Using phenomenological descriptions, this essay explores the performative effects of disciplining our bodies to speak Standard American English as a second language and dialect. Theorizing the act of speaking as habituated embodiment in cultural matrices of power and hegemony, we foreground the sensuous materiality of the speaking body and interrogate how the enactive body works as a mnemonic device for normative ways of being. We contend the body is always more than a textual surface on which social meaning is discursively inscribed and reinforces the path toward a more phenomenologically materialist understanding of the body and embodiment in communication.

In his discussion on speech act theory, John L. Austin theorized the performativity of linguistic utterances that function as a form of action rather than simply describing or making statement about reality.1 In this view, speaking is a social act through which we accomplish certain material, relational, and political effects and consequences. Judith Butler advanced the notion of performativity by focusing on gender as a stylized repetition of social acts that produce material, gendered, and sexed bodies.2 Implicit in Butler's view of performativity is the idea that we become that which we do through bodily engagements with the world. If Austin asked about the performativity of speech (how we do things with words) and Butler the performativity of gendered acts (how we do gender), in this article we address the performative effects of the act of speaking in constituting the speaking subject. The act of speaking is a form of stylized repetition of social acts. Beyond (or aside from) the symbolic meaning of uttered words, the act of speaking “properly” and “intelligibly” is a process of disciplining the body and materializing a certain kind of body. What are the ontological and existential effects of speaking and becoming a certain type of speaking subject? In the cultural matrices of power and hegemony, how do we emerge as embodied communicative subjects through the act of speaking?

As speakers of English as a second language and dialect, we find it particularly interesting to explore the bodily experiences of speaking as a communicative phenomenon of its own. Sachi grew up in Japan and learned to speak Standard American English (SAE) in her late teens, while Chris grew up navigating between Black English Vernacular (BEV) in his neighborhood in Chicago, IL, and Standard American English in his public and private education. For the both of us, speaking SAE is never a neutral act; our acts of speaking are loaded with social and ideological implications associated with certain types of cultural performance (i.e., sense of belonging, demonstration of cultural membership, assimilation, and performance of intelligence). Our embodied experiences of disciplining our bodies to speak a second language and dialect draw us into interrogating the performativity of bodily acts of speaking as communicative subjects. What interests us is not the “what” of speech, but the “how” of speaking, the act of speaking itself.

We approach the act of speaking as habituated embodiment, resulting from an orchestration of vocal, auditory, and sensorimotor experiences within a particular system of cultural and ideological practice.3 The act of speaking is ideological not only because of the symbolic content of speech, but more fundamentally because of its material and embodied act that deploys various physical and mental functions. We interrogate the constitutive moments when one's speech coheres as a historically-situated and physically-orchestrated action, illuminating the act of speaking as a fundamental process of becoming an embodied communicative subject.

In the following, we first situate our discussion within the larger scholarly conversations on communication, embodiment, and performativity. Second, we establish our theoretical perspective on the act of speaking as habituated embodiment using insights from Pierre Bourdieu and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.4 We then focus on the intersection between the act of speaking and racial embodiment by using the notion of mimicry by Homi K. Bhabha.5 Third, we provide our phenomenological descriptions, describing and analyzing our acts of disciplining our bodies to speak SAE as embodied, material processes of becoming within the complex matrices of power and social relations.6 We conclude by addressing the significance of bodily enactment and habituation in constituting a particular communicative subject, highlighting and complicating the materiality of power in which the enactive body serves its mnemonic function to preserve, legitimate, and/or resist the hegemonic ways of being-in-the-world.7 Resisting the approach that the body is a socially constructed textual surface on which meanings are inscribed and negotiated, we call for a more phenomenologically materialist understanding of the body and embodiment in communication.


At the core of our theoretical inquiry is the question about the ontological status of the body and embodiment in communication theorizing. Various scholars have theorized and politicized communicative acts as embodied and performative practice, focusing on the materiality of lived bodies in constituting meaning, identity, knowledge, and experience. The underlying perspective in communication as embodied practice is that the body is more than a surface of symbolic inscription. Social ideologies and cultural hegemony become materialized through the body's enactive capacity and reiterative bodily performance.8 

For example, John T. Warren and Amy K. Kilgard use the notion of “enfleshing whiteness” in order to make visible how whiteness is performatively accomplished and constituted through the “embodied enactment” of racial identity.9 Similarly, Bryant Keith Alexander and John T. Warren use Peter McLaren's notion of “enfleshed knowledge” to deconstruct how cultural differences and relations of power are incorporated into one's corporeal embodiment, particularly in educational contexts.10 In critiquing superficial analyses of intersectional identity as “disembodied knowledge,” Gust A. Yep coined the term “thick intersectionalities” to attend to “the lived experiences and biographies of the persons occupying a particular intersection, including how they inhabit and make sense of their own bodies.”11 

A focus on embodiment allows scholars to address the complexity of identity politics as an ontological manifestation of power struggle. Julie-Ann Scott provides a compelling account of the social and ideological implications of how we become who we are through bodily ways of knowing and bodily capacity of doing.12 Claudio Moreira and Marcelo Diversi argue that the work of decolonizing academic spaces must begin by theorizing about visceral experiences of everyday oppression and discrimination.13 We join these ongoing theoretical explorations into the question of the body and embodiment in communication by concentrating on the act of speaking as a performative enactment.

The act of speaking requires a body that speaks—that does the speaking—not as an innate capacity, but as an outcome of social cultivation and ideological contouring. Revealing itself as a contested site where social and ideological forces inevitably clash with the biological and material, the act of uttering sounds into coherent words and structured sentences involves something deeply bodily, material, and enactive. We use the term “enactive” to connote that rather than simply being constituted biologically or constructed socially, the body is an active constructor of action, experience, and meaning. There is also something bodily laborious about being “articulate” and “intelligible” in verbal exchanges with others, especially in a cultural context that is not one's own. By describing how we bring our bodies into the intentional, existential act of speaking English as a second language and dialect, we theorize the materiality of a speaking body and its performative effects on being and becoming a communicative subject. Theorizing the act of speaking as a process of embodying a particular cultural self, in which the existential act of speaking intersects with the hegemonic influence of being spoken into a cultural/racial subject, we foreground the sensuous materiality of the body in understanding how cultural and ideological bodies come to matter.


A habit is a continuation of willing that no longer needs to be willed.14 

In developing our conceptual framework, we approach speaking as a form of habituated embodiment—not only in terms of its culturally-specific significations of gestures, accents, or mannerisms, but more fundamentally in terms of its bodily engagement and stylization in the movement of the mouth, tongue, the rhythm of breathing, and the vocal production and auditory absorption of sounds. In the act of speaking, we not only produce symbolic meaning, but also orchestrate our bodily movements, perceptions, and actions into communicative bodies. Emphasizing the centrality of the body in the act of speaking, Merleau-Ponty states:

the body converts a certain motor essence into vocal form, spreads out the articulatory style of a word into audible phenomena, and arrays the former attitude, which is resumed, into the panorama of the past, projecting an intention to move into actual movement, because the body is a power of natural expression.15 

Rather than simply producing noise, the act of speaking crystallizes at the intersection of specific physiopsychological functions and the culturally specific cultivation of such functions. Both enactive and enacted, the speaking body manifests willed behavior and cultural codes; not only speaking ideas into being, but also emerging into a body that speaks a given language. Merleau-Ponty alludes to the act of speaking as a process of developing a new sense organ and a new modality of experience:

The process of expression, when it is successful, does not merely leave for the reader and the writer himself a kind of reminder, it brings the meaning into existence as a thing at the very heart of the text, it brings it to life in an organism of words, establishing it in the writer or the reader as a new sense organ, opening a new field or a new dimension to our experience.16 

In this sense, not only do we become that which we speak about (discursive construction of reality/identity), but we also become the language we speak (sensory embodiment).

In his discussion on habitus, Bourdieu approached the body as a mnemonic device to which “the fundamental principles of the arbitrary content of the culture” are entrusted.17 According to Bourdieu, cultural norms and values gain a hegemonic and durable presence when cultural subjects are able to coordinate their actions and behaviors with historically-constituted, external structures of culture without explicit awareness or conscious efforts. Following Bourdieu, it can be viewed that speaking is a culturally habituated act through which individuals incorporate and internalize the objective structures of culture into their bodies. Such objective structures of culture may manifest in grammatical structures of a certain language, relational hierarchies embedded in linguistic expressions, or nonverbal codes that regulate interpersonal interactions. Thus, when small children learn how to speak a language, it is a bodily, physically enactive process through which “history [is] turned into nature” and cultural principles are remembered through their bodily enactments of speaking.18 Far from being natural or neutral, the constitution of a habituated body both ensures and hides the unnatural history of crafting certain communicative subjects:

nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more inimitable, and therefore, more precious, than the values given body, made body by the transubstantiation achieved by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy, capable of instilling a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy, through injunctions as insignificant as “stand up straight” or “don't hold your knife in your left hand.”19 

Thus, the act of speaking constitutes a particular habitus; it regulates patterns of behavior, while leaving open improvisational and generative possibilities of speaking.

Through our habituated act of speaking, we also construct a particular habitus in a surrounding social space. For example, the use of eye contact (or the lack thereof) in different cultural contexts speaks to the spatiality of communicative engagements in which we gauge and define our physical, social, and emotional distance among speakers via the act of looking into each other's eyes. Speaking creates a particular acoustic cultural environment that can make one feel at home and familiar, while alienating others. Extending the notion of speaking as embodiment, then, the act of speaking is a form of habituated spatial arrangement in which we extend our speaking bodies into space as surrounding spaces accommodate and afford, or resist, our culturally-habituated bodily existences.


The notion of mimicry reveals the ambivalence embedded in the constitution of self–other, colonizer–colonized, and white–nonwhite relations. Using the historical examples of European colonialism in colonies such as India and Africa, Bhabha claims that mimicry functions in both oppressive and subversive ways. On the one hand, colonizers try to “civilize” the colonized society according to the values and norms of their culture by instilling their presumed superiority into forming the subjectivities of the colonized. This “desire for a reformed, recognizable Other,” is inherently ambivalent because the colonizer seeks “a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.”20 The colonized subjects are cultivated into European subjectivity to the extent that they serve as bridges and translators between the colonizers and the colonized masses.

On the other hand, Bhabha contends, mimicry is subversive when “its slippage, its excess, [and] its difference” reveals the artificiality of European superiority.21 Applying the notion of mimicry to the contemporary cultural politics of hip-hop, Liam Grealy argues that the performance of black hip-hop artists functions as a form of mimicry in the sense that they mimic not the colonizer, but “the colonizer's version of [themselves].”22 The excessive self-portrayal of hyper-masculinity, violence, misogyny, and wealth does not represent their reality; rather it re-presents white imaginations of black communities and invokes white anxiety and ambivalence towards the increased visibility and articulatory power of hip-hop generations. Similarly, Butler's critique of the 1990 film Paris is Burning points to the excess in drag queen performance that reveals the slippage and artificiality of heterosexual femininity.23 

When we approach the act of speaking as a form of embodiment, we must also attend to the fact that an individual embodies one's race and ethnicity through speech. The notion of racial mimicry relates closely to the issues of language and cultural identity, and within the United States, speech patterns and styles are racially coded. The so-called “Standard American English” is a codeword for “white” English with deeply embedded assumptions about intelligence, knowledge, truth, credibility, and authority.24 For black children in inner city schools, for example, “speaking white” carries connotations of racial betrayal as well as a promise for upward mobility in a white-dominated society.25 Speaking white becomes a form of racial mimicry in which racialized others hybridize, incorporate, and internalize the hegemony of white speech, while subverting its dominance through the performance of almost the same, but not quite.26 Thus, the actual act of speaking almost-white-but-not-quite can be a contested site of racial performativity and embodiment. The regulated principles of white speech become visible when a racialized body fails to follow them. In the next section, we will briefly explain our methodological approach, followed by our personal accounts of disciplining our bodies to speak English as a second language and dialect.


We combine insights from phenomenology and autoethnography in order to account for our direct bodily experiences and embodied struggles to speak SAE as racialized subjects. On the one hand, we utilize phenomenology as a theoretical and methodological foundation to articulate how we subjectively experience the acts of disciplining our bodies to speak SAE.27 We carefully describe what it is like to (try to) speak SAE, illuminating how our enactive and material bodies are orchestrated to enact/mimic normative ways of speaking in the United States.28 On the other hand, using insights from autoethnography, we politicize our subjectively-lived, embodied negotiations of speaking SAE. The autoethnographic approach pays attention to the historical, ideological, and political dimensions of personal experience.29 In this sense, we view our habituated and disciplined acts of speaking as historically situated and ideologically constructed. Thus, we interrogate our subjective bodily experiences and habituated/disciplined embodiments as contested sites of re/production(s) of hegemonic power.

By drawing methodological insights from phenomenology and autoethnography, we strive for a “more visceral and materialized understanding of power” to interrogate our seemingly mundane “subjective experience itself as a contested site of the re/production of hegemonic power.”30 In our narratives, we seek to provide nuanced descriptions of our bodily enactments and our embodiments of multiple linguistic selves to contextualize and politicize how cultural structures and social ideologies become “enfleshed” and “incorporated” into our bodies, paying particular attention that the site of ideological formation is not simply a rhetorical struggle over meaning, but also a habituated embodiment that often remains mundane and seemingly non-ideological.


When I speak English, I am not simply doing things with words—as Austin would claim—I am doing things with my breath, tongue, mouth, ears, and body in general.31 As a native of Japan, learning how to speak SAE has been a process of re-habituating my bodily movements, senses, and perceptions within the larger context of global English hegemony.32 It is a process of habituating my body and programing my behaviors according to what is “normal” and “appropriate” in social contexts of this particular language. The re-habituation of my body began, quite literally, with my tongue. When I was in high school in Japan, my English teacher would give us handouts with visual explanations of how to pronounce certain sounds in English—such as the sound of “L,” “R,” or “TH”—sounds that we do not use in Japanese. On the handout were simple drawings of a facial profile with varying placements of the tongue—gently touching the upper teeth, tucked in the mouth, or placed between lower and upper teeth. In class, students would repeat after the teacher as we listened to his pronunciations and shifted the locations of our tongues to produce similar sounds. To pronounce the “TH” sound, for example, we would place our tongue in-between lower and upper teeth and gently blow out the air. I struggled the most with pronouncing the “R” sound, feeling as if my tongue was not flexible enough and as if I was using a muscle that I never even knew existed before. Suddenly my tongue felt like an organism of its own, unwilling to conform to my command of action. Learning how to speak English has been as much about taming my tongue as learning new words and grammar. But perhaps this “taming” of the tongue is integral to learning a language, whether it is one's primary or secondary language. Learning a second language makes visible the physicality of the act of speaking, as the speaker intentionally encounters his/her body as an instrument of communication.

Bourdieu posits that we incorporate the structure of cultural practice into our bodies, through which such structure becomes “natural.”33 Years prior to moving to the United States, I began incorporating the structure of normative communicative embodiment of SAE. Devika Chawla and Amardo Rodriquez provide a postcolonial critique of public speaking courses in which variously marginalized bodies (and tongues) are disciplined and regulated into normative acts of Western oral competency. They claim that since colonized bodies are physically and discursively regulated by others, we must attend to meanings assigned to these bodies and the normative behaviors that control them.34 Learning how to speak SAE entailed regulating and disciplining my body into culturally and racially codified acts of oral competency. In this sense, my experience of racialization—or seeing my own body as evidence of otherness—is rooted not only in my visibly Asian body, but more materially in the embodied struggle with habituating my body to speak in certain ways. The illusive normativity of whiteness becomes reified in relation to my unruly body that cannot quite conform to “proper” ways of speaking.

It was not just my tongue that I had to train to become a “fluent” English speaker. I had to retrain my ears. Again, in my English classes, my teacher would have us listen to audio recordings of native speakers of SAE and dictate the sentences for us to write down on a sheet of paper. Sitting at the desk with an audio player and skillfully pressing the buttons every few seconds, we would play and rewind the cassette tapes, patiently listening to the voice of the narrator through our headsets. I was determined to hear the unintelligible noise as articulate, linguistic sounds. Before I learned how to “listen” to English, I had to learn how to “hear” certain sounds as vocalized utterances with meaningful intention. As a student, I had to learn how to recognize certain sounds as meaningful sounds. It was a process through which a mysterious soundscape of SAE became a familiar acoustic environment of meaning, knowledge, and understanding. It is important to remember this act of hearing English is not an ideologically neutral process. I cultivated my ears specifically to listen to SAE, to recognize the sounds of voice uttered by educated US Americans as “proper” and “intelligible,” to the extent that I would start hearing “accented” (or non-US) English as “different” and “unintelligible.” In the hegemonic context of English as a global language, racial hierarchy is coded in this subtle yet problematic linguistic distinction of what is audibly intelligible and unintelligible—what the body can or cannot do matters especially in constituting cultural hegemony.35 Thus, to give credence to whiteness in US contexts, I must first learn to recognize and “hear” its particular linguistic sounds as a source of legitimacy and credibility.

Even after a decade of studying and working in the United States, I still experience a sense of awe when I realize that I can “hear” and understand every English word uttered by someone, despite the fact that the English language still sounds foreign and alien to me. Speaking English as a second language means living with the seemingly bizarre auditory experience of a sense of disconnect between what I intend to say (meaning) and how it comes out (sound). It is a peculiar acoustic space in which I hear my voice saying the words that are supposed to convey what I intend to say, but I can never be absolutely certain about the accuracy of the sounds and pronunciations that come out of my mouth. The sounds that are specific to the English language do not belong to my vocal system; it is always a form of secondary imitation and approximation in which I orchestrate my vocal system to piece together the words and produce appropriate sounds. The dissonance I experience with the coordinated movement of my mouth, the sound of my utterance, and the supposed meaning I convey is fundamental to my experience of being a racial Other in the United States. The sense of racial alienation emerges from the sound of my voice that sounds foreign to my own ears in the racialized acoustic space of normative white speech.

After having lived in the United States for over five years, I visited my hometown and saw a friend from high school. Having a conversation in Japanese at a restaurant, he pointed out that my breathing is “Americanized”—a comment that simultaneously struck me and puzzled me. He explained that I used a deep abdominal breathing when I spoke and used a deeper voice, an observation that made me realize my breathing is more controlled when I speak English. I control my breathing so I can speak louder and more clearly, with a continuous flow of proper forms of enunciation and accent. I control my breathing to use a deeper voice because I want to convey authority and credibility, especially because of my raced and gendered identity as a woman of color in the United States. My habituated—albeit unconscious—ways of breathing while speaking English had seeped into my Japanese speech, which made my Japanese friend use the expression that my breathing is Americanized. Between the Japanese language and SAE, the rhythm of speech is different—that is, what “flows” in Japanese and English is different. So when I switch from one language to the other, I am not simply shifting my language; I am also shifting my bodily rhythm of how to punctuate my speech and control my breathing according to the conventional rhythm of the linguistic practice. When I speak Japanese, I speak more slowly, pacing myself with the nods and “uh huhs” of my interlocutor, sprinkling silence in between. When speaking Japanese, the codes of feminine gender performance must be embodied in my tone of voice, rhythm of speech, and bodily comportment. When I speak English, I attempt to defy the stereotypes of racialized and sexualized Asian femininity as soft-spoken, quiet, and submissive. I breathe in to verbalize my thoughts, to assert myself, to make a statement. I stand up straight, projecting confidence and making solid eye contact. In my experience, the process of codeswitching is deeply visceral and embodied, fully engaging my culturally-habituated and racially-coded body.

When it comes to the constitution of my gendered identity in linguistic performance, I am not simply constituting an idea of femininity/masculinity through my speech; rather, I am constituting my body itself, a body that “properly” performs and embodies femininity/masculinity in certain linguistic contexts. Sustaining and reproducing ideologies requires bodies that enact and conform to normative ideas and practices. While an ideology—of linguistic gender performance, for example—gets embodied through rhythm, vocal tone, bodily movement, or breathing, in the process of performing such ideology we craft and constitute our bodily ways of being. Because I speak English in ways that are almost the same, but not quite, as native speakers of SAE, my habituated embodiment becomes a contested site of ideological reproduction and reification. Hegemonic ideologies embedded in SAE solidify legitimacy not merely symbolically, but also in the material and visceral experience of what my body can(not) do. As a speaker of English as a second language, I live in the liminal space between the cultural structures of embodiment in SAE and my habituated body's (in)ability to conform to such structures.

While speaking English is a full-body activity for me, it is also about speaking against my body—or defying what my body represents and proving it wrong. Although my “Americanized” speech keeps away the Orientalist gaze that undermines my authority and credibility as an Asian woman in the United States, it is this process of speaking white that inherently racializes my identity. I recall an exchange at the airport customs checkpoint, during which an immigration officer with a foreign accent processed my entry into the United States. He was clearly an immigrant from Latin America, but he treated me as if I had a questionable motive in coming to the United States. His demeanor was authoritative and unfriendly. I responded to his questions—“What do you study in the US? When do you expect to graduate?”—with my standard American speech. I spoke back to his demeanor not through words, but through my assimilated cultural performance. This was a heightened moment of US hegemony: we were both trying to prove our allegiance to the United States. The officer enforced his patriotic duty of protecting the US border, while I gained my legal entry by living up to the status of an educated, assimilated Asian model minority.36 It was an ironic moment, a case of mimicry—we both played the power game according to the master's rule that ultimately Otherized us as racial minorities.


When I was a young college student, I spoke to my white female professor about anxieties I experienced while taking standardized tests. She immediately deduced my experiences had little to do with testing anxieties and more to do with the fact that I was “bi-dialectal.” Knowing I would struggle to maneuver my tongue to pronounce the syllables of this word, I asked, “What does that mean?” She responded, “Many African Americans are bi-dialectal, which means they have the ability to write and speak in two dialects.” Obviously confused, I asked, “What does this have to do with my standardized test-taking abilities?” She responded, “Many educators believe that African Americans score low on aptitude tests because these tests reflect neither their commonly-held cultural experiences nor syntax.” I found it difficult to understand how my cultural upbringing influenced my performance on standardized tests. So I asked, “Are you saying that because I don't speak good that I can't pass a test?” She replied, “No! Are you familiar with the term Ebonics?” I responded, “Yes, it's a derogatory term used to describe African American ways of speaking.” She then said, “Not entirely! Black English Vernacular [BEV] is a creolized version of English based on a pidgin spoken by African slaves who struggled to make sense of the language of their captors.” I was still somewhat confused, so she recommended that I read the works of Geneva Smitherman, Henry Louis Gates, and other scholars who see BEV as having a unique structural lexicon that is prominent in black speech patterns. Upon reading these works, I thought deeply about how I maintained a visceral allegiance to BEV while working to develop speech patterns of white SAE.

The phenomenon of speaking white-while-black enables an understanding of how the politics of race shape the embodied act of speaking, as exemplified in codeswitching and styleshifting by black Americans.37 This idea is useful to understand how many black Americans engage race-conscious speaking performances in cross-racial encounters. I recall struggling to manage the contradictory impulse to speak BEV around people of my race and to discipline my body to speak SAE around those who were racially different. However, this embodied linguistic flexibility developed as I moved out of my own cultural linguistic environments and into white social circles. As I moved within these spaces, I became mindful of the physical labor of using my throat, tongue, and lips while alternating between BEV and SAE. I also noticed that regardless of attempts to codeswitch and styleshift, I still carried a “blaccent,”38 producing sounds that follow from the styles, cadences, and rhythms rooted in black oral and rhetorical traditions. Nonetheless, speaking white-while-black highlights how racialized encounters dictate the physical act of speaking, illuminating my own bi-dialectal embodiment and the persisting racial ideologies inherent in our symbolic and linguistic systems of racialized interpersonal interactions.

As an undergraduate student, I started to understand how the act of speaking was loaded with racial identifications. While interacting with individuals from other racial groups who haphazardly mimicked black speech, I noticed they often omitted the “G” in words ending in “ing,” emphasized the habitual “be” (e.g., he be trippin'), or emphatically stated multiple “yo's,” or “whatz up witu's” while pointing their fingers and crossing their arms. Others spoke with an exaggerated form of slave speech, often starting with phrases like “y'all better,” or “I'se a-gonna.” Some have mimicked or corrected my own pronunciation as I used words such as “gotta,” “nah,” “wanna,” “we be,” “brotha” or “ax 'em.” To a great measure, their inability to enact or even embody the complexity of syntax and sound in black voice—including tone, inflection, and soul—was most revealing.39 However, I not only learned that BEV is a not-so-distant cousin to what these individuals perceived as normalized SAE, I also saw that BEV is more layered than just its unique syntax and sound. BEV maintains microlinguistic patterns combining elements of rhythm, resonance, phonation, vocal quality, and pitch that could not be easily duplicated.

As a graduate student and professor, I observed how my voice determined whether or not I was part of the ingroup, emphasizing membership within the black community, or outgroup wherein using SAE constitutes distancing oneself from black culture. In this way, voice became a signifier for power and privilege as I observed the policing of black bodies goes hand-in-hand with the policing of black voice. I found it quite ironic that some white and black educated elites, who embraced African American writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker, were most resistant to firsthand performances of black language and styles symbolized in the work of these writers. For example, after giving a presentation on race relations, I was once advised to be much “quieter and gentler” (using minimal hand gestures and more subtle eye contact) when speaking to audiences of white professors to avoid being perceived as toopreachy. Using black idiom is unprofessional in academia—highlighting not only outgroup members' discomfort with African American prose, but also the troublesome insistence of the part of some to require black folks to change the way they speak to gain acceptance. Despite the fact that my black voice was often mocked and muted, and at times even admired, in the presence of those who are racially different, it underscores the paradox of the act of speaking that is both inclusive and exclusive.

The politics of speaking white-while-black highlights the racialized meanings within the embodied act of speaking. The process of embodying different speaking selves requires an engagement with the inner human experience, shaping both the internal acts (e.g., the intrinsic muscles allowing for the movement of the tongue) and external events (e.g., the interactions dictating speech and voice). At the most basic level, this embodied act of speaking is a product of my own-race and cross-race encounters as I physically alter my black voice to fit the contours of “proper” or “standard” English within white social spaces. As Sachi cautions, disciplining the body to speak white SAE is part of the process of cultural identity negotiation within the confines of dominant white cultural norms. At another level, the embodied act of codeswitching is idiosyncratic, as sounds travel from the throat and through the mouth in coordination with unique ways of breathing, phonation, and resonance, depending on the interactants. Through experiences of moving within and among different racialized vantage points, I use a plurality of voices inscribed in different systems of expression—intonation, rhythm, and emphasis—and syntax and vocabulary.

Merleau-Ponty's claim that “it is the body which speaks”40 does not refer to the fact that speaking depends upon airflow from the lungs making vocal chords in the larynx vibrate to create the vocal sound. Rather, the body is an expressive and intentional source of meaning. For Merleau-Ponty, the act of “speaking speech” (as opposed to “spoken speech”—expressions that transfer pre-existing thoughts) has a signifying intention “at the stage of coming into being,”41 which is to say that the experience of codeswitching “itself brings about that concordance between me and myself, and between myself and other.”42 In these own-race and cross-race encounters, I was acutely aware of the differences in tone, pitch, sound, and even rhythm of BEV and SAE speakers. When engaging in own-race encounters, my black tongue easily strings together phrases and lines, including simile and metaphor in coordination with inflection and intonation, whereas in cross-race encounters, I must monitor my physical body, including my mouth and the sounds of my utterances. But, as Frantz Fanon suggests, racism unsettles the equilibrium of one's body, altering one's own tactile and visual experiences within a structure imposing “the ‘racial parameters’ within which the corporeal schema is supposed to fit.”43 For example, in cross-race encounters in which racial differences are readily apparent, internal and external energies that I am immediately aware of, and subjectively involved with, cause excess tension within the muscles of my larynx and muddle my tongue. To alleviate this tension, before speaking, I must engage in relaxed breathing, allowing enough air to my lungs and speaking with a lower pitch and slower speech rate to enhance vocal quality.

When I speak BEV, I know that I can easily say words like “walkin',” “talkin',” or “sleepin'” by gently placing my tongue against the hard palate of my mouth and simultaneously opening my mouth while relaxing my tongue in the lower jaw area. But when I try to speak SAE, the act of adding the “G” ending of these words requires taking short, quick breaths before engaging in the physical labor of thinking about how wide to open my mouth and where to place my tongue. This embodied act of speaking requires that I abruptly place my tongue against the hard palate of my mouth, and at all once, slightly push my tongue in between my lower and upper teeth while pushing my lips forward. Then, with my mouth remaining open, I tighten my jaws and pronounce the “G” sound and ending. My conscious engagement with these movements derived from admonishments from other white professors who have informed me that I must open my mouth wider when speaking SAE to say words such as “them” or “they” rather than “dem” or “dey”; and another who chided me for inaccurately saying “ax” rather than “ask” while teaching in the classroom—to which I took offense.

Speaking SAE has been as much about gaining flexibility in my tongue and jaws as it has been about pushing the limits of my vocabulary. Like Sachi, I too, struggled to pronounce the “R” sound. Because most words in BEV require opening my mouth narrowly, I found it difficult to decipher how wide to open my mouth and where to place my tongue. As a result, when I pronounced the “R,” sound, the sound came out as “Rra.” So I practiced the act of simultaneously opening my mouth wide, relaxing my tongue, and sticking out my lips to produce the “R” sound of SAE. To this day, I feel uncomfortable when I eliminate the intensified continuative in a phrase like “he steady trippin',” or focus on adding the copula in phrases like “we cool.” To be sure, when I say “he's overreacting” in the former, and “we're cool” in the latter, I feel like I am speaking with a voice that distances me—both bodily and culturally—from my racial group.

When codeswitching from BEV to SAE, my sense of experience with rhythm, with respect to time, functions as an essence of my own-race and cross-race encounters. Rhythm is pre-reflexive and pre-verbal as it manifests in our bodies while interacting with others in our everyday lives. When speaking BEV with the members of my own racial group, I experience the rhythm of speaking that emerges in us and between us within the conversational flow, activating a shared use of syntax, variation of vocal pitch—higher, faster and slower, and elongation signaling intonation—variations in loudness—signaling emotion—and even more tactical rhetorical strategies, including repetition (repeating words or statements) and call and response. The spontaneous reciprocity and exchange of rhythm become a performance of our own making, as they are already present within our common cultural experiences. Then again, cross-race encounters, at times, interfere with personal experiences of rhythm. When speaking SAE, it takes time for me to find and feel the rhythm of speaking. I often lose my sense of rhythm while speaking, as I experience struggles with breathing—affecting vocal speed and pitch—to engage pauses in turn-taking, and to coordinate what I desire to say with what actually comes out (sound), impacting vocal quality. In cross-race encounters, rhythm is anticipatory, emerging in the process of sensing and being sensed,44 as my voice takes on the rhythm mirroring those with power who influence my existence. It is another ironic case of mimicry—regardless of how much I appreciate and enjoy expressing metaphors, the habitual “be,” and simile spoken in BEV, and experimenting with new sayings using the tongue. As an educated black man, I am largely measured by how closely I mimic and conform to dominant white speaking norms. While it is no secret that many whites and even some blacks view BEV through the racially-charged lens of intellectual inferiority, understanding the materially-felt labor of speaking becomes yet another way to appreciate how black voice gives resonance to the narratives of struggle of black people.45 


We began with a simple yet often unexamined question: How do we emerge as embodied communicative subjects through the act of speaking? Speaking is an act of being and becoming; we invariably become the language we speak. Speech acts contour the body not only as a surface on which cultural inscriptions take place, but more fundamentally as a living, sensuous organism that is actively and proactively open to the social and material world. In Sachi's narrative, learning how to speak SAE was an embodied process of acquiring new types of bodily and sensory experiences, deeply intertwined with cultural and ideological structures of the dominant US culture. In Chris's account of speaking white-while-black, learning how to speak SAE was an embodied process of codeswitching between his BEV and SAE voices.

What we want to highlight is the following idea: It is not just what we say—although we can never separate what and how—but how we say it and which racial and cultural ideologies are sedimented and habituated in our lived bodies. For example, the ideologies of whiteness ingrained in the sound of SAE materialize in Sachi's habituated act of “hearing” SAE speech as a legitimate, credible, and normative linguistic sound. In Chris's experience, he is urged to codeswitch and styleshift at the level of bodily enactment and modification—from rolling the tongue and opening the mouth wider, to altering the rhythm of his speech—in order to perform a “legitimate” academic identity. Underneath our symbolic expressions within the conceptual and ideological universe of language, the act of speaking requires a body that speaks, hears, and moves in accordance with the given cultural and ideological habitus.

At the most basic level, the phenomenology of speaking points to the fact that symbolic activities require a material body that does things—an idea seemingly obvious yet under-theorized. The anatomy of speaking bodies has been examined from the lens of linguistic science or neuropsychological explanations of communicative bodies that approach communication as a largely autonomous and subjectless function.46 We examined the performative effects of the act of speaking on the formation of subjectivity by foregrounding habituated embodiment as a contested medium of symbolic activity and meaning-making. Our inquiry resonates with those who provide materialist analyses on the impact of technological infrastructures and material arrangements on communication.47 Instead of looking at the body as a technology, however, we believe the communicative body is not only symbolically expressive, but also a sensuous, sensible, and sense-making entity that contours and is contoured by bodily experiences. Thus, if Butler's discussion on performativity pointed to the poststructuralist understanding of how bodies come to matter through citational discourse, then our inquiry highlights the body as always-already more than discursive.48 Meaning gets sedimented not in what is said (signifier), but in the material process of accomplishing the signifier (the materialization of a speaking body as a medium of communication). Communication is a contested process of becoming an embodied communicative body, one that can(not) do things “properly” in a given context.

The speaking body is a medium of reproducing a hegemonic habitus, a social environment in which a particular “mode of dramatizing or enacting possibilities” is legitimated over others.49 At the same time, the speaking body is a mnemonic device to remember and reproduce the bodily ways of being we inherit from our culture. Our “failure” to conform to the normative speech patterns of SAE reveals that while a “signifying act delimits and contours the body,” the body is not passively awaiting its signification and contouring by hegemonic discourses.50 Rather, it is through enactive bodily participation in the act of speaking that we emerge as embodied speaking subjects. Despite our embodied efforts to conform to or mimic SAE, our always-already habituated bodies fail us in becoming normative speakers of SAE. The limits of social construction are not merely discursively defined; rather, the limits of normativity/Otherness are experientially reified through what a habituated body can or cannot do “properly.” The politics of a normative communicative body is not just a matter of ideological signification, it is also about what kind of habituated lived embodiments or bodily-ways-of-being-in-the-world are allowed to exist physically and materially. The path towards counter-hegemonic ways of being begins, at least partially, with our critical and reflexive awareness of direct bodily experiences within larger material and ideological contexts.

We attempted to make a methodological intervention in critical qualitative research by returning to the direct bodily experience that may slip through more conventional symbolic naming and ideological analysis. We contend that critical qualitative research benefits from attending to more implicit and material grounding of cultural hegemony and ideological contouring. In this sense, we situate our lived bodies as always-already mindful and sensuous; we “think” in and through our enactive-bodies-in-context, rather than merely in our heads. In our phenomenological descriptions, we purposefully and intentionally decentered the rational and logical “I,” and foregrounded the mindful and sensuous body as a lived instrument of the politics of communication. Our social and ideological experiences are materially and bodily grounded, making the body a contested site, not only of symbolic representations, but also of material manifestations and embodiments of power.

The path toward a more materialist understanding of embodiment in communication, then, is to (re)locate the nuanced politics of performativity in the phenomenological materiality of the sensuous body without collapsing the lived body into either biology or discursive conditions and ideological structures. Our inquiry into the act of speaking illuminates the phenomenological materiality of the body and embodiment inherent in our symbolic, linguistic, and discursive activities as communicators. Our narratives demonstrate how the cultural and ideological aspect of speaking intertwines with the physical, material, and bodily dimensions of speaking.51 Our thick descriptions of direct bodily experiences illuminate how dominant ideologies deploy and recruit our bodies-in-action, and how acts of assimilation and resistance are materially enacted and nuanced. While the visibility of cultural inscription on the body-as-surface is always a valuable source of deconstructive critique, communication scholars must also attend to the discursively-invisible, yet materially-felt labor of bodies that speak.


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Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 121–31.
For a discussion on the relationship between language and kinesthetic understanding of reality, see Sachiko Tankei-Aminian, “On Becoming Japersican: A Personal Narrative of Cultural Adaptation, Intercultural Identity, and Transnationalism,” in Globalizing Intercultural Communication, ed. Kathryn Sorrells and Sachi Sekimoto (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2016), 198–99.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).
Adesola Akinleye, “Orientation for Communication: Embodiment, and the Language of Dance,” Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication 4, no. 2 (2013): 101–12; Bryant K. Alexander and John T. Warren, “The Materiality of Bodies: Critical Reflections on Pedagogy, Politics and Positionality,” Communication Quarterly 50, no. 3–4 (2002): 328–43; Leslie Maria Bowen, “Reconfigured Bodies: The Problem of Ownership,” Communication Theory 15, no. 1 (2005): 23–38; Devika Chawla and Amardo Rodriguez, “Postcoloniality and the Speaking Body: Revisioning the English Oral Competency Curriculum,” Cultural Studies ←→ Critical Methodologies 11, no. 1 (2011): 76–91; Megan Foley, “‘Prove You're Human’: Fetishizing Material Embodiment and Immaterial Labor in Information Networks,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 31, no. 5 (2014): 365–79; Wendelin M. Küpers, “‘Inter-communicating’: Phenomenological Perspectives on Embodied Communication and Contextuality,” Journal for Communication & Culture 2, no. 2 (2012): 114–38; Claudio Moreira and Marcelo Diversi, “Missing Bodies: Troubling the Colonial Landscape of American Academia,” Text and Performance Quarterly 31, no. 3 (2011): 229–48; Julie-Ann Scott, “Stories of Hyperembodiment: An Analysis of Personal Narratives of and through Physically Disabled Bodies,” Text and Performance Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2012): 100–20; Sachi Sekimoto, “A Multimodal Approach to Identity: Theorizing the Self through Embodiment, Spatiality, and Temporality,” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 5, no. 3 (2012): 226–43.
John T. Warren and Amy K. Kilgard, “Staging Stain upon the Snow: Performance as a Critical Enfleshment of Whiteness,” Text and Performance Quarterly 21, no. 4 (2001): 263–76.
Alexander and Warren, “The Materiality of Bodies,” 341; Peter McLaren, Schooling as a Ritual Performance: Towards a Political Economy of Education Symbols and Gestures (New York: Routledge, 1986).
Gust A. Yep, “Queering/Quaring/Kauering/Crippin'/Transing ‘Other Bodies’ in Intercultural Communication,” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 6, no. 2 (2013): 123.
Scott, “Stories of Hyperembodiment.”
Moreira and Diversi, “Missing Bodies.”
Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 129 original emphasis.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 211.
Ibid., 212.
Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 87.
Ibid., 78.
Ibid., 94 original emphasis.
Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 126 original emphasis.
Liam Grealy, “Negotiating Cultural Authenticity in Hip-Hop: Mimicry, Whiteness and Eminem,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 22, no. 6 (2008): 857.
Butler, Bodies that Matter.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 167–76.
Felicia R. Lee, “Lingering Conflict in the Schools: Black Dialect vs. Standard Speech,” The New York Times, 5 January 1994, accessed 11 April 2015,
Marwan M. Kraidy, “Hybridity in Cultural Globalization,” Communication Theory 12, no. 3 (2002): 316–39.
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Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8, no. 2 (2007): 149–68; Jacqueline M. Martinez, Phenomenology of Chicana Experience and Identity: Communication and Transformation in Praxis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
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Sachi Sekimoto, “Transnational Asia: Dis/orienting Identity in the Globalized World,” Communication Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2014): 387.
Austin, How to Do Things with Words.
Donaldo Macedo, Bessie Dendrinos, and Panayota Gounari, The Hegemony of English (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2003); Yukio Tsuda, “Speaking against the Hegemony of English: Problems, Ideologies, and Solutions,” in The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication, ed. Thomas K. Nakayama and Rona Tamiko Halualani, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 248–69.
Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 78–95.
Chawla and Rodriguez, “Postcoloniality and the Speaking Body,” 80.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.
Pensri Ho, “Performing the ‘Oriental’: Professionals and the Asian Model Minority Myth,” Journal of Asian American Studies 6, no. 2 (2003): 149–75; Yuko Kawai, “Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril,” Howard Journal of Communications 16, no. 2 (2005): 109–30.
H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, Articulate while Black: Barak Obama, Language, and Race in the US (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
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James Baldwin, “If Black English Isn't a Language, then Tell Me, What Is?” New York Times, 29 July 1979, accessed 13 January 2015,; Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 195.
Ibid., 192.
Ibid., 392.
Frantz Fanon, qtd. in Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 187.
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception.
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Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 525.
Butler, Bodies that Matter, 30.
Iris Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality,” in Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality, ed. Linda Martín Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 163–74.