"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.
“So white…!”, then, I seemed, years ago, to a black administrative assistant. I was told of the assessment some time later by an acquaintance of hers, but I could sense that this lady couldn’t stand me as soon as we met. This was long before I had any public notoriety for unconventional views about race issues; I was an utterly anonymous new professor of linguistics. That she found me so disagreeable must have had something to do with me as a person. I arrived into the situation with good intentions and was interested in ingratiating myself as much as possible with everyone there, so I have reason to assume that what repelled her is the way I talk, which does indeed sound “so white.”
Some will say that this woman was especially narrow-minded or ignorant, but she wasn’t—that’s just the thing. I could tell countless similar stories, about the couple of black listeners who liked my recorded linguistic courses in the Great Courses series but complained about the way I speak, one of them adding that a friend heard me and thought I lacked “swagger.” When I was twelve, a cousin of mine, not yet three, remarked that my sister and I didn’t sound like everybody else he knew. This kind of thing, for me, is and has always been just part of living."