February 3, 2007

"Black people get a little testy when white people call them 'articulate.'"

Notes Lynette Clemetson in the Week in Review explains why.
“Historically, it was meant to signal the exceptional Negro,” [said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.] “The implication is that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate.”

And such distinctions discount as inarticulate historically black patterns of speech. “Al Sharpton is incredibly articulate,” said Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. “But because he speaks with a cadence and style that is firmly rooted in black rhetorical tradition you will rarely hear white people refer to him as articulate.”

While many white people do not automatically recognize how, and how often, the word is applied, many black people can recall with clarity the numerous times it has stopped them in their tracks.
What's really amazing is not that black people can speak well, but that white people haven't yet gotten the message that it's a bad idea to keep pointing it out.

NOTE: I edited the last sentence to make the point sharper.

35 comments:

Simon said...

"White people are automatically assumed to be articulate"? Only in the very broadest sense of the term - "capable of speech", rather than "able to wield the English language fluently," the latter being almost invariably what is intended when "articulate" is used as a compliment.

Maxine Weiss said...

Don't sweat the small stuff!

http://ben.casnocha.com/2006/06/partitioning_th.html

J said...

"What's really amazing is that white people, after all these years, haven't yet gotten the message that this is a problem"

What's really amazing is that people obsessed with race (whatever their own may be), after all these years, still desperately search for something, anything, to take offense at.

The Emperor said...

What's especially amazing is how many white liberals haven't gotten the message yet.

Simon said...

As to the article's contention that "[w]hen whites use the word in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment. It is similar to praising a female executive or politician by calling her 'tough' or 'a rational decision-maker." That seems more like the author projecting than any description of demonstrable reality, and at very most, it is ipse dixit. I see no evidence that if this remains true today, although I'm sure that it may once have been. It must make for a miserable way to go through life, constantly feeling obliged to brandish one's sword at illusory demons of one's own imagining.

The Emperor said...

I see no evidence that this remains true today

Really? I see evidence on an almost daily basis, and I don't get out all that much. There are millions of people who say explictly racist things; there are millions more who make implicit racist remarks like expressing surprise that a black person is articulate.

Meade said...

I notice Obama didn't get testy over Biden's remark. But then he isn't black. Nor is he white, right? So can only someone who is also neither black nor white call him 'articulate?' What if a black person fluently describes him as 'articulate?'

"What's really amazing is that white people, after all these years, haven't yet gotten the message that this is a problem."

Which white people?
Democrats or Republicans?
Liberals or conservatives?
Google "tar baby kerry molly ivans" and I think you'll see that it's white liberal Democrats, like Joe Biden, infected with white guilt and malignant covert racism who seem to be failing to get the message.

Many white Republicans and conservatives get it loud and clear.

Kirk Parker said...

Well, we are talking about the context of politics, right? Surely nobody who listened to Sen. Steven's attempted explanation of how the Internet works, or who heard Sen. Kennedy say anything at all, would ever come away with the idea that white people are articulate by default.

Zeb Quinn said...

If in pronouncing the word "ask" it is enunciated as "acske," is that indicative of being inarticulate? Or is it just a cultural thing? Just wondering...

Bob said...

Well, until the major black role models are not jocks and rappers, both of which are usually inarticulate or intentionally offensive in their speech, this situation will continue. It's been noted before that black school children suffer ridicule from their peers when they strive to achieve in school, and are accused of "acting white."

Simon said...

Perhaps in light of this new paradigm that the New York Times urges on us, wherein the commonplace use of the English language is transformed into a pervasive assumption of seething prejudice, since misoginy rarely lurks far from racism, I should clarify that when I described Ann's federalism scholarship as "mellifluously-written and interesting," a couple of months ago, I did not mean to "suggest[] that the recipient of the “compliment” is notably different from other" women, but from other scholars - male or female, black or white - writing about federalism; nor was "what ... [I was] really saying is that [Ann] is articulate ... for a" woman. In Perez's argot, I meant to signal the exceptional scholar, not the exceptional woman.

Good lord - God help the man who tries to date Ms. Perez and compliments her by saying that she is "pretty", lest she think he means "you're pretty for a person of your unspecified ethnotype, most of whom are usually unattractive."

It's a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.

Invisible Man said...

What's especially amazing is how many white liberals haven't gotten the message yet.

When did President Bush become a liberal?

And as for Simon, do a quick search and find out how often Edwards, Clinton, Reagan, Pat Buchanan or any other good "white" orator is referred to as "articulate". It's just not a descriptor that is used to describe one with a good handle of the English language. I know that anything that might imply that "white" people show any time of bias or bigotry seems to insult the naive reality of those like Simon, but with all of the evidence it's pretty hard to refute.

Simon said...

Bob - but that is a problem of culture, not of race. There are plenty of white people who are sucked into precisely the same trap of looking askance on education, and choosing poor role models -- often precisely the same jocks and rappers. "Acting white" is just a cultural slang for "nerd."

We're going to find it hard to make no headway in this country until people learn to stop identifying themselves by the color of their skin. When people can learn to disagree with Justice Thomas' views without making pejorative comments about how black conservatives aren't blacks at all -- as if race is determinative of politics -- then we'll be making progress.

Simon said...

Invisible Man said...
"And as for Simon, do a quick search and find out how often Edwards, Clinton, Reagan, Pat Buchanan or any other good "white" orator is referred to as 'articulate'."

This is just a quick google search for a few names that jump to mind:

"Ronald Reagan, the handsome, articulate Hollywood actor was now in the political spotlight."

"[Bush is] following right after one of the most glib and most articulate presidents -- in my opinion the most articulate that we've ever had, which would be Bill Clinton."

"[Billy Graham] was as clear, and as articulate, and as strong and forceful in the pulpit as I have ever heard him."

"[The speech] was 'vintage [Newt] Gingrich: brassy, confrontational, direct, polarizing, articulate, harsh, disarming, and charismatic."

"[Elizabeth Edwards] brings her charm and articulate voice of experience to the stage."

"[John] McCain's articulate defenses of the laws of war..."

"Scalia has been an articulate and often strident advocate of his jurisprudential vision"

Meade said...

"We're going to find it hard to make [] headway in this country until people learn to stop identifying themselves by the color of their skin. When people can learn to disagree with Justice Thomas' views without making pejorative comments about how black conservatives aren't blacks at all -- as if race is determinative of politics -- then we'll be making progress."

Very eloquent. And I don't mean "for a Hoosier..."

Simon said...

Meade,
I'm glad you qualified that, otherwise - having read the wise counsel of the New York Times - I'd have figured you just meant "not bad for a dumbass corn farmer." ;) Boy, I'm glad I read the New York Times, otherwise I just wouldn't know what to be outraged about! ;)

Bill Dalasio said...

Sorry, but Ms. Rose's comments strike me as absolutely ridiculous. Jesse Jackson speaks "with a cadence and style that is firmly rooted in black rhetorical tradition", but strangely I've never heard anyone question whether he is articulate. Much the same could be said of Martin Luther King. People don't think of Al Sharpton as articulate because he says really, really stupid things.

JorgXMcKie said...

"What's really amazing is that white people, after all these years, haven't yet gotten the message that this is a problem."

Why should that surprise you? Are your students, unlike mine, aware of any history at all prior to, oh, 1990 (and I'm being generous here)? Why should they know that someone else finds something they say historically offensive.

I've got a deal. I'll let anyone else be offended by any speech whatsoever of their choosing, and I'll reserve the right to be offensive without either thought or intent. How's that for a deal? Let's call it something simple, like, I dunno, Freedom of Speech.

Probably never catch on, though.

redneck hillbilly said...

All this walking on pins and needles has gone far enough. I hain't giving up fried chicken fer shore.

Meade said...

Bill Dalasio said...
...People don't think of Al Sharpton as articulate...

People like Joe Biden do.

Thursday, Biden told him that Sharpton and Jackson were the most articulate people in the country.

Beatrice said...

Wow, that's funny. Because if I am going to sterotype African Americans, I would have to say that African Americans are more articulate than the average white American. I always saw this as stemming from a history that valued religious expression, passionate sermons as well as oral history and stories.

When I listen to African American men and women in my field speak I am quite often impressed. And white husband and I were just the other day talking about what a great orator Al Sharpton is, even if we disagree with him.

There. that's my stereotype. And perhaps that's why black americans hear that word applied to them so often. Because people really think they are articulate.

Am I in trouble?

vbspurs said...

Fortunately, this attitude only infects white and black Anglo-Saxonic culture.

In France, no one mentioned that Dr. Leopold Senghor, ex-President of Senegal (of whom I was fortunate enough to attend a poetry reading in Paris, once) was "articulate".

Of course we has articulate! since he was also in the French Academy as one of the "immortals", as its members are called.

Academicians are there to preserve the French language from foreign (read, English) influence, and to keep French culture in general, unsullied and pure.

The only requisite you have to have, is to be articulate in French.

Can you imagine the brouhaha if there were an American Academy of leading intellectual lights, and say, WEB Dubois had been invited to join?

No doubt this great honour, would be spun by Tricia Rose types as offensive, because the implication is that Dubois is considered articulate in the English-tongue (but in the "white tradition").

And clearly this is racist.

Altogether now, damned if you do and...!

Cheers,
Victoria

Revenant said...

"Al Sharpton is incredibly articulate," said Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. "But because he speaks with a cadence and style that is firmly rooted in black rhetorical tradition you will rarely hear white people refer to him as articulate."

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that that claim is true. Well, who cares if the speech is "rooted in tradition" or not? He's a politician engaged in mass communication. If he wants to be considered articulate, he needs to speak in a manner his audience is going to consider articulate. The world's most brilliant and poetic speaker is still going to sound like an idiot in Ebonics or Southern Vernacular.

Rick Lee said...

When Colin Powell was named Sec. of State, Chris Rock did a long piece on him being referred to as "well spoken" and "articulate". It was devastating.

Brian said...

So, Ann, how should we compliment a black person for being a good orator. Do we need to, every time we praise Obama as a good speaker, expand it to, "Obama is an excellent orator, relative to typical speakers of any race, and we don't mean to suggest that black Americans are typically poor speakers."? This is a decidedly...inarticulate solution. Particularly when compared to the easier solution of limiting offense to cases where the "for a black person" part is obviously and clearly implied.

Bill Dalasio said...

Meade said...

People like Joe Biden do.

Well, compared to Joe Biden....

Zeb Quinn said...

When you get down to individual cases, Louis Farrakhan is quite articulate. Does that inform us in any way?

Mortimer Brezny said...

I doubt any of the social science or history professors were making categorical statements. Rather, they were describing social or cultural phenomena that exist on a system level and influence the lives of select individuals. It is no rebuttal to claim you don't see it yourself or that it doesn't happen to everyone; the point is that it happens to a lot of people for exactly the same reason and it happens enough for us to be able to classify the phenomenon and trace its causes. It's rather disgusting, I think, to call delusional anyone who claims to have been the recipient of a casually racist comment. That's just motherfucking ignorant, whether you quote Chief Justice John Roberts or not. I didn't see any women get raped today; that doesn't mean no women, anywhere in the world, were raped today.

J said...

"Oh grow up, Mortimer"

-Randolph Duke

Simon said...

"whether you quote Chief Justice John Roberts or not

You know, speaking of John Roberts, our Fearless Leader's often called "articulate," too, you know. I suppose that the implication there must also be that most Supreme Court advocates do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech... ;)

Heh heh...The well's not dry. This is never getting old. LOL.

J - great movie reference.

Finn Kristiansen said...

As some have pointed out above, one can certainly find references to whites being called articulate, but finding an instance does not quite prove a point.

The question is whether blacks on the whole receive certain treatment, or are referred to in certain ways, above and beyond what can be considered the norm.

One recalls how in the past when describing athletes, blacks were said to be athletic or naturally gifted, while the whites were "thinking" and showing mental skills. One often heard about Larry Bird's work ethic and mental toughness, not his natural gift.

Or, the "lunchpail work ethic" that the sportscasters often mention. Invariably when you hear that term, it is NOT referring to black players, but to white players and usually on the offensive line. This blue collar work ethic is often contrasted against the showboating of other players (who are usually black).

Or how one often finds descriptions of blacks (in sports pages and elsewhere) as having "huge grins", which, on it's face might be an innocent description, but one that is nevertheless historically disturbing and quite possibly why young black males try not to smile.
(That is, smiling, and when recognized by whites, transforms you into an uncle Tom or Steppin Fetchit type figure).

One remembers the long shattered stereotype that blacks were only good at sprints, while whites were better equipped for marathon running, in part due to the levels of training, preparation, and course strategy that must be used. Several bazillion African and other runners broke the back of that fantasy, but it was a fantasy put out there as truism, with nobody suggesting the converse: that whites were failing at sprinting because they were genetically or intellectually incapable of preparing to be sprinters.

And while on the whole blacks need to be less sensitive, and to stop sending contradictory messages (that are often rooted in feelings of inferiority), whites should, every now and then, stop the nonsense of assuming that because they don't understand or see a problem, the problem is therefore nonexistent or trivial.

Jennifer said...

I moved to the South about a year ago after having spent my entire life in the West and on the West Coast. Having heard so much about racist white Southerners, I was apprehensive about moving here. I will say that I have seen more overt racism and segregation out here than ever before in my life. I've personally experienced both subtle and overt racism just as much as I worried I would.

Only, so far, it hasn't been from white people. So, I'm becoming more and more tired of the problem-of-racism-only-or-even-mostly-from-white-people meme.

As far as articulate being code for holy shit, who knew they could talk...well, that seems a little like searching for offense. Particularly when the compliment was applied to Obama, who clearly is exceptionally eloquent - even for a politician.

Simon said...

Finn:
"As some have pointed out above, one can certainly find references to whites being called articulate, but finding an instance does not quite prove a point."

That's true - and equally, I have no doubt that one can surely find instances where a white person calling a black person "articulate" has a racial subtext. But that doesn't prove any point, ipso facto, either.

I will stipulate for sake of argument that, as you suggest, "[t]he question is whether blacks on the whole receive certain treatment, or are referred to in certain ways, above and beyond what can be considered the norm" (although I would mean the language of that question more specifically than I think you do: receive, rather than received; are referred rather than were once referred. The question isn't whether you might have been right had we had this conversation in 1979, when Larry Bird turned pro, but whether it is true today). Yet, neither you nor anyone else suggesting the existence of this secretive racial subtext bring forth any serious evidence that might be useful to answer that question. What evidence that does not rest on personal anecdote or abstract hearsay is suggested? You suggest, implicitly, that it's very easy to find counterexamples with "whites being called articulate," but if it's easy to find counterexamples (i.e. evidence supporting the antithesis), surely it must be even easier to find examples (i.e. evidence supporting the thesis) - that is, situations where "articulate" is clearly meant as a surrogate for "articulate for a black person"? Even the specific incident that provoked this brouhaha is an example on my side of the ledger: Joe Biden is a loathsome human being, a preening self-involved nonentity, an embarassment to the Senate, but he isn't a racist.

Surely, your task is to answer the question that you yourself posed, Finn. I'm a reasonable person; present me with evidence, and I may change my mind. But ipse dixit doesn't serve you any better than it does Lynette Clemetson. Bring forward some specific examples from within the last two decades where a black person has been called "articulate."

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that racism is "trivial," or that has been completely expunged, or that it isn't a problem. But to suggest that it is at play here, as Jennifer noted above, is "searching for offense" where none is intended or existent.

Simon said...

Apologies; I goofed. The last sentence of my penultimate paragraph in the comment above should have read "Bring forward some specific examples from within the last two decades where a black person has been called 'articulate' with a racist subtext."

Fried Lice said...

I am a white person living in China who speaks decent Chinese. It annoys the hell out of me when people assume that I can't speak Chinese or they volunteer that my Chinese is great. One day, I was reading the newspaper, when a stupid lady came up and asked me if I could really read it. I want to smack her. Know how now what is feels like to be patronized and condescended to. Just give the poor black people a break and let them be normal people.