Racial identity and speech

Speaking about English, can one detect racial identity from speech?






My accent gives me away every time.



That needs serious amplification.


Or contesting. See Jamie’s info:

And some landlords might agree with Amy:


And John Baugh might disagree with her.

Same link.

And then again, John McWhorter might agree with Amy:

Same link.

More on Baugh:


So maybe race can be detected from speech.

And this is the big question, IMO:

If racial identifcation by voice has been acknowledged in murder and drug cases, why hasn’t it played a more conspicuous role in housing discrimination cases?

Hi Molly

Do you think you would be identified as being black and a woman by an apartment rental agent or landlord in the US – based only on your speech and voice?

If you don’t think your voice would be readily identifiable as female, would you nevertheless be identified as a Negro by a landlord in the US – based only on your speech?

Why or why not? (Please be truthful.) :wink:

Unless the landlord was familiar with Nigerian accents, I probably wouldn’t be identified as black, no. I’d probably be identified as foreign though. As for as a woman, I hope so - I have a delicate feminine voice.

Would you say that basing racial identity on speech is overtly racist, Amy?

Would you go as far as “dulcet”?


Would you go as far as “on-topic”?

Not on a first date.


Let hope someone gives a fig for your dates. Now, back to the thread TOPIC…

What’s your take on these comments, Mr P?

"Black people do have different voices from white people. Sometimes they overlap such that a particular voice could belong either to a white or a black person, but I don’t think it’s that common. After all, if they have different skin color, different eye color, different hair pattern, and different facial shape, why should we necessarily expect their voices to sound the same?

A black person’s voice is typically deep, but not necessarily… for example, Chris Rock’s voice isn’t deep at all, but it’s still definitely identifiable as a black person’s voice, and it still would be if he didn’t speak with an AAVE accent. I can’t really explain why, there aren’t really any good words to describe vocal quality."


The landlord wouldn’t have to know your accent was specifically Nigerian. The English accents of West Africa and the Caribbean are similar and quite different from those of Europe. The landlord would probably think you were “Jamaican or something” and identify you as “probably black”. However, a landlord who refuses to rent to an African-American very likely would not refuse to rent to an African.

It is not 100% possible to recognize someone’s race in the United States based on speech.

However, most but not all of the time, in the United States, if a person speaks a language variety that an ordinary person would label “black English”, that person is black. If a white person speaks a variety that an ordinary person would label “black English”, there’s almost a 100% chance that he doesn’t speak it quite right, and he is easily identified over the phone as white. Many people who speak standard American English are identifiable over the phone as black because of their accent. It is extremely rare for a standard English speaker of another race to have that accent.

If a person speaks standard broadcast English over the phone, with no trace of an ethnic accent, his race is not identifiable. Many American-born people from immigrant families speak hyper-clear standard English without even a trace of regional pronunciation, but again, it’s not possible to identify their race over the telephone.

In my area there are two other accents that give away a person’s race over the phone. One is a mostly Midwestern accent with Southern rhythm and a very, very mild trace of Southern pronunciation. That accent indicates that the person is white and has parents from Appalachia. It also means that the person is of lower working class status, because children of Appalachian parents here nearly all speak with the standard local accent if they are educated. The other is an accent that is tinged with Polish. It gives all the same information as the Appalachian-tinged accent, but the parents or grandparents were from Poland. Theoretically, a black person, an Indian or a Chinese-American could have either of these accents, but I have never seen it in my entire life. Even the blacks in my city who are native Polish speakers nonetheless speak English with an African-American accent.

Again, this is all a matter of probabilities and not absolutes.

As for a landlord’s part in all this, I’d say it is relatively rare nowadays that a tenant is rejected just because he is black. The landlord has to size up the prospective tenant’s character very quickly, and without deep knowledge of the person, so this encourages, and can even necessitate judging based on superficials. The same landlord who rejects a tenant who speaks “Ebonics” is also likely to reject whites who are too young, appear to be alcoholic, look disreputable, smoke, leer at their teenage daughters, or throw up other red flags. They may rent to a black professor but reject a white manager who gives them a bad feeling. They may rent to an African but not to an African-American. They may rent to a black-white interracial couple, but not to a young, single white mother. I met a white lady who was willing to rent to a black family, but she refused one particular black family when she figured out that they intended to fill every room in the entire house with as many beds as possible (in order to get all members of their extended family into a better school district).

So the rejection is seldom due only to race, only to language, etc.

Also, not every person who says he’s going around trying to rent and apartment really has that as his intention. Sometimes people are sent out by civil rights organizations just to incite an incident that can be used as the basis for a lawsuit. These organizations take the mere refusal to rent to a black person as evidence of racial discrimination, and they often ignore other factors that went into the refusal. Sometimes landlords who do not actually discriminate based on race are nonetheless sued for it.

Really? No one has ever mistaken me for Rita Marley.


Are US landlords that expert at telling the difference?

Is this because people of different ethnic or social groups in the US don’t generally mix? I mean, races and social groups in Britain seem to mix a lot and many second-generation black people there cannot be distinguished as such by their accent. Is the US a more ghettoised society?

But we’re not talking about physical identification here. Would a landlord more readily reject an “Ebonics” speaker on the telephone than he would a white person?

And if, as you say, a person’s race can, mostly, be determined by accent, in the US, what how would you answer this question?

Clever family.

But some who do actually discriminate based on race need to be sued, right?

You will be identified by the person on the other end of the phone as “African or Jamaican or something.”

Because of a probable difference in lifestyle and financial behavior.

By the way, in my experience Africans are often as prejudiced against African-Americans as whites are, and they’re less embarrassed about it.

The average person in the US is perfectly adept at detecting what is “real black English” and “fake black English”. Almost anybody can tell the difference.

You have basically two societies in most parts of the US. One is “white” society, which includes Asians, English-speaking Hispanics, and increasingly contains a few blacks. Nowadays, when you hear ordinary Americans talk about a neighborhood or school or some other place being “white”, they generally mean “not black”. The second society consists of blacks who still exhibit ghetto behavior.

This explanation applies to the Midwest and some other places. It may not apply to California, where I understand people are racist against more different types of people.

When it comes to “black English”, dialect is an almost foolproof indicator of physical identity. Some landlords would reject anyone who speaks real “black English” or fake “black English”, because use of that dialect, and refusal or inability to switch into a more standard variety is usually indicative of a whole cluster of behavioral traits.

Because activist legal organizations haven’t set any traps yet. Besides this, nowadays the applicant is largely not rejected based on dialect or race alone. It’s hard to prove that the landlord would not reject white people speaking the same way.

I think the potential tenant should just walk away and find a different landlord. As a whole, race discrimination suits in the US are unjust, because they defend only one race. Despite the frequency with which whites are discriminated against by blacks, you seldom see a suit over it. I know of many cases in which whites were refused restaurant service by black employees, but there’s never a lawsuit over it. I even know of cases in which blacks encouraged white coworkers to take on their dialect and discourse features and later used that to get the whites fired.

And how do African-Americans live and spend in contrast with Africans?

By the way, in my experience Africans are often as prejudiced against African-Americans as whites are, and they’re less embarrassed about it.

Not any African I’ve known. BTW, when you say “Africans”, you mean black Africans, right?

Don’t the Chinese, the Amish, and the Jews also exhibit ghetto behaviour?

What kind of behavioural traits?

So some landlords do think it may be a white person on the line, right? You’re saying that they would reject a person because he uses an AAVE accent and not because he may be black, are you?

So what is it?

  1. Landords believe that any person with an AAVE accent could be trouble and so reject that person.

  2. Landords believe that any black person with an AAVE accent could be trouble and so reject that person.

  3. Landords believe that any white or black person with an AAVE accent could be trouble and so reject that person.

And in doing so allow the landlord to discriminate another day.

There should have been lawsuits in all those cases.