Is it because I’m white?

Learning how to use a mic in AmeriCorps (2001)

Not long ago, I received a call from a man inviting me to give a talk at a conference.

As friends can no doubt attest, I have a healthy dose of pride and don’t mind being asked to speak in public. So I was happy to receive his call.

Trouble was, I really had no business speaking at this particular conference. I just wasn’t qualified – not my area of expertise.

Almost in spite of myself, I told him as much and offered to help him line up someone else better suited for the job.

Maybe he was up against a deadline. Maybe he’d already been declined and was just dying to fill this last slot and call it a day. Whatever the reason, his rejoinder caught even me off guard, “You sound eloquent enough. I’m sure you’ll do a good job. Besides, you have an American accent…”

I swallowed my surprise and asked him to send along details and promised to give it a think.

Studies about the impact of race and language on wages and hiring in the US and UK find a startling, and sobering, link between sounding (and being) black and getting second pick.

For example, a 2009 study by Jeffrey Grogger at the University of Chicago found that black people who “sound black” earn salaries that are 10 percent lower, on average, than black people who don’t, even when controlling for factors that reasonably influence your ability to perform on the job: skills, experience, intelligence, etc. (socialized as those things also are).

With the median American worker earning $33,000 a year today, that’s a difference in wages of $132,000 over a forty-year career (not counting rising wages over time). I’d say that’s a pretty high price to pay for speaking a perfectly understandable form of English that doesn’t quite jibe with the Joneses.

In case you doubted the effect, the same University of Chicago study found that white people who “sound black” (a small sample, to be sure) earn 6 percent less than other white people, even when controlling for the same factors. Similar studies have found that stereotypically black names are a count against would-be employees when they apply for a job.

Getting back to my ill-deserved invitation to speak at the conference, there can be no doubt in my mind that what the nice (white) man on the phone was saying was this: because of the way I “sounded”–quite apart from any qualifications I did or did not possess–I would make a good impression at his conference and so was the right man for the job. There can also be no doubt that, true to form, I “sounded white”.

If he had looked me up online or read some of my writings or had me recommended by a colleague, he didn’t say; my “eloquence” and “American accent” seemed to suffice.

I gave a decent talk in the end. For reasons that I can only understand in part–some of them random, some of them related to effort–I am a confident speaker. And confidence, I observe, is one of the first ingredients in making a speaker “good”, regardless of whether she’s got something worth saying or not. My confidence as a speaker probably doesn’t derive from the (random) fact that I’m white per se (I can think of plenty of brilliant orators who aren’t white), but it’s not unrelated either.

You see, being born white–and from an established (i.e. privileged) WASP family at that–means you are that a good deal more likely than average to come across individuals and opportunities that build up your confidence and skills, especially the kinds of skills that correspond to success in a culture that is still overdetermined by WASPs of yesteryear. As it happened, I was planted on stages to speak in public from a pretty early age and, like most kids doing whatever it is they’re asked to do, I eventually caught on.

Does it mean I’m undeserving of the honor of being asked to speak at conferences? Not necessary–assuming I have a thing or two worth saying. Does it mean I’m nonetheless the inheritor of unearned privilege in a society where opportunity (never mind outcomes) in life is still, to a great extent, determined by race, class, nationality and the like? I’m afraid so.

In this case, my “unearned privilege” has to do with the fact that I am assumed to be qualified for the speech or job at hand simply by virtue of the fact that I am (and sound) white. As such, my whiteness serves as a proxy for competence in and of itself, rather than for the institutionalized advantage from which my “competence” largely comes.

In other words, is it because I’m white?

It’s a more complicated question than I can do justice to here, but in a word … a-yup!

PS. The number of times I’m called “boss” or “sir” by black men or women in South Africa who have no business calling me anything but “Dan” or “hey you”–but for the fact that I’m white in a culture where white has long been seen (indeed legislated) to be intrinsically right–continues to startle and unsettle me. It doesn’t matter if the person is twice my age, reasonably well-educated, and not performing any service for me at all. “Bhuti” (brother) has a much nicer ring to it, wouldn’t you agree?

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