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Sounding Guilty: Criminality and Black Racialized Speech

Branson, Dominique (2023) Sounding Guilty: Criminality and Black Racialized Speech. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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A widely held belief in the United States asserts that race is seen but not heard (Gonzales Rose, 2018). According to this, racialization and racism are not enacted through hearing alone. However, a large and consistent body of sociolinguistic research has shown that listeners do indeed racialize disembodied voices, and often categorize speakers’ racial identities accurately even when given no additional external cues to decipher this information. (Haley, 1990; Purnell, Idsardi & Baugh, 1999; Thomas & Reaser, 2004; Weissler, 2021). Linguists have also shown that listeners may negatively assess racialized speakers and unfairly discriminate against them, using speakers’ speech practices as justification for their evaluations and actions (Flores & Rosa, 2015; Rosa & Flores, 2017). An emerging body of research on Blackness and language in legal settings, for example, has shown that court outcomes may be impacted by listeners’ negative judgments of Black speakers who use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) when testifying in the courtroom (Corley [Branson], 2014; Kurinec & Weaver III, 2019; Jones et al., 2019; Rickford & King, 2016). The present study builds upon this work by investigating whether listeners’ perception of speakers’ racial identities correlates with listeners’ perception of criminality.
I designed three surveys to investigate whether listeners associate voices they categorize as “sounding Black”—what I call Black racialized speech—with crime relevant images. I found a small positive correlation (r = 0.213) between these variables among listeners who heard Black speakers. While not statistically significant, this suggests that listeners may associate Black racialized speech with criminality, but only when the speakers they are listening to self-identify as Black—and this is despite the fact that listeners do not know speakers’ racial identities nor have additional external cues to decipher this information.
Together, the findings highlight the critical role of listeners’ perception in racialization and criminalization processes and emphasize that moving towards racial justice using linguistics necessitates greater emphasis on interrogating listeners’ perception. Finally, I assert that Black racialized speech is a useful heuristic tool to begin to interrogate the ways in which non-production-based factors influence listeners’ perception of speakers/speech in racialization and criminalization processes.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Branson, Dominiquedoc40@pitt.edudoc40
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee CoChairGooden, Shelomesgooden@pitt.edusgooden
Committee CoChairOrtega-Llebaria, Martamao61@pitt.edumao61
Committee MemberGodley, Amandaagodley@pitt.eduagodley
Committee MemberGonzales Rose,
Committee MemberHowell,
Date: 6 September 2023
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 30 June 2023
Approval Date: 6 September 2023
Submission Date: 2 August 2023
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 187
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Linguistics
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Race, Language, Criminality, Perception
Date Deposited: 06 Sep 2023 12:30
Last Modified: 06 Sep 2023 12:30


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