Maria Philomena Nevada
As soon as I saw the trailer for “Sorry to Bother You”, I made plans to see it on opening night. Sorry to Bother You is rapper Boots Riley’s film about a young African American telemarketer, Cassius Greene (played by the lanky and at turns introverted and dynamic Lakeith Stanfield), who puts on a nasal “white voice” to make inroads to customers on draining calls. It’s an artistic, absurdist, and dystopian romp. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch the trailer here.
In the theater, it made me squirm. Of course, there are many things in the film to make viewers squirm- it involves horses to a surprisingly large degree- but what struck me hardest was the all too real moments when real life punched through the neon-soaked absurdism. Without spoiling the film- there is a part when the sound of batons hitting flesh brings one into the sickening immediacy of shaky videos on social media, filmed at real life protests gone violent. A video recently filmed and tweeted by Sun Times reporter Nader Issa of police-protestor conflicts after the police shooting of Chicago barber Harith Augustus comes to mind.
But let’s discuss the main driver of plot in the film- Cassius Greene’s use of the “white voice” (voiced excellently by comedian David Cross). I’m guilty of using a “white voice.” I’ve used a “white voice” when on the phone scheduling an in-person interview, only to shift in my seat uncomfortably at said interview under the gaze of somebody who didn’t expect someone who looked like me. I’m a mix of Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish. I often get mistaken for Mexican. But I’m also genderqueer and often present androgynously. I look nothing like the kind of person my “white voice” would belong to.
I’ve used a “white voice” on campus often. When I began college, the pressure to blend in and assimilate into a Midwestern, dominantly white university was immense. It wasn’t until a few months in that I learned the phrase for where that pressure came from- “respectability politics.” You see, the “white voice” is not so much about sounding like a Caucasian person, but sounding like someone who is not marginalized. The “white voice” oozes vibes of being educated, well-off, and “cultured.” It stems from respectability politics which prods marginalized, minority communities to smooth out and erase those “differences” and “less dignified” markers, whether those be accents, clothing, habits or even political (much less partisan) expressions.
On your first day of (or back to) school, at least in my experience, it’s those little things that start to become big worries. Should I wear big hoops? Will somebody think, unreasonably, that they’re- I hate to say it- “ghetto?” On a campus where the norm is slouchy sweats and hoodies, should I follow along and risk being seen as “lazy” or should I put on a button-up and slacks just to present as more professional and ready, somehow more “worthy” to be in higher education. If I’m in a discussion and notice that the perspective is narrow, and not inclusive, do I bring in the “outsider” perspective or do I nod along? What do I do if someone asks if I got my scholarship because of diversity reasons? Be angry or smile politely and walk away? For some POC, being nice and bland, and definitely not angry, can often feel like a matter of whether somebody calls campus security on you or not.
If this sounds ridiculous, it is. It’s ridiculous that POC often have to feel like the finish line is just that much farther. It’s ridiculous how much a fear of the unknown and the idea of “white respectability” is so ingrained in our culture that micro-aggressions are commonplace and differences are encouraged to disappear. It’s more ridiculous than the absurdity of Riley’s film, which is saying a lot, because part of a major reveal involves swimming in a literal vat of feces.
So, what’s a POC student to do? Pretend these pressures don’t exist, work hard, and pray that they’ll be just fine? Refuse to voice these concerns in case someone blames them for playing the victim? I don’t have the answers. If privilege exists on a spectrum, I’m fairly privileged and could never be able to give an answer that would work for everyone. I personally play a balancing game, phasing out hoodies and jeans for button-ups and slacks (even as my classmates continue on in ripped jeans and comfy sweats), speak more formally, but let myself rip when it comes to discussions in class, unblinking when I’m one of the few students of color in the room, picking topics like equity in higher education and racism for papers and speeches. And I wear the damn hoops.