On Voice.

by Kimera Chetty

I hate my voice. It is not the worst of voices, but the thing about having a voice is that you tend to hear it disproportionately more often than other voices. Every time you speak, I’m led to believe. This unsolicited relationship means that as with most things about yourself which are entirely unremarkable, you soon develop the knack for describing nondescript aspects of yourself as repulsive. Which, of course, leads to the conclusion of one of the many reasons you are unworthy of love. Trust me, no one cares about the uneven bridge of your nose or whether your forehead looks like it is competing for the Summer Olympics high-jump segment — that said, I still hate my voice.

I hear the breaks and cracks between strained syllables that make me sound parched. I hear its thinness and its highness. I hear the subtle intonations that give away my Indian ethnicity. I hear my mother. I’m not alone in exercising unreasonable self-criticism about an aspect of oneself. We’ve all heard or even said “Ugh, I hate the way I sound!” upon hearing a recording of our voice. Listening to our recorded voice is an opportunity to hear ourselves as others do and is, of course, an opportunity to be critical of how others perceive us — in line with much of our preoccupation with what others think. It was on reading Naomi Wolf’s piece on vocal fry and uptalk that I began to wonder about how far the politics of voice extend.

Relax, this is not another “feminist take-down” of Wolf. There are many think-pieces written about how her particular critique is another attempt to police women, and that the onus rests with men (and other women) to focus on the content of women’s speech, and not its style. I agree with all of this. I also think insofar as feminist critique goes — this is all pretty standard. There is room to introspect further still, and take the conversation beyond young, empowered white valley girls battling “old white dudes” for professional dominance.

Vocal Growing Pains

I grew up in a small, coastal town. For most of my school-going years I resided in predominantly Indian neighbourhoods which were home to a mix of working to middle-class families. My pre-primary school, however, was affluent and well-resourced. All the teachers were white, as well as most of the other children. In South Africa, in 1995, this was interesting time to be in an interracial school. White children both terrified and fascinated me. They seemed abundantly self-assured. They were mostly loud and exuberant. They engaged the teachers and each other fearlessly. They were friendly but they were not my friends. To be fair, this had less to do with them and more to do with my painful shyness. My end of year report card noted that it was difficult to comment on my cognitive and social development as I “preferred to observe rather than participate”. It noted that I had two friends — one being my cousin, and the other being Tanya, another Indian girl at the school. I am unsure why I was so quiet — my father often reminds me that I exercised no such restraint at home.

My guess is that a lot of it had to do with fear. Not a fear of physical dominance — I was a slight child, but I was also apt at the art of shin-kicking and I am fairly sure my first words were “shut up”. It was more the fear of exposing how I sounded — in an unfamiliar sea of prolonged vowels and declarative sentences that inexplicably ended with a “see?” or “hey?”. Thankfully, identifying shapes, reading stories in size 48 font, and putting myself in a trance at the water trough with hypnotic, spinning wheel toys didn’t require excessive talking. Still, I am slightly disappointed that my early immersion in a “white school” didn’t turn me into one of those brown kids who comes home and aggravates the inferiority complex of the homestead with my newly acquired statement-questions.

My primary and secondary schooling were entirely different experiences. I attended public schools that were majority black and Indian. By majority — I mean that there were never more than two or three white kids enrolled in the entire school of over 1000 learners. There is an ease in allowing your voice to be heard, when you are confident that most of your audience sounds like you. When the grammar and diction of your speech are communal. I spoke more and I spoke confidently. My voice itself still wasn’t a focal concern until high school. Being somewhat of a late bloomer — I was utterly uncomfortable with femininity. I enjoyed the close camaraderie with my male friends. My vocabulary drastically changed. Conversationally, I spoke almost entirely using profanities and the Indian equivalent of bro-speak. And then I would go home, having mentally washed my mouth out with soap.

This was likely my first experience with code switching. Using my voice to adopt a bizarre hyper-masculine persona, that ingratiated me with my male counterparts and granted me acceptance as “one of the guys”. I felt comfortable — more comfortable than with the exclusively female cliques who hugged each other every morning (a social convention I still fail to understand). They talked effortlessly about experiences I considered rooted in femininity. Their voices too were different — less concerned with postured aggressiveness. I remember more laughter, more cheerfulness. There was a certain confidence I still could not muster with all the profane verbiage I had mastered.

I must have believed that by somehow trying to de-gender my personality (ironically, by adopting another gender stereotype), my voice too was being de-gendered. At least that’s how I rationalise it now. I am sure the real reason is that I just thought I was being cool. Because being “girly” or “feminine” was uncool — unless you believed yourself to be pretty, which I did not and more importantly, unless others believed it too.

As compensation, I considered myself smart and fearless. I was, in fact, excessively unsure and preoccupied with acceptance at the expense of more pressing concerns, like say, Accounting or Math.

The “P” Word

People are rarely attuned to thinking of their voice as privilege. It is easy to accept that the ability to use our vocal chords to communicate and express ourselves are functional when compared to someone who is mute or has a speech impediment. But the gradient of privilege is not as stark as voice or no voice. Voice is gendered. Voice is political. And so, voice is privilege. Within the transgender community, voice can also be dangerous. For those in periods of transition, or even having fully transitioned — voice can be the one thing that “outs” you. There are many stories of people who have chosen to undergo speech therapy in order to learn how to raise their pitch to sound more feminine, or lower it to sound more masculine.

David Thorpe’s documentary, “Do I Sound Gay?” seeks to explore whether there is such a thing as the “gay voice”. Jemal Polson, writing for The Telegraph, talks about his own battles as a gay man, who is also black — berated for sounding neither masculine enough nor black enough. Importantly, he emphasises the acceptance of one’s own voice. In the face of stacked assumptions, judgement and character assessments. It is both defiant and supremely natural.

Listening to Judge

In my early twenties, I dedicated unhealthy amounts of my free — and unfree — time to competitive debating. I was interested in being a speaker, unfortunately I was also terrible at it. I achieved much more success as an adjudicator and so of course focused all my energy on that instead. This was an easy decision. It was vastly more enjoyable to be able to critique other people and be rewarded for that, than to be critiqued myself and perceived as mediocre.

Adjudicating competitively — which is to say judging to be considered a better judge than other judges — is an interesting experience. Essentially, we all strive to be the better listener. The aim of judging on a panel is to reach consensus on a decision about who won the debate. To do this, the panel must try to consolidate the subjective listening experiences of each other. The mark of a good adjudicator has always been someone who prioritises what a speaker has said, and not how they said it in determining rankings. In direct contrast to Wolf’s assertion, in competitive debating at least, style is not content.

This is how it should be. Ideally, any speaker should be able to take the podium and deliver a speech to be adjudicated, without being preferred or prejudiced by their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and so on. But judges are people, and people have biases whether we acknowledge them or not.

The accent of a person delivering an argument should have no bearing on the strength of that argument. Varying degrees in proficiency in speaking English can mean that a judge and other speakers need to listen more attentively, but it isn’t the same as being incomprehensible. Women in debating should not have their speeches described as “too emotional”. Black women, especially, should not be told that they sounded “angry” or “sassy”. Speakers should not have to nervously wonder whether the panel will afford their team a fair shot at taking first place when their competitors are from an Ivy League school — or more truthfully, British, American or Australian — because they don’t sound the same.

These things should not happen, not because people are incapable of these things or I am in denial that we do all sound different. But 1) because these charges should not matter and 2) because these things are usually said to specific groups of people and have gained power as a way of devaluing the talent, participation and chances of success of certain groups.

Having “an accent” just means that you hear an accent different to yours and make a (sometimes unconscious) choice to value it more or less.

The Fallacy of Merit

Within a sport dedicated to testing the performance of logic, persuasion and critical thinking — whiteness should not be perceived as an advantage. There is the belief that there is no democracy when it comes to talent — meritocracy should be the sole arbiter of who gets to be lauded as good at something. I’m partial to this view — with many disclaimers. This is not to say that a preference for elitism in talent is to confine it to the privileged. Instead, it is to say there is no space for privilege in determining the quality of something like art. Like writing. Like debating. All voices must first be equal, before they are considered unequal. Before we can request that content and substance become the only things considered.

A good friend and excessively skilled debater during a speech once said, “It’s pretty arbitrary that I’m brown, but it’s pretty meaningful, right?”. The reason that “merit” alone often fails is because the standards for what it means to be good at something were devised knowing that the playing fields are unequal and not caring about it.

It is this belief that we are at the point of valuing merit to the exclusion of other factors, having done very little work in leveling the chances for success. It allows the benefactors of accolades to continue handing out certificates of participation to those necessarily sidelined by these crafted standards, and rewarding others for simply being the right prototype. Perniciously, it allows us to set the standard that for some it is expected that they must always strive to succeed in spite of circumstance, and others may expect to be rewarded because those circumstances remain in place.

You can hate your voice and others can too — but that has nothing to do with what you have to say, or whether it deserves to be heard. That is dependent on the thing being said. All voices must first be equal, before they are considered unequal. And they are not. There is a responsibility to interrogate the means by which we arrive at what it means “to be good” at something. That responsibility includes recognising barriers and working to remove them.

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