“Who uses a ‘white voice’ at work?” I asked my students at the college. The class was on Black Literature and nearly every Black, Latinx and Asian, raised their hands. Even a white male did too. We curiously eyed him as he turned and said, “It’s complicated.” Everyone laughed. An older Black man confessed, “I put it on extra thick, so when they come to the store, they’re shocked.”
Talking “white” is an old skill for people of color. It is part of a whiteface tradition that is a survival mechanism and a theme in Black Art. Whiteface is in slave narratives, comedy and has been updated by Hollywood in the films Sorry to Bother You and BlacKKKlansman. Of the two, it is Sorry to Bother You (warning: spoilers ahead) that sets whiteface as part of a bourgeois, racial integration project that sacrificed working class solidarity in favor of tokenism. Integration widened the class divide in communities of color. The film heralds a socialist revolution led by a generation who know their real voices and can rebuild America.
The Tradition of Whiteface
“Use your white voice,” Langston (played by Danny Glover) tells the new telemarketer, Cassius Green (a jittery Lakeith Stanfield) in an early scene from Sorry to Bother You. Langston points at his chest, “You have a white voice in there. You can use it … it’s about sounding like you don’t have a care in the world. It’s what they wish they sounded like.”
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Later, Green gives a toast at a bar with his white voice, hypnotizing everyone with the breezy carefree music of its privilege. At work, the voice boosts his career but at the cost of his real life. Green is faced with a question; can he use whiteness? Or will it use him?
Black culture has answered this question in three ways. One is using whiteface as camouflage to escape racial violence, as some runaway slaves did. Another is reverse minstrelsy, when people of color wear white makeup to mock racism. The last is passing, where people of color destroy themselves in order to become white.
In an 1860 memoir, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, a former slave couple, William and Ellen Craft, explained how they used whiteness as camouflage. She was light-skinned. He was chestnut brown. She dressed as a plantation owner in pants and top hat. He dressed as her slave. They rode trains out of the South all the way North.
In the 20th century, we saw Black performers use whiteface to poke fun at racism. It goes from Bob Coles’s 1898 skit A Trip to Coontown to Jean Genet’s 1958 play The Blacks to Chappelle’s Show in 2003 and the Wayans brothers’ 2004 movie White Chicks. They dabbed on chalk-colored makeup as a way to mirror and ridicule white pretensions.
Beyond camouflage or comedy, whiteface was dangerous. Instead of using racism, one could be possessed by it. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes warned in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain that Black artists must embrace their Blackness, not bleach it out to appeal to white America. Decades later, Malcolm X exhorted his audience, “You came from Africa black minded, now you’re white minded…. You’re not satisfied unless you can talk like white folks, eat like white folks.”
Black artists use whiteface to offer a powerful critique of white supremacy and internalized racism. These Black artists said to be careful of bourgeois, racial integration; it can deepen the divide in Black America. It can widen the split within one’s psyche. Whiteface, if worn too long, disfigures the person who wears it.
Welcome to the Machine
Sorry to Bother You takes this Black Art tradition and adds a class analysis. Green at first uses whiteface in a tongue-in-cheek way to make money. He gets addicted to success and tries to “pass” not by looking white but passing into the white world. The film’s director, Boots Riley, is saying working class people of color use whiteness to get ahead. At the toxic extreme, some seek the closest proximity to whiteness they can achieve to experience as many of its benefits as possible.
The film’s scenes of dingy, telemarketer cubicles were taken from Riley’s life. They also reflect the working conditions of millennials. One of the largest generations in US history, they will surpass baby boomers in 2019. They also are one of the hardest hit, having graduated into the Great Recession; they lost years of earning only to face, decades from now, a collapsing Social Security and Medicare. Grinding though precarious work, day after day as baristas, waitresses, telemarketers, freelancers and Uber drivers — multiracial millennial workers look up and what do they see? Celebrities of color who become lighter the higher in class they go. Maybe it’s new white skin or a white zip code or a white hairstyle or white fashion.
What Hughes called “this urge within the race toward whiteness” begins in childhood. A 2010 episode of Anderson Cooper 360 recreated the 1950s doll test to measure anti-Black prejudice in children. One Black girl looked at her hand and said, “I don’t like the way brown looks … it looks really nasty.” When that girl goes to school, she may be turned away because it could have rules against Black hairstyles. If she plays sports and her team goes to a white town, the crowd may yell racist slurs at her. Maybe she’ll see a video of one of her classmates making a racist prom proposal and cringe. By the time she’s graduated from the American machine, she may link whiteness to racism. She may also link it to beauty and professionalism. Racism creates a double reflex, sometimes subtle and sometimes vulgar, where one hates whiteness but also desires its privileges.
In Sorry to Bother You, we see this phenomenon in Green’s meeting with Steve Lift, the CEO of Worry Free, a company that offers slavery to desperate workers. At a party, Lift tells Green to rap since he assumes all Black people do. Green doesn’t like the racism but wants to fit in and yells, “Nigger shit.” The white partygoers roar in approval. His face contorts with rage, shame and also relief that he’s being accepted by them.
Sometimes, going from whiteface to passing is painfully visible. Dominican baseball player, Sammy Sosa became known for his bleached face. Rapper Lil’ Kim notoriously embarked on a quest for a “Barbie” look. Michael Jackson fried his hair, lightened his skin and had cosmetic surgeries. They are the visible ones, but below these celebrities, untold people in India, Africa, America and Asia slather on skin-lightening cream. Across the world, millions of consumers spend billions of dollars to look white.
On another, more subtle and insidious level, the double reflex of hating white racism but desiring its privileges deepens the class divide in Black America. The post Civil Rights era saw a ballooning Black middle class that became distant from the Black poor. In major cities, two worlds existed so that for every Baldwin Hills there is a Watts and for every Brownsville there is a Sag Harbor. Members of the Black middle class go to better schools, get better medical care and taste the American Dream. They also risk losing touch with the masses and fear being called Oreos — “Black on the outside, white on the inside.” The Black poor, meanwhile, can romanticize their own suffering and get played by corporate America to sell their pain via hip hop to mostly white audiences who enjoy a modern recycling of very old racist caricatures. In real life, they are often trapped within a cycle of intergenerational poverty whose revolving doors belong to the prison industrial complex.
The “urge toward whiteness” keeps the wheels of capitalism turning. Whether it is the Black middle class integrating into the mainstream or the Black poor exiled from it, people buy into this urge as the “good life” — except, maybe, radical millennial workers who are torn by the social strain and now are rebelling against this world. They are the first generation in the US since the Cold War who view socialism more favorably than capitalism. And it’s because they want their voices, bodies and futures back.
Abandoning the White Voice
In the final scene in Sorry to Bother You, Green stares from a police van at a fiery street fight between protesters and cops. Flames throw light on angry faces. Debris floats. The van door is ripped off by protesters. They join together to overturn the call center where he worked and attack the Worry Free CEO in his home.
Riley’s over-the-top absurdity makes visible a generational shift. Bourgeois racial integration is dying. Rising in its place is a multiracial socialist America that is ready for change. Millennials and Generation Z are the first to reach maturity in a newly majority-minority nation. Climate change is going to wreak havoc on their world. America’s post-Cold-War superpower status is quickly evaporating as a fully multipolar world rises.
The question is, can they create a culture to seize the possibilities? Of course, racist millennials exist; a third are as anti-Black as any generation before it. The difference is that anti-capitalist radical millennials are building organizations, concepts and street-fighting skills. Seeing the struggle through an intersectional lens means Black Lives Matter joined the Fight for Fifteen and showed solidarity with Palestine. Antifa fought neo-Nazis in Berkeley. A Bronx Latina became one of the first socialists to win a Democratic primary. The #MeToo campaign exposed sexual violence in the halls of power. Transgender activists are more visible than any time in American history.
And yet, visibility isn’t enough. In Sorry to Bother You, Green finds out that Worry Free Corporation experiments on workers. He gets a video of disfigured men and women, takes it on live TV, and the political and business elite package it as a stunning scientific breakthrough. The audience cheers. He’s crestfallen. It’s left to the activists in the film to go beyond visibility and shut the institutions down. Again, the film is a funhouse mirror of the protests in the streets today.
In this ferment, a generation is finding itself. Less and less does it want to use its “white voice.” We are witnessing a youth struggling to name the chaotic reality around them. What they are discovering is how many languages they know and how it connects them to people on the other side of borders that the older generation built to keep their power safe.
I remember laughing with my students about their use of the “white voice.” Toward the end of that class, I asked them who knew a second language. Nearly all of them raised their hands. I asked them to talk to each other in it. “Doesn’t matter if you understand it, just talk and fill the room.”
A Puerto Rican woman began. Next, a West African man turned and talked in French with a Haitian. In the back, an Irish woman just began to recite Gaelic. More students joined, and languages from every land flowed into the room. Mandarin. Yiddish. Patois. It was loud. It was raucous. It was a kaleidoscope of sound, mixing and mixing.
We stopped. We were stunned at what we heard. “That was really beautiful,” the Puerto Rican woman said to everyone. “It’s like the world.”