Saturday, February 03, 2007

On being "articulate"

By now you've probably heard that Joe "can't go into a 7-11...unless you have a slight Indian accent" Biden described Presidential candidate Barack Obama as:

...the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.
If I'm totally honest, there's a shallow part of me who wants to agree. At least in the sense that Al Sharpton could use some fashion advice and Jesse Jackson really isn't very good looking. In this context, I found the word "clean" to imply "so fresh and so clean" as opposed to a regular habit of showering. One can only hope that "bright" wasn't meant to implicate the intellectual prowess of previous black candidates. Either way, I'll let that one go as a freebie.

I wasn't going to post on the comment in part because Joe Biden seems like just the sort of dufus I wouldn't mind having as a friend, but mostly because it wasn't so much offensive as annoying. I couldn't quite lay my finger on it until I read Eugene Robinson's most recent column (courtesy of my father the aggregate news service). He's so good at saying what I can't quite find the words to express. He gets to the bottom of the matter--the use of "articulate."

I realize the word is intended as a compliment, but it's being used to connote a lot more than the ability to express one's thoughts clearly. It's being used to say more, even, than "here's a black person who speaks standard English without a trace of Ebonics."

The word articulate is being used to encompass not just speech but a whole range of cultural cues -- dress, bearing, education, golf handicap. It's being used to describe a black person around whom white people can be comfortable, a black person who not only speaks white America's language but is fluent in its body language as well.

And the word is often pronounced with an air of surprise, as if it's an improbable and wondrous thing that a black person has somehow cracked the code...

Articulate is really a shorthand way of describing a black person who isn't too black -- or, rather, who comports with white America's notion of how a black person should come across.

Whatever the intention, expressing one's astonishment that such individuals exist is no compliment. Just come out and say it: Gee, he doesn't sound black at all.

To bring it back to "t-hype land," when I used to work at a Panera here in Nashvegas, an Arabic-looking guy with an accent told me that I "speak very well." *blink*blink* I gave my typical response, "I'm not from here." [It is only fair to note that my own prejudices about the speech of everyone south of the Mason-Dixon are quite evident in my reply.] I believe he added something about not being able to understand other (black?) people. I'm not sure what because I blanked out into "please Lord don't let this conversation go so far that I'll have to put this guy in check" mode. It didn't. Social order was restored after a few hollow pleasantries.

Yes, friends it's true. Like, Barack, Condi, Colin and Carlton, I too have "cracked the code." I don't think, look or sound like a dirty south rapper because, well, I'm not one. I'm so hardcore I know it's hard for some people to believe on first meeting, but it's true. And yes--my hair is real.


Anali said...

Great post. You got it down to a T.

Tohou Lidia said...

I think this sort of thing is well and alive in most Western countries. Speaking for Australia in regards to Aboriginal people, the general mainstream white Average joes are big fans of assimilation. " can still be black...but just make sure you act like one of us." In Australia, being called a 'coconut' (black on outside, white on the inside) would definately be considered an insult. But what if that's how you are naturally? If that's how you've grown up? Like in your case, where the shop keeper automatically decided you didn't speak black even though you are a proud black woman. I think skin colour is still so important in a way it is now supposed to define how you act. Why can't we just all be ourselves? But i do agree that the western notion of 'articulate' does mean a speech accepted by the white folk.

kage said...

i've gotten that "you speak so well" so many times from all sorts of folks, but i've always chuckled at it. and my typical response is "[heavy indian accent] thank you very much"