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In the 1940s and 50s, actors in major American films, like Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, spoke with a kind of faux British accent as a way to sound “upper class.” This pronunciation spread across the country as a kind of standard to imitate. The problem was, this way of talking left out nearly all actual American voices, says Tom McEnaney, a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a class called “Sounding American.”

While the class talks about the generational differences of sound — no one today really speaks like movie stars of the 40s — they also discuss how today’s filmmakers, like Boots Riley in “Sorry to Bother You,” are pushing back against the racial norms concealed in what we might say sounds American. McEnaney says the film, about a young black telemarketer who uses his “white voice” to be successful at sales, takes the sense that many people have — that whiteness is a kind of invisible standard against which all other cultures are judged in the U.S. — and makes the audience think about how whiteness is audible, and is another kind of difference.

Listen to the story on Berkeley News.

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