biology might not care, but culture is the real asshole. Culture marks a voice as weak, grating, shrill, or hard to listen to.
My attempts to change my voice were always destined to fail. I fought against my body and lost. I couldn’t have won even if I tried harder. My vocal cords are determined that my voice would be high, so it is. The culture around me, however, taught me to hate myself for it. Voice and body seem to cast aspersions on intelligence or credentials. It’s the routineness of it all that wears on me. I expect the reactions now.
I wonder if I’m drawn to the quietness of writing because I don’t have to hear myself speak. I crave the silence while simultaneously bristling at it. Why is my voice a problem that I must resolve to placate others? How can I get others to hear me and not the stereotypes that have chased me for years?
My silence has become fruitful. The words I don’t say appear on the page of an essay, a post, or an article. I type them up. I read aloud what I first refused to say. I wince as I hear my voice reciting my words. I listen carefully to the cadence and tone. This separation of words and voice is why writing appeals to me. I can say what I want to say without the sound of my voice causing things to go awry.
People can read what I write, yet they can’t dismiss my voice by its sound. Instead, they read what I have to say. They imagine my voice; my actual sound can’t bother them. But, they aren’t really hearing me. They just have my words on the page. They don’t know how I wrap the sound around them. They don’t hear me.
Rebecca Solnit, in “Men Explain Things to Me,” writes “Credibility is a basic survival tool.” Solnit continues that to be credible is to be audible. We must be heard to for our credibility to be realized. This right to speak is crucial to Solnit. Too many women have been silenced. Too many men refuse to listen. To speak is essential “to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”
I agree with her. I underline her words. I say them aloud. The more I engage with her argument, the more I worry. What about our right to be heard? When women speak, do people listen? Women can speak and speak and speak and never be heard. Our words dismissed because of gender and sound. Being able to speak is not enough, we need to be heard.
We get caught up in the power of speaking, but we forget that there’s power in listening too. Listening is political. It is act of compassion and empathy. When we listen, we make space for other people, their stories, their voices. We grant them room to be. We let them inhabit our world, and for a moment, we inhabit theirs. Yes, we need to be able to speak, but the world also needs to be ready to listen us.
We need to be listened to. Will you hear me? Will you hear us? Will you grant us room to be?
When I think of times I’ve been silenced and of the times I haven’t been heard, I feel the sharp pain of exclusion, of realizing that my personhood didn’t matter because of how I sounded. I remember the burning anger because no one would listen. I think of the way that silence and the policing of how I sound made me feel small, unimportant, or disposable. As a teenager, a college student, and a grown woman, I wanted to be heard, but couldn’t figure out exactly how to make that happen. I blamed my voice for a problem that wasn’t its fault. My voice wasn’t the problem at all; the problem was the failure of others to listen.
While writing this essay on my voice, I almost lost mine, not once but twice. I caught a cold and then the flu. My throat ached, and I found it difficult to swallow. A stuffy nose gave my voice a muted quality, but then, it sounded lower and huskier. I could hear the congestion disrupting the timber of my words. My voice blipped in and out as I were radio finding and losing signal. It hurt to speak, so I was quiet.
“You sound awful,” my husband said in passing. He was right. My voice sounded unfamiliar and monstrous. I tested out this version of my voice. It was rougher and almost masculine. I can’t decide if this is the stronger, more authoritative voice I wanted all along or some crude mockery of what I can never really have. I couldn’t sing along with my favorite songs because my voice breaks at the higher register. I wheezed out words. I croaked my way through conversations. “Are you sick?” my daughter asked, “You don’t sound like you.”
Her passing comment stuck with me. You don’t sound like you. Suddenly, I missed the sound of my voice. I disliked this alien version of it. I craved that problematic voice that I’ve tried to change over the years. I wanted my voice to return.
After twenty years, I decided to acknowledge the sound of me, even if others don’t. I want to be heard, and I’m done trying to make anyone listen.
Featured image: “Speak” by Flickr user Ash Zing, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Kelly Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers religion, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, and popular culture. She’s also an essayist, historian, and reporter. You can find her writing at the Chronicle for Higher Education‘s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s also written for The Atlantic, Bearings, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Religion Dispatches, Christian Century’s Then & Now, Washington Post, and Brain, Child. She’s on Twitter at @kelly_j_baker and at her website.
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On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human Voice– Yvon Bonefant
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.