Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film Sorry to Bother You.
Sorry to Bother You is a lot of things: wildly hysterical, weird AF, and chock-full of amazing performances by a great cast of mostly Black actors. If you don’t see another movie all summer, this one is worth your time and money. I say this with conviction because in addition to all of the other reasons I just mentioned, Sorry to Bother You is the latest film to play with the conventions of surrealism and comedy — just like Get Out — to offer social commentary on race, among other things. The new film by rapper-turned-screenwriter/director Boots Riley is a condemnation of capitalism that dares to question how dark corporate greed can get. But the major appeal of the film, for me, was the willingness to honestly insert race and class as interlocking systems of oppression that keep the capitalist machine going. It’s the use of a “white voice” by the film’s Black protagonist Cassius aka Cash (LaKeith Stanfield), that illustrates this point.
Underhoused and unemployed, Cash tries to lie his way into a job at a call center. Despite his cover being blown by the hiring manager, Cash’s innovation pays off. He is hired on the spot but reminded to stick to the script. And that’s what Cash does when he starts his new gig. But you know how you react when a telemarketer calls — you hang up immediately. One of Cash’s more senior coworkers (Danny Glover) offers him some advice that helps him quickly become one of the top performers on his call center floor and fast tracks his upward mobility: “Use your white voice.” Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that Cash’s new tax bracket came with way more than he bargained for, suggesting that there is a cost for the moving up the ranks in a capitalist empire.
But “white voice” itself is not a tool of ultimate destruction for the Black people who use it. The advice that Cash got from his coworker was solid. Putting on a voice that sounds like it’s coming from someone who is white is an effective tactic that people of color often have to deploy to secure basic needs like housing and employment. It’s called code switching, the practice of switching between languages or in some cases, dialects. People of color do it just about every day. When I’m making a request over the phone from anyone from my student loan servicer to my takeout delivery dude, I put on my white voice. When I meet someone for the first time in any professional setting, they get the white voice. When I’m pulled over by the police, I use my white voice and mention the white college I attended. White privilege and supremacy dictate that whiteness itself is superior, or at the very least neutral. White people are assumed to be safer, more deserving, smarter, and more capable than everyone else. Their voices can put other people at ease and inspire them to action faster than anyone else’s.
Code-switching is a universally understood practice, and although Riley is an innovator for delving into its connection to actual systems of oppression, the practice is referenced quite a bit onscreen. And it doesn't happen in just one direction. Key & Peele once had a hilarious skit about code-switching to appear more Black. And some of the most memorable characters in comedy (unfortunately often modeled after Black women) are often characterized by their refusal to code-switch. How many "unprofessional Black secretaries" have you seen onscreen? The Black women that Black comedians love to play all stand out for refusing to fit in. In an industry that regularly whitewashes Black characters, explicit examples of code-switching splash viewers in the face with a dose of reality.
The nuances of white voice and other means of cultural codes are complicated to say the least. Every day, people of color use their own discernment to dictate how far we are willing to go in order to secure the things we want and need, keep ourselves safe, and skirt the realities and consequences of racism and classism. Ultimately, Cash had to make a similar decision in Sorry to Bother You. You’ll have to watch the movie to see where it got him.