Want To Make More Money? Don't "Sound Black." Or Southern!

Illustration for article titled Want To Make More Money? Don't "Sound Black." Or Southern!

Over on the New York Times "Freakonomics" blog, Steven D. Levitt tackles the issue of "sounding black." Specifically: As it relates to one's salary. Levitt's University of Chicago colleague, Jeffrey Grogger, compared the wages of people who "sound black" when they talk to those who do not. Apparently, if you "sound black," you earn 10% less than if you do not "sound black," and Levitt adds that this is "even after controlling for measures of intelligence, experience in the work force, and other factors that influence how much people earn." Plus! "For what it is worth," he writes, "whites who 'sound black' earn 6 percent lower than other whites." Oh, and ready for this? Levitt notes: "It turns out you don't want to sound southern, either. Although pretty imprecisely estimated, it is almost as bad for your wages to sound southern as it is to sound black, even controlling for whether you live in the south." Effing hell. Where to begin?


Maybe Levitt's intentions are good. He wants everyone to make money! The money they deserve! But we are not robots. We have personal experiences and idiosyncrasies that may or may not be relevant to our intelligence and/or work ethic. Some of it is beyond our control. For instance: "sounding black." Does Barack Obama sound black? Does Jesse Jackson sound black? Does Oprah? Did Martin Luther King? Even more troubling is this passage:

Investing in the ability to not "sound black" looks to have a huge return - roughly of the same magnitude as getting one more year of schooling… There may be personal costs associated with being black and not sounding black. But these costs would have to be pretty large. (When I have Asian Ph.D. students go on the job market in the United States, I tell them that I think there is rampant discrimination against non-English speakers and encourage them to adopt Americanized first names for the job market. Very few of my students choose to do so - either a testimony to the identity cost of pretending to be someone you aren't, or possibly their lack of faith in my assessment of the amount of discrimination.)

Adopting an Americanized first name? Does playing into xenophobia render it ineffective? Would Levitt also suggest a woman named Shaniqua Keisha Jones change the name on her resume to S.K. Jones? (Probably!) Here's the problem with that: It's demeaning and patronizing. Some might argue you "do what you have to do" to get a foot in the door. But if you're intelligent and hard working, shouldn't your resume get you in the door no matter what name is at the top? No, you're saying. The world doesn't work like that. But couldn't it be said that the more HR people who encounter intelligent, hardworking people with names like Shaniqua Keisha Jones, the more people will stop pre-judging people with names like Shaniqua Keisha Jones. Ditto "sounding black," having a southern accent or a clearly Asian name. Deleting these things could be construed as self-hate, denial or disingenuousness. Is it better to be sneaky, calculating and take a "by any means necessary" approach in the workforce? Is "sounding black" something people need to apologize for? Do the people who "sound black" need to "invest in" the ability to sound more white? How best to bust a stereotype? By playing into it? Or defying it?

How Much Does It Cost You in Wages if You "Sound Black?" [NY Times]


Montauk Monster

I'm another Tennessean who has made a conscious effort to lose her dialect. I'd say I sound "standard American" but it's hard to judge your own speaking voice. The only proper grown-up job I've had was in London, and everyone in my office would stare at me open-jawed when I put on my "Southern" accent for them. Thanks to the Duke boys and President Bush, that voice reads as "idiot" pretty much the world over. Only Dolly Parton can save us now.

Even when I'm at home with my family I don't lapse into my old dialect. It feels (and sounds) just as foreign to me now if I tried to sound Australian. Will the way I sound make me richer? I don't know. But I feel confident I have a better chance of it than if I still used the same voice I did when I was 11.