Monday, April 21, 2008

compliment black people for being "articulate" (instead of listening to what they have to say)

Johnny is generous enough to remark upon how "articulate" I am! That makes me feel good!

--facetious black testifier,

I once went to a professional presentation given by a black woman. I was impressed by what she had to say, but I was especially taken by how she said it. Unlike previous white presenters on the topic, she spoke with obvious passion and energy, as well as what I considered a certain artful attention to her words and their arrangement.

When I met a black colleague the next day, he asked me what I'd thought of the presentation.

"I loved the way she spoke," I said. "So passionate, so, I don't know . . . eloquent!"

It wasn't until much later that I understood my co-worker's reaction: instead of saying anything in return, he looked aside with a sort of sad smile, shook his head, and then just walked away.

I felt I'd been accused of doing something wrong, but I had no idea what. How, I wondered, could expressing enthusiasm for the performance of a black person to another black person possibly justify such a reaction?

But that was exactly problem--I was praising the black speaker's performance, rather than what she had to say.

I now realize that the word "eloquent" must have sounded all too familiar, all too much like the more common word used by whites to praise black speech--"articulate." Whites often use this word to compliment a black person for speaking "standard" English, or rather, white middle-class English.

This common white behavior, that of noticing how black people speak instead of listening to what they have to say, is messed up in a lot of ways.

A few months ago, Senator Joe Biden responded to the ascendancy of fellow Democrat Barack Obama this way: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Soon enough, and rightly so, Biden had a lot of explaining to do. Not only had he used that red-flag word in this context, "articulate"; what the hell did he mean by expressing surprise that a black man would be "clean"?

Biden's subsequent statements on the matter enacted the next common white tendency in such cases--instead of expressing a new understanding of why such words strike many as offensive, he and his campaign workers repeatedly argued that he hadn't meant for them to be offensive.

"Clean is a synonym for fresh and new," Biden campaign spokesman Larry Rasky told ABC News. "And if you look at the context of the quote it's obvious that's what he meant. And certainly anybody who knows Sen. Biden wouldn't question that."

Biden then "issued" a written apology, again stressing what he'd meant to say, rather than an understanding of the effects of what he did say:

"I deeply regret any offense my remark might have caused anyone. That was not my intent and I expressed that to Sen. Obama."

So we have at least two common white tendencies going on here. In addition to noticing how black people say things before or instead of addressing the content of what they have to say, white people often argue that their words or actions couldn’t have been racist because they hadn't meant them to be racist. Black people, on the other hand, tend to notice the effects of racist words and actions as much as the apparent intention, or lack of intention, behind them.

In terms of effects, praising blacks for their mastery of "standard" English has the effect of conveying condescension. A problem here is that those who condescend to others rarely realize they're doing so--that's rarely their "intention." But it can be the "effect."

Anna Perez, who once worked as a deputy assistant to President Bush, says praising black speech exemplifies "the soft bigotry of low expectations. It literally comes down to that. When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person."

In a recent New York Times article that explained the issue for white folks, Lynnette Clemetson offered many examples of black exasperation with such "damning praise."

For example, Clemetson writes, "The comedian and actor D. L. Hughley, a frequent guest on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, says that every time he appears on the show, where he riffs on the political and social issues of the day, people walk up to him afterward and tell him how 'smart and articulate' his comments were."

I think that while white praise of black eloquence can come across as surprise that a black person could be so articulate, it can also convey, sometimes, an appreciation for an extra element--sometimes style or grace, sometimes wit or rapidity of ideas--extra layers of oratory that white speakers commonly lack. But again, to express even that different and more nuanced form of appreciation of the way a person talks, before addressing the content of what that person says, can come across as the same, tired old white condescension. And it's not all that difficult for this white guy to see why.

Finally, aside from conveying condescending surprise that a black person could speak well, and implicitly trivializing what that person has to say, such white praise overlooks a common black ability that many whites lack, something linguists call “code switching.”

As Michelle Johnson explains in her handbook for black navigators of the white workplace, Working while Black (a book that white folks should also read),

Code switching—the term used to describe being bicultural (operating simultaneously in two different cultures)—for most blacks in the workplace is just something that we have to learn from the time we leave our parents’ home to go out into the world. Another term I’ve heard used to describe code switching is functional multilingualism. An example of that is saying “excuse me” when you accidentally bump into a white coworker and reflexively saying “my bad” when you accidentally bump into a black coworker later that day.

How many white people can easily switch between their commands of communication styles for two such differing cultural realms?

Condescending white praise is full of painful ironies. Not only does praising someone for speaking your way as well as you do trivialize whatever that person has to say; it also overlooks how in most cases, that person has mastered twice as many ways of saying it.

Update: An extensive article at Racialicious analyzing praise in these terms for Barack Obama.


  1. I wonder if this could be an example of "dysfunctional monolingualism" (an expression I just made up)?

    If I hear a person speaking in public, and compliment them on their erudition, I am inevitably referring to how impressed I am with their ability to get their point across. I am not suggesting to them that I have guessed something of their ancestry and am only relatively impressed with their speech, depending on some unconscious racist expectations I have.

    If they, as you suggest, in response, misinterpret my compliment as a racist slur, they are projecting, and should really have a word with themselves. Are they looking at my white skin and making some guesses as to my genetic ancestry before they decide what I really mean? Or, put another way; could I only compliment a dark-skinned speaker on their delivery (without fear of racist misinterpretation) if I have similarly dark skin?

    How silly we have become. We forget our mutual ancestry in favour of 100s of presuppositions and generalisations, and then dress it up in intellectual clothing. I look with grim fascination as these petty generalisations snowball into more conflict, friction and hatred. We all need to grow up.

  2. I really like your blog, Macon! I've put a link for your blog on my blog, if that's alright. I've been reading it everyday. Keep it up!

  3. Macon, I'm really impressed with how articulate you've been in expressing your views here on this blog. Your passion and committment are obvious. Keep up the good work. You're a credit to white people everywhere.

  4. Certainly, william, it could only be the fault of those damned misinterpreting "dark-skinned speaker[s]." Your comments are beyond reproach.

  5. Hi Katie,

    care to explain what you meant in your reply without sarcasm?

    And why are those dark skinned (I use the term advisedly instead of "black" as I don't assume that they all have the same ancestral or cultural background) people "damned"?

  6. mmKatie, Of course William's comments exhibit a bit of insensitivity, but he also makes some valid points and interesting observations. Your stark condemnation seems a bit rash.
    As one who like to observe manners and style, how could I not listen to Mr. Obama and not walk away totally impressed with his style and not be excited by the way he spoke. Furthermore, I'd be very excited about talking about his style and delivery.
    Now, if I simply turned away and said to the next person I saw, "my, wasn't he articulate," that would be cause to question my motives.
    The point is, we need to give each other a little slack. No one is perfect in their perceptions or actions.
    Hell, even MaconD admits to making a racial faux pas at one point in his life!
    BTW: "Beyond reproach" usually refers to something that is unreproachable.

  7. william, I agree that we all need to "grow up" in some ways--self-improvement is a neverending process if one cares to undertake it.

    However, I also thing that in terms of mutual understanding between whites and members of other races, whites have a lot more "growing up" to do than non-whites do. Non-white groups have more or less had to study whites, because whites have been in power in so many ways. Thus, non-white people know a lot more about whites and their common tendencies than whites do about theirs.

    I'm wondering, William, if you would agree that in American institutions and individuals, racism still exists? If you agree that it does, do you also think that one who is raised in that system must absorb some of that racism, and thus is likely to enact it, unless that person consciously untrains him or herself from doing so? And if you agree with that, might you be enacting racism unconsciously, in cases such as these?

    Regarding more specifically your comments on complimenting speakers for erudition, your intent isn't the issue here (as I pointed out in the post). When it comes to a white person complimenting a black person for erudition, eloquence, or articulateness, before or instead of commenting on what one has to say, the effect for another black person is dismay, because the white person's comment echoes so many previous, similar ones, and because it sounds like you're more impressed with how the black person spoke, and less so with what the person said.

    As I think SH is saying, if you were to remark on both what someone like Obama has to say as well as how he says it, that's not likely to have the negative effect I'm talking about. Especially if you remark on what he says before rhapsodizing about his passion, eloquence, and so on.

    Finally, I would add that people "project," as you put it, all the time. Isn't it better to avoid that which provokes projection? If you have a partner, for instance, don't you avoid sensitive subjects because you know that even if you don't intend to annoy or hurt your partner, just bringing them up can provoke a negative response? If so, why not extend such a courtesy in racial terms?

  8. Smoking Gun, I'm glad you like this place! Your blog looks interesting too, definitely a place I'll visit again.

    SH, thanks for the compliment, and I'm glad you've stuck around, always good to hear from you.

    And what a thrill it is to be a called a credit to my race! (You can take your tongue out of your cheek now. And I'll do the same.)

    I'm glad you didn't say my blog is "mighty white" of me. Do you remember when people used to say that?

  9. Macon, Firstly, I want to say how much I am enjoying your 'blog; just in case you may have thought otherwise. It's a delight to read well-reasoned and fairly-made arguments that aim to get people talking about just how deeply ingrained our racial stereotyping has become.

    And that (if I hadn't made myself clear already!) is the gist of my concern with race-based issues. And (Katie, SH and all) I'm sorry if I come over all insensitive when I talk about generalisations. I try to be as even-handed as I can, but it sort of gets lost in the internets...

    You ask if I agree that there is residual racism in American institutions and individuals and I'd have to reply that I would suspect so, but I don't know; firstly because I'm not American and have never lived there, but also because the real answer will be: Yes in some people and organisations, but not all.

    In a world (cut gravelly-voiced trailer voice over) where more and more people's racial origin is anything but clear cut, we are in danger of allowing our more primitive instincts to make assumptions based on the hue of our skin. The darkness or whiteness of us is a blunt tool with which to define genealogy, and it might get us into all kinds of trouble if we make assumptions accordingly.

    I know that, in a way, this takes us a fair distance from the point of this 'blog, and if what I'm saying is unfair or irrelevant to this discussion, I'll withdraw. Furthermore, I won't dispute for a moment the generalisation that, as you put it: "Non-white groups have more or less had to study whites, because whites have been in power in so many ways." My concern is that, as the usual ways of identifying people with their ancestry dissolves, we are in danger of more racism, not less, when we label people "black and "white".

  10. What I see in your words, william, is Very-Special-Snowflake Syndrome, or rather, the utterly predictable desire white people feel to be the exception to the rule. YOU do not intend to be racist, therefore you demand that your words (heavy with racist implications) be judged differently than those white people whose intent is not pure.

    Intent is not the point. Most people who say and do racist things would swear up and down that they were not racists, that they had no intention of being racist, that they love people of color, that they've even slept with one, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

    The bottom line is that while you whine about how your words are being twisted, and how we shouldn't label people based on race, and how everyone should just *stop the madness* and cast off the shackles of racial categorization, people of color are rolling their eyes and moving the fuck on.

    "Allowing our more primitive instincts to make assumptions based on the hue of our skin" - an interesting locution. Is it a primitive instinct that causes a white cop to pull over a young black man? For a white legislator to argue that a bill benefiting primarily children of color should not be passed? Your language makes it seem as though, in the words of Avenue Q, everyone's a little bit racist, and all we need to do is grow the fuck up.

    Actually, no. Racism is embedded in our social institutions, and not just in the US. Racism incorporates overt acts of discrimination, social policy and institutions, cultural norms, and dumb racist things that well-meaning white folks say every day. Racism benefits white people at the expense of people of color. Racism is not some sort of mass cultural delusion we all just need to get over (with that "we" implicitly meaning "you oversensitive people of color") - the responsibility is on white people to get a fucking clue, not on us silly brown folks to realize that when you say "articulate," you mean it in the good way.

    So no - I don't think that you "come over all insensitive" - more *racist* than insensitive. But look on the bright side - you've got plenty of company! There's lots of other little snowflakes out there that sound JUST LIKE YOU.

  11. Katie, as the brown people say: "Word."

    "Very-Special-Snowflake Syndrome" is a very special locution. Thank you, I won't forget it.

    I'm tempted to say that I think you're being a bit rough on William, but I won't, because I don't. Such blithe, Very Special declarations of independence do get exasperating, even to some of their fellow Snowflakes.

  12. Thanks, Macon.

    I wish I could say I'd made up VSSS, but I'm sure I've heard it somewhere else. Ah well, I can pass the time in purgatory tracking down all my citations.

  13. Very-special Snowflake Syndrome! That's perfect.

    "But, but, but, we're all unique individuals . . . aren't we?" Sputter sputter sputter. Whites are not used to talking about being white, that's for sure. A big reason is because they don't understand it.

    I wonder where you heard that term, Katie? So many people are like that . . .

  14. I truly apperciate you having these blogs available. I have read and re-read many of these blog entries and I finally feel that someone has pointed out what i have experienced for most of my life. Thanks again!

  15. You're very welcome, La Legione di Resistenza. I'm so glad that you've found some validation of your experiences here.

    Actually, a lot of non-white people have been saying the same thing about this blog. Here's hoping that more white folks will stop by too.

    I checked out your profile, and I love the quotation there. I hope you don't mind my reprinting it here?

    “When you travel you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. . . . You begin to be more accessible to others, because they may be able to help you in difficult situations.”

    -Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage.

    Travel has been like that for me, too. In my case, it also opened my eyes in a lot of ways to my own whiteness. I also like the word "travel," since it has better connotations for me than "tourism."

  16. Macon!

    you are more than welcomed to use my quote anytime you like. And thanks for checking my profile as you already seen way too many blogs. But, i would like to share this one with you, You might like this one!

  17. Thank you LLDR, your blog post about traveling-while-black is full of insights. I've often wondered how different world travel must be for non-white people, especially the difficulties of encountering different assumptions from those that white travelers encounter.

    I once heard a black person say that black people almost never go "camping" because the woods bring up memories of "white guys with ropes."

    Racism probably follows you almost everywhere you go. Maybe some day, most whites will realize that the opposite, white privilege, follows them almost everywhere they go.


  19. LOL, William bounced after getting called out for having an acute case of VSSS! They always do.

    Wonderful blog. Found you via Racialicious!

  20. No, Angelina (and all), I "bounced" because, whenever I hear accusations of racism being levelled at a person for having the temerity to suggest that we should not judge people by the colour of their skin, I automatically conclude that the level of discussion has dropped to the point where further comment would be irrelevant.

    Any kind of personal attack (racism, "VSSS" and so forth is just an attempt to think less hard than you could, and bully, instead.

    I thought I'd revisit this forum to see if the level of debate had raised its game at all.

    Oh well. Happy new year. And 'bye!


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