Magazine | February 23, 2015, Issue

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin (Sarah Tilotta/NPR)
On the strange power of linguistic stereotypes

National Public Radio is worried that it sounds “too white.” This moral panic is inspired by a report from Chenjerai Kumanyika, a black Clemson professor and hip-hop artist, who wrote that in his role as a public-radio contributor he feels pressured “to be consistent with culturally dominant ‘white’ styles of speech and narration.” Then came the headlines: “Challenging the whiteness of public radio,” “Does public radio sound too white?” etc.

First the facts: NPR is very, very white: At about 77 percent white, its newsroom is significantly whiter than the country at large — but not nearly as white as its audience, which is pushing 90 percent white. The rice selection at Whole Foods is not nearly that white. And of course these aren’t just any white people, but super-white whitey white people, the pale and diffident Sidwell Friends answer to Shaft and Superfly, except nonfictional: college graduates (more than one in four went to grad school, too, and I’d bet there’s a disproportionate share of MFAs in creative writing), middle-aged, high-income, power-walking, overseas-vacationing, and overwhelmingly not Republican, with members of Team GOP composing only 17 percent of NPR’s listenership. You know these white people: aspiring Canadians, basically. You can practically hear the chunky black-framed spectacles rattling out there in Subarus across the fruited plain to the sounds of Wycliffe Gordon’s famous and flatulent All Things Considered brass riff.

NPR’s diversity obsessions are something that I know a little bit about, having served myself as an NPR diversity token off and on over the years. Token conservative, to be sure, but there are a surprising number of people — clearly not television viewers — who think that I am black, a fact I attribute mostly to my name (“Kevin” was a popular name among black men of my generation), and there are a fair number of people who assume that I am gay, a fact I attribute to my being until recently a downtown-dwelling New York theater critic who admittedly owns more shoes than a Sex and the City character. (Yeah, I know: nasty effeminate stereotype — but not my nasty effeminate stereotype, chief.)

I was a diversity token on a diversity-token show, Tell Me More, the cancellation of which drew howls of indignation both from the section of NPR’s audience that is as white as snow falling gently on the Greenwich Country Club and from the tiny little slice of its listenership made up of black and Latino graduates of Haverford, Skidmore, and Evergreen State. But as much as NPR listeners said they loved Tell Me More, having a liberal-dominated diversity show on liberal-dominated public radio wasn’t quite enough: What was really needed — you have to appreciate the mad genius at work here — was a diversity show within the diversity show, which the producers of Tell Me More created in the form of “Barbershop,” a weekly feature in which diverse dudes — typically guys on the south side of 50 who might be called upon to credibly discuss a ballgame, specimens that are not extremely populous in the NPR lineup — talked about the headlines of the day.

And that broadcast barbershop was, naturally, populated with diversity faces attached to all sorts of diversity credentials: Arsalan Iftikhar, in case you’re too thick to get it, calls his outlet TheMuslimGuy.com, while Jimi Izrael performs what NPR apparently considers an invaluable service, i.e., sounding recognizably black on the government-subsidized airwaves. Because, you know, gentlemen of color and the occasional lily-hued outlier like to hang out and shoot the breeze in barbershops, like that scene in Coming to America where Eddie Murphy plays three of the characters, including Saul, the old white guy. In NPR’s barbershop, I was Saul, a sort of reverse spice in the diversity stew — which is to say, I was a diversity token on a diversity segment within a diversity show, basically a walking, talking Manuscript Found in Saragossa, albeit one who was always disappointing on the sports-chatter front. As the poet once said: “I’m not black like Barry White, I’m white like Frank Black is.”

So, when NPR is involved in a round of navel-gazing about whether it sounds “too white,” that’s the context to keep in mind: obsession with the appearance of diversity, if not with the thing itself.

There is some fairly deep question-begging that needs to be unpacked here: First, what does it mean to “sound white”? Second, what does it mean to sound “too white”?

That there is a way to “sound white” — much less “too white” — is a canard, as anyone who has ever done a little undergraduate reading in sociolinguistics knows, in the sense that William F. Buckley Jr. sounded white, and white Appalachians sound white, but they sound nothing alike. The implicit belief that there is an analogous way to sound black — a proper way to sound black — is equally unfounded, a relic of what the pioneering sociolinguist Walt Wolfram, one of the founding scholars of African-American English, rightly dismisses as “folklore.”

#page#In his paper “Sociolinguistic Folklore in the Study of African-American English,” Professor Wolfram addresses three main myths about black English. The first is that it is “supraregional,” meaning that, when it comes to English, black is black is black, regardless of whether we’re talking about the South Bronx or the rural Carolinas. The second is the myth of uniform change, that black-speech variations happen in approximately the same way across all black communities. Both of those are false, but the third, the social-stratification myth, is probably the most significant for NPR’s purposes. The (over)simplified version of that myth is that as African Americans move up the economic and educational ladders, they sound less black, and implicitly more white. But the reality is much more complicated than that, and the incidence of the measurable, identifiable features associated with African-American English (such as copula/auxiliary absence, e.g., “He tall,” or the habitual “be,” e.g., “Cookie Monster be eating cookies,” my favorite textbook example) do not track socioeconomic status, varying not only from speaker to speaker but — perhaps more relevant — from situation to situation. This is of course true among all English variants: There are Harvard-educated southern professors who amputate contractions and Yale-educated Yankees who do the same thing when they want to sound homey, as in the case of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s weird “I don’ feel noways tired” performance.

The remarkable thing — or the utterly unremarkable thing, depending on your point of view — isn’t that NPR personalities sound so white, but that they sound so much like NPR personalities.

Funny story: A couple of years ago, I was watching Red Eye, a Fox News program on which I have appeared a few times. One of the guests that night was a younger black man, Kmele Foster, who was talking about the philosophy of Lysander Spooner. There are not very many people who are interested in the ideas of Lysander Spooner, a 19th-century American anarchist who started his own private postal service, and so I made a note to myself that I needed to get together with this Foster guy. As it turns out, our front doors at the time were about four feet from each other. At first I thought: “What are the chances that would be the case?” but an equally relevant question is: “What are the chances that it wouldn’t be the case?” By that I mean: People with similar interests, in similar occupations, with similar educational backgrounds and similar financial situations turn out — unsurprisingly — to have similar taste in living arrangements, and lots of other things in common, too. Do we speak alike? Not especially — we both speak a subdialect of High Nerd, but we’re from different geographic backgrounds — though I suspect that we sound more alike than we sound like what people think of as “sounding black” or (in my case) “sounding Texan.”

The cultural power of linguistic stereotypes is stronger than is generally appreciated: A few weeks ago, I watched (embarrassing-confession alert!) Iron Sky, the tremendously amusing Nazis-on-the-moon sci-fi schlock-fest in which Sarah Palin is president of the United States. Palin is, you’ll recall, from Alaska, and her family has roots in Idaho. Her accent is of a familiar north-northwestern variety. In Iron Sky, President Palin has a noticeable southern accent. Why? Because she’s supposed to be a dumb, Jesus-loves-my-assault-rifle hick, and hicks have southern accents, even if they’re from Maine or New Jersey or the Yukon.

You can bet that nobody, but nobody, will ever complain that NPR sounds too southern.

The sort of people who work at NPR — like the sort of people who listen to it — come mainly from a demographic slice in which the markers of tribal affiliation are so powerful and so deeply ingrained that the members of the tribe do not notice them — no more than a fish knows what water is. You have to be from outside that tribe — as I am — to detect those markers, and black-versus-white is the least of them: Whether somebody talks like one of Eddie Murphy’s cartoon African Americans or like a bit player from The Dukes of Hazzard, it sounds the same way to the NPRniks — wrong.

I’ve heard it said that Michel Martin, who hosted Tell Me More, doesn’t “sound black.” I have read the same thing about Azealia Banks — that she “sounds white.” They certainly don’t sound alike: Martin is from Brooklyn and Banks is from Harlem, which are much more distant linguistically than they are geographically. Martin is a bit older, too. But do they sound, as the headline put it, “too white”? As Kmele Foster puts it, there are as many ways to be black as there are black people — and a concept that expansive is effectively meaningless.

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