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.