Doug mentioned John McWhorter …. I’m a fan.

Here he is on blaccents.

Very worth your time.

McWhorter’s social dilemma is that although he is black, he sounds white. He has no idea why.

In the passage below, he’s completely right about the brain’s division of labor between conscious and unconscious ‘computations.’

The expectation that a black person will sound black is unconscious; the recognition that a black person sounds white is conscious. There’s nothing anyone can do to change this.

We have two separate and distinct learning systems, one largely conscious, the other unconscious.

No one knows, yet, how the two interact.

Given that I am the kind of black person who is often termed “articulate,” it may seem surprising that I spend much of my life feeling quite thick of tongue. I am one of those unfortunate black people who sound white. It is, of all things, a social handicap.


I hardly consider myself significantly oppressed on this score. It is well documented that sounding black on the phone makes you less likely to be shown an apartment or house or to get a job interview. A black kid who uses Black English in school is often criticized by teachers and thought less intelligent. Classic experiments have shown that people’s evaluation of someone reading a passage changes according to whether it’s read by a white or black person. The black voice is rated less favorably—considered less bright, less friendly. My burden, in comparison, is a mere personal cross to bear, worse than having a hard-to-spell name but hardly on the order of being denied services and thought dim. Yet to an extent that few would have reason to know, I suffer.

When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off. The vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. This means that if you are black, upon meeting you, a great many black people will tacitly expect that the two of you will speak more similarly to one another—at the very least in terms of that certain “sound”—than either of you do to white people. That similarity is an index of acceptance and warmth in a society that looks askance on black people in so many ways. Then it turns out that you don’t sound similar, despite your black face. The wrong voice is coming out of you.

Although the expectation that you were going to sound black was not conscious, the fact that you don’t is processed quite consciously: it’s the discrepancy that elicits attention.

Thick of Tongue by John McWhorter 3/15/2016