During the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, attorney Johnnie Cochran — who used his magnificent mind to defend the indefensible and paid the wages of sin with an inoperable brain tumor — claimed during that awful trial it was Racist to identify a Black man by voice alone.
Do you agree with Cochran or not?

It is possible to identify someone’s gender, religion, educational
level or cultural upbringing solely by the sound of their voice?
Is it ethical to Racially or Ethnically identify someone based on skin
and facial features alone?
I have students who can look at a series of faces and say — “She’s
Filipino. He’s Chinese. She’s Korean.” — and get them all right! One
Filipina student told me, “The Filipino nose is unique. That isn’t
Racist. That’s a fact.”

Is that student Racist, or is she just using the physical
characteristics of a people to categorize them based on common
experiences in her culture — a broad nose, the shape of an eye, a
prominent cheekbone — to help identify friend or foe or family or
stranger based on a genetic coding within us that we have all used —
consciously or subconsciously — for thousands of years as a matter of
socialized survival and community advancement?
Is it appropriate or not for us to use our ears and our eyes to try to
give form and reason to strangers we may not know, but may have
experienced before?

Are we forsaking our innate protection methods and survival skills by
denying there are identifiable and historically appropriate Cultural,
Ethnic and Racial profiles that are shared across a group of people for


  1. I don’t see identifying people in and of itself as racist. It is the attitude behind the action that determines whether or not a person is racist. You mentioned a person that could correctly identify people by their appearance. But for what purpose? Did they want to be culturally respectful to someone who was of a different group? Or did they want to avoid certain groups because of the negative stereotypes? Or is it merely observation?
    I know some people who were attacked based on conflicts in the Middle East because people thought they were Middle Eastern. That showed both racism and ignorance.

  2. I think it is instinctive to judge people by their voice, looks and so on. It can be done.
    Whether it is ethical or not that is a different question – but we do it – it is natural. It is possible to identify people based on their looks and voice. What is questionable is the purpose that tags along with this judgment.
    I believe, pre judging or imposing any preconceived notion along with the identification is not acceptable.
    As long as there is diversity there will be this trend to identify and judge people.

  3. I’ve found that you can’t determine much about someone based on their voice alone.
    Sometimes the way people sound is a function of where they live and the way the majority of people speak in their area. Also, everyone has their own unique voice characteristics.
    Several years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with someone with whom I had only spoken with on the phone during business matters. The person asked me about a fellow co-worker with who she had spoken with a lot. She said she had the impression from his deep voice that he was one race, when in fact he was another.
    I’ve known many women who can change their voice patterns depending on where they are and what they are doing. If they are in the office, they will sound one way. If they are on the phone talking to a friend, they sometimes sound completely different. It all depends on the context.
    I don’t know if it is racist to try to identify people based on their voice pattern alone, as suggested by Jonnie Cochrane.
    I do know that you can be fooled if you rely upon a voice alone to determine what someone actually looks like on the other side of a phone.
    Also, one can be fooled by looks as well.
    Sometimes you can’t always tell if someone is necessarily from one place or another based solely on looks alone.
    When I was in law school, I knew a Filipina who I didn’t realize was Filipina — even after talking to her daily in class — until a year later!

  4. Hi A S —
    I’m not sure if intention is enough of an escape from the issue. If, say, a person intends “Racial profiling” to avoid a certain dangerous neighborhood based on past experience with how people on that street look some might champion that move as being “street smart” while a government that intends “Racial Profiling” in order to perhaps save lives on an airplane would be called Racist and Bigoted.
    Isn’t the intention the same in both cases: To preserve one from harm?

  5. Katha —
    I think you make an excellent point that a homogenous culture has no need to classify threats or friends based on voice or facial features because everyone is in the same genetic pool. Everyone sees the same trend.
    Janna noticed while teaching ASL at NYU that many of her native Asian students –- not homogenized second-generations Asian-Americans — have a hard time with facial expression. Their foreheads are expressionless as are there eyes when they sign.
    The face provides the context for the sign so you cannot get away with having a “dead face” and expect to do well.
    After many years of studying this and in working with students she came to understand that, culturally, dramatic facial expressions are not appropriate in many Asian cultures — it is as if those muscles were never really fully used and that is why those students had to work extra hard to “work out” their faces!
    Janna works with her students — any student — who have trouble with facial expression by giving them certain exercises to do to strengthen those expression muscles and, most important, she gives them “permission” to make faces in class to match their signing.

  6. Hi Chris!
    Johnnie Cochran, as I remember it, was cross-examining a witness during the O.J. trial that claimed he “heard a Black man yelling” and Johnnie pressed him and pressed him to explain exactly what a Black man sounded like so we all could recognize the voice in the future.
    Johnnie then went on to basically call the person a Racist because, Johnnie argued, you cannot determine Race by voice alone. People can change their voice. They can imitate. They can do a variety of things that cannot be known and so to classify a random voice in the night, as Black, is to press your own prejudices into the plain fact that “someone who sounded like a man” was yelling in the night.
    I agree guessing Race by face alone can be tricky, but as I understand it, there are certain clear bone structure “stereotypes” that identify certain groupings of people the world over that can be scientifically proven.
    When a crime lab has a skull and does measurements on the skull and then scientifically determines it belongs to an African Man or a Korean woman is that Racist? They’re looking at bone structure and taking measurements and comparing those characteristics in a research volume to determine Race and Gender.

  7. In the 19th century it was a commonly held belief that you could tell the difference between a man’s and a woman’s handwriting. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer and even had Sherlock Holmes use the method once or twice.
    While you can probably make a pretty good guess about somebody’s nationality from their features I certainly wouldn’t want a court relying on it to prove anything.
    And in a person with both Korean and Japanese heritage (for example) could you not find some people who would identify the Japanese characteristics more easily than the Korean ones and vice verse – easily leading to confusion between witness statements.

  8. I think Jonnie Cochrane was playing the “race card” in the trial to his client’s advantage.
    There are certain things that people can take notice of based on their experience.
    A person observing a car can say that the car was going faster than other cars without needing a radar gun to know exactly how fast the car was going.
    In the context of the trial, it is useful to know exactly what someone heard.
    The witness was describing the voice heard but made a leap without actually knowing. Maybe it would have been more useful for the witness to describe the quality of the voice to preclude any challenge based on profiling.
    By saying what he or she thought, instead of exactly what he or she heard, the witness allowed the defense to exploit the description for their gain.
    Instead of playing the race card, a clever defense attorney will just say that it’s impossible to know who someone is based solely on his voice and point to examples.
    Take Eminem’s description from Salon, for example:

    He’s a white boy who sounds black, a fatherless child who hates his mother, a trailer-trash wunderkind who spent some of his first millions on a king-size crib across from a mobile-home park.

    Or, can you tell Mike Tyson’s race from his voice?
    Would the same claim of some sort of -ism be raised if a future witness had said he heard someone speaking in the manner of Gilbert Godfrey, Larry “The Cable Guy” or even O.J. Simpson and named the movie or television show he or she was referring to for the voice comparison?
    For example, a witness could testify that the voice yelling, “We used to say if a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a handgun,” sounded similar to Dan Rather‘s voice.

  9. I’m not sure that I would classify people on the same terms as you had mentioned.
    When I was young, my family was held up at gunpoint by a person of a certain ethnic background; the person walked and talked a certain way. Several years later, we had a similar incident again with a person of the same description as in the previous incident. Do I go on forever avoiding people with said criteria? No. Would I consider it “street smart” to do so? No.
    Would I call someone racist just because they avoid certain places or people based on past experiences? Again, no. Self-preservation can make people naturally want to avoid a repeat of a bad experience. I don’t stand around judging others as racists based on some randomly appointed criteria. If I did, I would be no less prejudiced than I perceive them to be. But one can always check ones own intentions and beliefs.
    I have since met many people similar in height, weight, build, ethnic background, and speech to the individuals that held my family at gunpoint, even on the street late in the evening, some of whom are the nicest people I know.
    As for saving lives on airplanes, I’m not sure how much that is doing. Airport Security’s own tests from just a few months back showed that they were able to bring items aboard planes that could do quite a bit of damage.
    At this point it seems the government may be doing more to intimidate people by constant reminders of the threat of terrorism than those it deems terrorists. Perhaps the question should be who are the real terrorists?
    Then again, there may be much that the government has done that has not been publicized. Maybe there has been a great reduction of terrorist activity due to the security measures taken.

  10. Askimet is probably going to get me for posting too much, but I’ll jump in again.
    I bet that it will become more difficult for people to be able to determine much about people based on their voices as we become more and more diverse as a nation.
    People from the urban core are moving to the suburbs in greater numbers and are starting to sound like other people in their neighborhood — no matter their ethnic or national background.
    I know Filipino-American kids who sound exactly like every other kid in the neighborhood. Their first-generation American parents are the ones with accents.
    The same thing goes for kids of any type of ethnic background.
    People sometimes can’t figure out where I’m from because I learned how to read in a southern state, moved to the east coast in first grade, moved to the midwest during high school, then moved to my area where some people have distinctive Chicago accents.

  11. Hi Mike —
    There are handwriting experts today who can discern if a script is from a man’s or a woman’s hand.
    I agree there are certain cultures that might not be able to differentiate between Asian facial features but in my experience a Japanese person can pretty reliably pick out a Korean and vice versa.

  12. Chris —
    I agree!
    I think that, based on regular voices heard in the streets, you might be able to tell a regional accent — Like Georgia Southern or South Jersey or Da Bronx — but making a Racial decision is much more difficult and prejudicial.
    I love the Dan Rather quotes! I have to say he was more entertaining that the terrible Katie Couric!

  13. A S —
    I think a certain measure of Racial Profiling is the only way to combat terrorism at its roots. Most of those who currently claim to do harm to the United States are from Middle Eastern nations. We don’t have many White Lutheran grandmothers from the Midwest actively plotting the downfall of the United States.
    Terror screenings should not be equal but they should be random. Particular attention must be paid to persons from countries more likely than not to inflict harm in terror attacks.

  14. Chris —
    It is interesting how people try to place you based on your accent. When I grew up in Nebraska people thought I was from New York. Now that I’m in New York people say I have no accent and they assume I must be from the “boring Midwest” where no accent is the accent.

  15. Hi David,
    I had someone ask me where I was from once when I was in Elkhart County, Indiana. I asked where they thought I was from and they said it sounded like I had a Scottish accent.
    I couldn’t figure out where that came from.
    I assume that I have the no-accent midwest accent, but I can never tell. I wonder if I have picked up some of my wife’s accent and that mixed with all of the other accents from where I’ve lived makes some sort of unique accent.
    I heard someone call Katie Couric’s solicitation for the CBS Evening News sign-off “sophomoric.”
    I didn’t see the whole news cast — I don’t think anyone in the Central Time zone watches the evening news because it’s on during drive-time — but I saw clips. The call for submissions reminded me of a class president asking all of the student body to make suggestions on where to hold the senior prom.
    The best Dan Rather quote was from the 2000 election:

    Frankly we don’t know whether to wind the watch or to bark at the moon. …
    We’ve lived by the crystal ball, we’re eating so much broken glass. We’re in critical condition.

  16. I have to say that is one thing that we tend to do a lot in the UK – identify by regional accent. There is a large archive at the British Library dedicated to accents and the nuances of the English language.
    There is now a web resource which is also collating British accents
    There are also numerous appeals on local radio and on local websites to the older generations so that the old accents can be preserved.

  17. Chris!
    I love it that people can’t pin you down based on your voice. You’d be Johnnie Cochran’s best friend if he were still alive to use you.
    I’ve stopped trying to label people by the way they talk because, especially in New York, you never know who a person is or where they’re really from just by accent alone.
    I have never been a Katie Couric fan. I find her disingenuous and wanting and awfully whiny.
    She’s getting $15 million a year to read from a teleprompter for 15 minutes five nights a week. She isn’t a newswoman. She is NOT “Jackie Robinson” as CBS president Les Moonves tried to claim last week.
    Her style is just too cloying and icky. She has no gravitas and compared to that fantastic 2000 Rather quote you provided — which made me cackle out loud again and I re-read it — you know Rather is a nut. A brilliant nutty nut who earned his guts on the bloody streets in the corridors of the wicked and he came out on top. He had personality and pizzazz and he certainly was never boring. I miss him.

  18. NICOLA! There’s the NICOLA we know and love!
    Our day was ruined a bit when your first written gem was an unglimmering deferral to Katha. Now, we love The Katha, but we also love The Nicola’s independent thoughts and research methods and we are, frankly, peeing with glee as we listen to those fine pieces of people you provided us.
    Or was it “Courage” that Dan Rather usually said while signing off?

  19. “a certain measure of Racial Profiling is the only way to combat terrorism at its roots”
    Perhaps but racism may only show it’s face in the way the person is treated once they fit a certain profile.

  20. In my defense I will remind you of our conversation about knowing your strengths!
    You will of course note that I have been watching and I commented later when I felt able.

  21. Hi David,
    While flipping around, I saw a retrospective about Dan Rather and his coverage of Hurricane Carla that moved him up into the big leagues when it was the first hurricane to be broadcast live on television.
    I remember one of the scene of Dan Rather walking up to a flooded house after the hurricane had passed through.
    There were a bunch of dogs and an old guy sitting on the porch waiting for the water to receed. I can’t remember what Dan Rather said — there might not have been any audio from the time — but it fits in with his down-to-earth image.
    From Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers:

    “When I started in broadcasting, which overstates a bit, my job in radio was to be a jack-of-all-trades, write commercials, do newscasts, and football, baseball, and basketball games, play-by-play. This was certainly not rocket science. But one of the things I learned was the ability to ad lib.”
    In September 1961, Rather was in Galveston, Texas, covering Hurricane Carla. “Hurricane Carla was so huge and potentially so destructive that pretty quickly it became clear to the weather bureau that what they needed to do is convince people they needed to evacuate,” says Rather.
    “And the key was to use, I say it with a smile, the new technology, which was the ability to get a radar picture pretty far out in the Gulf.”
    Putting the radar picture of the hurricane on TV was something new. “People could see in the living rooms how huge the hurricane was,” says Rather. “While the death toll was reasonably small, the reason it was low is because people listened and got out.”

  22. Yes, Chris, I remember Dan Rather making history during a hurricane. When Anderson Cooper covered Katrina there were a lot of associations made between the two men. They both “made their bones” during national disasters.

  23. I wonder if Dan Rather is going to spend his days of retirement in Texas playing the new game that seems to be sweeping the nation: Cornhole?
    I personally can’t get past the name since it doesn’t bring to mind the kind of family friendly fun that the game involves. It seems more like the sort of thing that will trip all of the filters at in place at the Urban Semiotic Department of Homeland Security. That might just be my mind thinking bad things, however.
    There’s even a league in Chicago organized for the “sport.”

    Call it what you want, Cornhole is much more than a great name. It’s a game for everyone that combines the finesse and skill of “egg toss”, the addictive competition of a spelling bee and the multi-tasking challenges of tossing bags without spilling your drink.
    Cornhole is 2 boards, 8 bags, and two teams of 2. It’s like horseshoes with concussion-friendly beanbags. Teams of two stand at opposite ends of sloped boards and take turns “tossing corn” toward the regulation size hole in the opposite board.
    A bag in the hole, known as a “cornhole”, is worth 3 points. A bag on the board, a “cow pie” is worth one point. Miss the board “sally”, you get no points, just some friendly ridicule.

    I can picture Dan Rather tossing a bean bag while hoisting a beer in my mind’s eye!

  24. There’s an American Cornhole Association with all sorts of official rules on it’s website by the same name.
    I might have to check out HDNet one of these days when I upgrade the televisions — probably right after Christmas when they’ll be a little cheaper.

  25. David,
    I know what you mean.
    As an Asian Indian woman I am not supposed to laugh loudly. That’s rude, disrespectful and something more…I am not sure what…
    But I never obeyed the rule. I just can’t. I laugh from inside and I can’t restrain myself doing it. In fact, fortunately I have never seen my close family following this rule – actually my Mom’s laughter can bring back life to a desert!
    Lots of my distant relatives and friends have hard time accepting it but I laugh from the core of my heart! 😀

  26. Ah, that’s interesting about laughter and culture, Katha!
    Your laughter is another gift from your mother!
    They say laughter is also a great stress reliever.
    Some say laughter can turn aggressive and inappropriate if done is a nervous or serious circumstance.

  27. Oh, and Katha, be careful about typing your email address because Gravatar.com is case-sensitive. You must have registered an all-lowercase email address because your capitalization of your “K” and “C” in your email address is not calling your Avatar.

  28. Yes, thank you – I have noticed it…I will probably end up adding one more e mail address with all lower case.
    Laughter, I think is the greatest stress reliever but definitely not for a serious/grave circumstances…that’s awkward.
    In fact, laughter is the ultimate form of optimism – at least according to me!

  29. Right, Katha!
    I have been in trouble in the past for laughing at “inappropriate times” but I was only laughing at the absurdity of the situation. I wasn’t laughing at a person. My explanation didn’t matter. They didn’t appreciate my laughter.

  30. I am yet to get a connection at my home, hopefully will be able to fix everything (right now I am in some kind of ‘black hole’ as far as connectivity goes…) by the end of this month.
    The same thing happened with me when I first moved in Wisconsin; I didn’t have internet connection at my home almost for the whole first semester…
    Drove me nuts…but I survived! 😀

  31. DSL…DSL…
    That’s what I had in Wisconsin, and now I am too spoiled to have anything else!

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