Is Siri racist?

Recently I had a conversation with a retired professional I know. Let’s call him John. He complained that Siri’s voice-recognition feature usually doesn’t understand his Carolina accent.
 
Me: When you’re talking to your phone, why don’t you simply use a middle-American accent? You know, like hundreds of young actors from Australia and Ireland do every day for their auditions in Hollywood.
 
Him: I can’t do accents.

Me: You mean you can’t even sound like the TV newsman long enough to give your phone a simple command?
 
Him: Not really.
 
Of course, it doesn’t seem right to suggest that racism had anything to with John’s inability to make himself understood to his iPhone. (Is Siri “regionalist”?) But later that day I remembered a conversation I’d had with John a few years ago that did involve race.

Something in the paper or in the news had prompted him to remark that young black Americans would help themselves in life if they worked to lose their “urban” way of talking and spoke more like, say, Colin Powell. (I’ll note that John’s comments were clearly motivated by genuine concern; he was not intentionally being rude about young urban black people.)

That conversation went something like this:
 
Me: That’s probably true enough. What would also be great — and what you can do something about, because I know you don’t know any young black people you can share your valuable insight with— is to not judge other people by their accents. And you should tell your friends that, too.
 
Him: But I can’t always understand what they’re saying….
 
Me: Work harder at it. You travel the world. I know you communicate with people all time whose first language isn’t English. I’m sure you can deal with American accents different from yours. The important thing is: you shouldn’t hold their accents against them.
 
Him: But speaking more clearly would do so much to help them advance in society.
 
Me: That’s almost certainly true. But this is true, too: I promise you that some people from outside the South have held your accent against you, thinking it indicates you aren’t as educated as you are. It’s happened to all of us who don’t speak like Colin Powell. It’s only rich and powerful people (like Laura Bush — who seems never to have caught any grief for regularly using words like “dudn’t”) who aren’t held back by these prejudices. We need to deal with our own linguistic prejudices as well as try to help others with the way they speak.
 
I don’t think John appreciated my point.
 
And I’m kicking myself that I didn’t remember that exchange when John was complaining about his recent troubles with Siri. If I had remembered, I might have said: Remember when you said young black Americans should talk less “street” and more like Colin Powell? And now you’re telling me that it’s impossible for you to sound like Colin Powell when issuing a simple command to your phone? Now can you appreciate that maybe it’s not so easy to speak in a way that others demand?

Someday we’ll all be forced to speak in a way that voice-recognition systems understand — if we want our cars to start when we tell them to, our TVs to turn on, or have the robot barista prepare our cappuccino the way we like it.

Or maybe Siri will get better at detecting “street” patterns of speech and Carolina accents.

Until then, young urban black people might try to speak in a way that those who control the levers of access, opportunity, and power can understand. (And be prompt, stand up straight, tuck in your shirt, practice a firm handshake, make eye contact, smile when appropriate, laugh at the interviewer’s jokes, all of that).

And those of us who have gotten by just fine — until, that is, the robots refused to credit our particular brand of white people speech — might practice a bit more understanding about how “self-improvement” isn’t always as easy as we suppose when we’re urging it on other people.


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