Most of us have at some point been shocked to discover that a singer we thought was of one ethnicity was actually of another. This article isn’t as much about the shock as it is about the fact that most of us have done this.
This article also isn’t about shaming or guilt. That’s not to say whether or not it’s warranted, and that’s not to say it’s not a conversation we should have. This article, though, is intended to focus more on the manner in which it happens.
Stanford University’s John Baugh studies the perceived identification of ethnic speech characteristics in the workforce and employment arena. In his paper “Racial Identification by Speech”, published in American Speech, Baugh calls attention to the famed legal history of racial speech identification.
In 1995, he points out, racial identification by speech was the core of a major objection when Johnnie Cochran questioned the validity Christopher Darden’s witness’s ability to determine ethnicity from a phone call. Judge Lance Ito overruled the objection, essentially allowing that the witness’s opinion on the other telephone communicator could be considered.
Baugh also points out that in 1999 the Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled that it is valid for a witness to testify that an overheard voice sounds to them like it belongs to a person of a specific race. Justice William S. Cooper defended the ruling by analogizing it to the allowance of witnesses to identify voices by gender.
Whether or not we feel that these rulings should be legally valid, most linguists agree that many of us associate certain cadences, word choices, dialects, intonations, and tempos with specific ethnic groups and subgroups. Afterall, African-American Vernacular English, an academically recognized dialect of North American English, retains its label for a reason.
Anthropologically and sociologically speaking, it makes sense that nuanced speech characteristics would be common to social and regional groups, especially those that are tight-knit or segregated. It would downright delusional to claim that there’s not been a recent and long-lived history of racial segregation in the United States.
Even if we accept that cadences, word choices, dialects, intonations, and tempos are common to the speech of certain ethnic groups, it doesn’t explain why that would also be true of lyrics being sung, as many of those characteristics would be negated. Song style and lyric choice could still be indicators, but what if a singer was performing a cover of a song already associated with artists of another race?
Last night, the second episode of The Masked Singer aired. Admittedly, there have been a limited number of performances thus far, but an interesting trend appears to be emerging. Regardless of the origin of the song, the four panel judges virtually always agree on the race of the disguised singer in question.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it involves celebrities from various fields (acting, modeling, music, sports) dressing up in extravagant full-body costumes and large headpieces with the intention of completely hiding their identities. The celebrities’ speaking voices are heavily modulated, but their general body types are sometimes at least partially apparent.
The only rational means for accurately identifying these celebrities are their unaltered singing voices and their singing prowess.
Although race is never explicitly mentioned as a factor in the panel members’ inoffensive guesses, it certainly does not seem to go unaccounted for.
In the one specific instance I can recall in which one of the judges began to suggest that a performer guessed by all the other judges to be various black celebrities might be a certain white celebrity, they were quickly corrected by another judge who pointed out that the voice was “too soulful.” At other points, there have been vague references to an indefinable quality that led all judges to guess celebrities of the same ethnicity.
In her book The Race of Sound, Professor Nina Sun Eidsheim from UCLA posits that even some attributes of the human voice that seem natural are still the products of social conditioning. She asserts, for instance, that humans tend to subconsciously “locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre.”
As acknowledged in the first line of this article, we’re not always right. There are, of course, exceptions to the norm, as well as a broad range of individuals among and between specific sound characteristics. No one is suggesting that all members of any one ethnic group sound alike or that they cannot have characteristics generally considered typical of another group.
What both the explicit scientific postulations and the implicit agreement of the television judging panel seem to suggest, though, is that there are certainly common perceptions of the voice characteristics of certain racial and ethnic groups, and those perceptions may be based less on musical genre and lyrical choice than we’d like to assume.
Personally, I like to see this less as another unfair instance of racial stereotyping and more as one of the beautiful products of cultural expression.