“Sounding white” is a phrase used within the black community to refer to someone speaking “proper” English—an idea which is as offensive as it is wrong.
Equating “sounding white” to speaking proper English alludes to a superiority complex. The notion that whiteness automatically equates to correctness is mind-boggling and fueled by ego.
“Sounding white” simply has to do with the properties of speech—cadence, timbre, intonation, etc. Not everyone shares the same characteristics, but black people generally tend to have specific vocal tones and cadences in the way they speak. When black people do not have these specific properties of speech, they are referred to as “sounding white.”
It has absolutely nothing to do with diction or syntax. This vocal distinction is why many people can often distinguish between black and white singers on their voices alone. I have known several people who were as dumb as a box of rocks with syntax similar to that of my 6-year-old nephew. However, their tone and vocal quality sounded like that of a stereotypical white person. Therefore, they “sounded white.”
Many educated black people such as Michael Eric Dyson, Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill and Professor Cornell West speak eloquently with great diction and a vast vocabulary. However, those people do not “sound white” by any standard of that phrase.
I am not saying that there is not a form of code-switching that occurs between some black people.
However, code-switching is very distinct compared to “sounding white.” Code-switching in layman terms is switching from informal speech or slang usage to formal or mainstream speech. I know I speak a certain way and use specific words when conversing with my black friends compared to when I am in mixed or completely different racial company. The same goes for when I am speaking to other gay people or straight people immersed in homosexual lingo and culture.
Ultimately, the thought that “sounding white” means you have a great education and you speak the right way is utterly disrespectful. The connotation is that white is right and the antithesis of white, being black, is wrong.
Certain aspects of black culture have historically been looked down upon, and most likely will continue to be. Conversely, white traditions have always been and continue to be praised as something to aspire to. It is not mere coincidence that “sounding black” is often used as a slight or insult and holds a negative connotation.