Like pretty much the entire universe I’ve been enthralled by the series Serial on npr. One of the most intriguing aspects of this story to me is the way Adnan Syed, the “star” of the series sounds. Though he’s Pakistani/American and son of immigrant parents on the radio he sounds like a black man. And when I say “sounds like a black man” I don’t mean in the stereotypical pseudo gangsta hip-hop way. Or using AAVE, which is almost universally off-putting. No, this is something more in a rhythm of speaking, tonal inflections and syntax. Some non-blacks try to do it, but much like southern accents, many try, but very few succeed. Even Robert Downey Jr.’s hilarious turn in Tropic Thunder didn’t quite master it, but then again he was playing an Australian who was playing a black guy, so he was being funny on purpose.
I’ve encountered people who speak this way before but oddly enough it’s almost universally non-black men. I don’t recall hearing a non-black woman who “sounds” black, but I’m sure it happens. Of course, there’s always Hillary Clinton’s embarrassing attempt during the 2008 primaries. Listening to Adnan made me curious as to how common this phenomenon is.
I listen to the radio a lot, and I remember when President Obama nominated Arne Duncan to be Secretary of Education. I listened to Duncan on npr and assumed he was a black man. It wasn’t until months later that I realized my error. (And looking at his picture, I still wasn’t sure.) Lisa, who lives in Chicago, told me that his mother had run an education program in low-income neighborhoods and had taken Arne with her, so his formative years were spent primarily around black kids.
I can definitely see that happening, but it’s odd to me that when these guys are no longer are no longer in a black environment they don’t stop speaking that way. Or maybe they do. I suppose it’s even possible that they “code switch” much like black people do. Though, if that were the case you’d think Duncan would do so when talking to the press, but he doesn’t.
Have you met people who “sound black?” How do you feel about it? Does it make you wonder about their background? If you’re a black woman, are you put off by non-black men who “sound black” when they approach you romantically?