In my 21 years of existence I’ve been called almost every name under the sun. Some of the names were warranted, others are too foul to even mention in this blog post. Nevertheless, I always clung to what my Mom told me as a child: “it’s not what they call you, but what you respond to.” However, of all the monikers people have graciously or hatefully bestowed on me, the name that still makes my hair stand up on the back of my neck is “articulate”. Yes, “articulate”. Many of you are probably wondering why I have such qualms with a word that generally carries positive connotations. I’m glad you asked. To me being called “articulate”, especially by an elderly white person has always seemed to be very patronizing and demeaning. In fact, being called articulate at times seems oxymoronic, because those who call me this tend to be more surprised that I can put together a coherent sentence without stumbling over my words, rather than the eloquence of my oratory.
A few days ago I went on a rant on Twitter about my experience on a flight on which I was the only person of color. On this particular flight I happened to sit next to an elderly white lady who seemed hell bent on finding out my life story instead of letting me sleep. She began by asking me what was I doing on the flight. I looked around at the 200 other people and wondered if it wasn’t obvious that I was doing the same thing as them. She went on to ask what my line of work was. When I told her that I was a student at the University of Chicago her eyebrows raised the same way former Governor Mark Sanford’s wife’s eyebrows probably did when she found out that he wasn’t really hiking on the Appalachian Trail. After her eyes on almost popped out of her head she asked me what sport I played (not if I played sports). I felt like pulling an O.J. Simpson (no, not that type of O.J.) and just run through the airport to get away from this lady; unfortunately, I was more than 10,000 feet in the air. If I ran she probably would’ve asked for my autograph. Yet, even after I quickly responded no, and put my hat down over my eyes to indicate that I was trying to sleep she still felt like cross examining me. I felt like I was on an episode of Law and Order SVU. What sent me over the edge was when she uttered the words, “You remind of President Obama because you’re so articulate.” Don’t get me wrong, Barack Obama is a cool dude and I respect his Presidential swagger, but I honestly felt disrespected.
I hate to generalize, but in my experience I’ve come across far too many white people who use the word to compliment a black person for speaking “standard” English. During the 2008 Presidential campaign Vice President Joe Biden responded to the ascendancy of 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.
I think that while white praise of black eloquence can come across as surprise that a black person could be so well-spoken, 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. 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 flat out condescending.
Side note: I don’t like being called articulate by anyone of any race. However, I wrote this post to highlight the racialization of the term.