The “White Voice” of the Film Sorry to Bother You — But for Real

Speech translation technology developed by the company Sanas is turning Boots Riley's satire on racism into a literal reality.

Many people may remember the plot of the 2018 film Sorry to Bother You from writer and director Boots Riley. The film follows Cassius, a young Black man in Oakland, California, who picks up a job as a telemarketer in a call center. Cassius is a failure at his new job until he discovers the secret to success – to speak with a “white voice.” Cassius’s “white voice” is dubbed over and sounds ridiculous, but of course, once he starts using it, he is a big success.

Of course, this film is fictional. An absurd, satirical reflection of reality. But under capitalism, companies will do anything to make money. And recently, one Silicon Valley startup has turned what was Boots Riley’s dystopian satire of life under capitalism into a literal reality.

The company Sanas has developed a software to alter call center workers’ voices, no matter the country they’re from, to make them sound like what is obviously intended to be a caricature of a stereotypical “White American.” On their website, the company features two audio clips. The first is the voice of a man with an Indian accent. And the second is the same voice but altered by the software, and transformed into something slightly robotic, and clearly white-sounding. The company has attracted tens of millions of dollars from investors who think call center companies will purchase the software in order to take advantage of lower-paid workers in other countries.

In Sorry to Bother You, the story line works because it uses humor to highlight the racism of our society. For a company to try to actually bring this technology to life only serves to reinforce people’s prejudice around accents, and seeks to profit off of this racism. What we saw in the film was supposed to be outlandish. To see it come true just goes to show how evil capitalist society is.