The curious incident of Rachel Doležal’s accent

By now you’ve probably heard about Rachel Doležal, Africana Studies Professor at Eastern Washington University (despite what they say) and President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, whose parents recently revealed to the media that their daughter has no known African ancestry (within the past few millennia, at least). There have been a number of interesting commentaries connecting Doležal’s actions to the phenomenon of mixed-race Americans “passing for white,” to the notion of race as a construct, and to the concept of self-identification. Many people have drawn comparisons between this case and the notion of gender identity – comparisons that have brought strong objections from many advocates for the concept of gender identity. There are a lot of things I could say about this issue, and I may have a few blog posts about it, but tonight I would like to draw your attention to the curious incident of Professor Doležal’s accent.

Rachel Doležal with long blond braids

Rachel Doležal at the Spokane Martin Luther King Day Rally, January 19, 2015. Photo: Young Kwak / Inlander

I, and many others, were immediately struck by the visual contrast between the photos of Doležal’s current persona and photos of her at younger ages released by her parents. Media articles played this up – almost every one featured two photos side by side. Doležal’s skin color, of course, is several shades darker in the recent pictures and her clothing is noticeably different, but as Kara Brown observed, what is most obvious is her hair: straight and blond in the older pictures, in towering braids in photos from a few years ago, and most recently in an explosion of reddish ringlets. It’s a style that I quite like, but I find the name “natural” particularly ironic in Doležal’s case, just imagining what unnatural things she must have done to get her hair to look like that.

What I haven’t heard anyone talk about up to now is Professor Doležal’s accent. This is where I get to imagine myself as Sherlock Holmes in “The Silver Blaze,” pointing out the negative evidence: if you listen to videos of Doležal, she sounds, quite consistently, like a white woman from Montana. I have not made an exhaustive study of every recording of her, but I’ve watched enough videos of her that I would have expected to hear some features of African American English, and I’ve heard none. Here is a video of her giving a public lecture about black hair at her university, where she reads a poem by Willie Coleman written in black English, but with white pronunciations for all the words.

Now bear with me: I know that there are plenty of African Americans who don’t “sound black.” I have friends who are like this, by their own description. It may be partly a Northwestern thing: Ben Trawick-Smith, a dialect coach based in Seattle, has observed that African American Vernacular English is “a somewhat less salient dialect” in Seattle and Portland, and Jimi Hendrix’s speech sounds more “white” to my ears than that of many other black musicians from his generation. In the Spokane area in particular, people who listed African American heritage on the census make up 2.4% of the population, or about 15,000 people, and groups that small generally speak like the people around them unless they are extremely segregated.

On the other hand, some black people in Washington State do sound black, like QC the Barber in Spokane and community advocates from Africatown in Seattle. And many white people sound black. This can be a conscious affectation, as we hear in white musicians from the Rolling Stones to Iggy Azalea. But it can simply be a natural product of socialization: one of my friends went to a majority-black high school, had lots of black friends, and talks kind of like them, even though he’s Jewish. In fact, white English has borrowed so many words and features from Black English over the past century that most of us white people sound blacker than our grandparents.

What is curious in Doležal’s case is not the simple contrast between the visual and the audible; that is common. What is curious is the contrast in effort. Doležal has clearly put a ton of time and energy into looking black, but almost no energy into sounding black. To me, as a linguist, as the child of an audiophile, as someone who pays attention to sound, and as a transgender person, this is all very familiar. This is why I have to laugh at all the transgender bloggers who speak with such outrage at any comparison between Doležal’s statements and actions and our own. Because Doležal has clearly been doing the exact thing that I see and hear from so many people in the trans community: spending hours in front of the mirror without ever listening to her own voice. There’s something there, people.

(Update, June 14: I just watched this CNN interview with Doležal’s parents, where her biological father Lawrence talks in detail about her application to the MFA program at Howard University, living in Jackson, Mississippi, “She’s immersed in the African American culture, in the community there. She sounds African American on the phone. She did to us as well, and it wasn’t a deceptive thing at that time. That’s just who she was.” This raises even more questions in my mind. Did she sound more black then, twenty years ago, than she does now? Does she sound more black to her family, and to other native speakers of Mountain West English, than she does to me?)