Calling black people “articulate” and “well-spoken” is not a compliment

Clarksdale mayoral candidate Marco McMillian’s body was found after he was missing for a couple of days. A suspect has been arrested, and someone allegedly admitted to McMillian’s murder.

Obviously this is a tragic story. McMillian was a rising local political star – aside from his well-regarded work in the nonprofit sector, he was also a trendsetter being openly gay and black – both populations criminally underrepresented in American politics.

So, in response to McMillian’s death, his opponent, Bill Luckett, offered his condolences by saying McMillian was “a very articulate, clean-cut young man.”

Now, obviously, the biggest story is McMillian’s death, but a minor point I’d like to say is why in 2013 with a black president no less, there are still people out there that say “clean-cut” or “articulate” when describing black people.

Unfortunately, this patronizing and condescending response to black people isn’t new – in fact, it’s desperately old and depressingly familiar. It goes without saying that you should never give a black person a stamp approval with the asinine compliment of “well-spoken” or “articulate.”

Even if these non-compliments are well-intended, the implication is said black person deviates from the norm – the talking dog syndrome; when a black man is being touted for his ability to speak well, what’s really being said is that “Wow, you’re really smart…for a black person.”

Now, I don’t know Luckett personally and I’m sure his statement came out of a place of sincerity, but it’s indicative of a kind of racism that even well-meaning liberals are guilty of perpetuating.

Two words: Harry Reid.

Nevada senator Harry Reid talked about Barack Obama’s presidential chances by saying that he’s “light-skinned” without a “Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Readers over the age of 30 will also remember how whites got to pretend they weren’t racist by saying how great Colin Powell would’ve been if he were president; a common theme was Powell’s well-spoken and articulate.

Chris Rock had an amazing routine in his Bring the Pain concert where he punctured the self-congratulatory bonhomie whites felt about Colin Powell. I couldn’t do the joke justice, so you’ll have to watch it – it starts at the 1.40 second mark.

As Rock points out in the skit, saying that Powell “speaks so well” isn’t a compliment because it assumes that Powell wouldn’t be able to speak well – the listener is surprised at just how articulate Powell is. And despite Rock’s offensive use of the term retarded, he does make a concrete analogy: the effusive praise of Powell’s speaking ability is condescending – a better example might be how impressed people are with children’s accomplishments.

But towards the end, in his comedic outrage he asks a very important question: “How do you expect him to sound?”

That is key – folks who are impressed with Obama, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, et al. are surprised because they don’t expect black people to speak standard English – they expect a variation on either hip-hop patois or Rock’s devastatingly on-point (and withering) take on Amos & Andy/Buckwheat vernacular.

And some people may argue that there’s nothing racist about saying someone is articulate – after all, being well-spoken isn’t a universal trait – there are mealy-mouthed dum dums who can’t speak in every race – why am I singling out blacks?

It’s simple – loads of people still think black people are stupid. Not only that, but think about President Bill Clinton: have people fallen over themselves to proclaim Clinton “well-spoken”? We just assume people who run for office are well spoken, and when they fail – like Sarah Palin – then we’re surprised. The point is: political figures are supposed to be well-spoken and it shouldn’t be a pleasant surprise that when Obama opens his mouth, he doesn’t speak in rhymes. We should be more surprised with the Palin example.

I’m not saying Luckett’s a racist, and I’m not saying that people who say that so-and-so is “well-spoken” are racists, either. What I’m saying is that this attitude is ingrained in our collective consciousness. And it’s not just black people – think about it: if we saw a judge walk into a courtroom who looks like Pamela Anderson – would you judge her to be as competent as Ruth Bader Ginsburg? I gotta be honest, it would give me a pause. I’m a self-identified feminist, and I still have the imprint of our sexist and misogynist culture, that doesn’t believe that sexiness and intelligence can coexist.

It’s time we do away with lowered expectations. We shouldn’t be impressed by seeing women perform well as surgeons, soldiers, or athletes; it shouldn’t floor us to find out a particularly adroit carpenter is a gay man. And finally, we shouldn’t be surprised or impressed to hear a black man with a strong grasp of standard English. McMillian’s legacy is that of working and transcending race and sexuality – and we owe it to him to move beyond this patting-someone-on-the-head rhetoric of using “articulate” as a compliment.

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21 Comments

Filed under commentary, politics

21 responses to “Calling black people “articulate” and “well-spoken” is not a compliment

  1. Favorite

    Ha! Exactly. The only time you should describe somebody as “articulate” is if you’re asked specifically about their writing/speaking abilities.

  2. ParisTiger

    Well, A LOT of people have referenced how well-spoken Pres. Clinton is.

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      I would argue that a lot of people comment on what a great orator President Clinton is, not that he speaks what is considered proper English.

  3. First quoted words from Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik in 2010 about his new manager: “Eric {Wedge] brings the energy, passion and leadership that we think is important as we move forward.”

    First quoted words from Zduriencik yesterday, about his latest new manager: “”Lloyd [McClendon] is a bright and articulate guy.”

    Guess which guy is black?

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      @ James – thanks for reading and commenting – it’s interesting that Zduriencik made that comment about McClendon – I’m not familiar with the baseball, so I don’t know Zduriencik’s track record on race relations – and I’m sure the guy believed he was paying a compliment…It’s very patronizing – similar to what Harry Reid said about Barack Obama – a compliment that has possible good intentions, but betrays a paternalistic ideologiy that still sees black people as lesser…

  4. I don’t know if it really is a backhanded compliment. I’m black, and have been reading adult literature (not porn, pervs) since I was like 8. Most black people here in Florida were basically raised by rap music. Their vocabularies suck. They can’t make a sentence without throwing in long pauses while they fumble for words, or toss in profanity (“an’ sh*t”) misuse words (such as using the word “crucial” to mean awesome instead of vitally important) or use what I call “gap phrases” such as “an’ whatnot”, phrases that don’t mean anything, sound somewhat intelligent, and are used in place of “uh” and “um”. They know what an object is called but they refer to it (and everything they can’t readily identify, again, due to either ignorance or a poor vocabulary) as a “thang”. I don’t mind being told that it’s refreshing to hear I don’t speak like that.

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      @rhio2k – thanks for reading and commenting – I can’t really comment on how you respond to having someone say “so and so is articulate” – if you you don’t mind being complimented on that, I think that’s great…I would however like to caution folks about looking down at usage of nontraditional English (i.e. “rap speak,” Spanglish, etc) – I don’t think any kind of language is invalid – after all, what we consider “good” or “standard” English is merely an agreed-upon standard that is taught in schools (and it’s not even spoken by the majority of English speakers). Variances on English – in my mind – is a good thing, and they often spring from regional, cultural, or historical sources…I may be in danger of white-splaining, but the issue with complimenting black people by using a racially-loaded word like “articulate” is that one is assuming or expecting less from black people – that if a black person doesn’t align him/herself with a stereotype, then that black person is either not normal or “one of the good ones.” Thanks for reading!

      • Chris

        There’s a difference between struggling to speak English as a second language in the case of Spanglish, and straight up bastardizing a language. Not because you don’t know any better and are simply trying to communicate, but simply because you want to stand out and you want to upset the established norm. I appreciate your effort and I don’t want to sound hostile, I just couldn’t agree less. Finally, how could the word articulate, taken by itself, possibly be construed as a racially-loaded word? There is simply no explaining that. To tell someone in the white community, and probably every other community aside from the black community apparently, that their son or daughter is a charming and articulate person would be one of the greatest compliments a parent could receive. But if you say it to a black person, its offensive because they don’t feel that they should have to behave that way? Or if they do then they are conforming to standards that are not their own and are therefore being persecuted against? Who is racist?

      • thecrowdedbookshelf

        Hello – Thanks so much for reading and thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad that this article has inspired so many people to talk about this important topic.
        So I’ll reply to your points below:
        “There’s a difference between struggling to speak English as a second language in the case of Spanglish, and straight up bastardizing a language. Not because you don’t know any better and are simply trying to communicate, but simply because you want to stand out and you want to upset the established norm.” I don’t know what you mean by “straight up bastardizing a language” because language isn’t something that should be enshrined or entombed in amber, never to change. Language changes and grows all the time – it picks up new words/variances from different cultures and sub-cultures – In a single day I hear people say cul-de-sac, schlep, fiancee, plonk, spag bol…People say things like “fierce” “on fleek” or “getting your face beat.” It’s all drawing from different subcultures, ethnicities, and languages and infiltrating mainstream English – I even hear younger folks use text speak in everyday language (I actually heard totes adorbs). None of it is wrong – but that wasn’t really the point of the article (it was a tangent from another commentator who expressed contempt for variances on English).
        “I appreciate your effort and I don’t want to sound hostile, I just couldn’t agree less.” – You don’t sound hostile at all – you’re bringing up important questions.
        “Finally, how could the word articulate, taken by itself, possibly be construed as a racially-loaded word? There is simply no explaining that.” There is – words have power, and when words are used as euphemisms or smoke screens for discrimination or for asserting privilege that’s a problem. “Articulate” is such a word, as is “ghetto,” “riot,” or “thug.” The words in themselves may not have started out as “racist language” but when used in certain contexts, they gain connotation and/or power. So when someone says something is “ghetto” we no longer assume “She’s referring to a localized/isolated area that is marked for one group of people” – instead we understand that she means something that is broken, dirty, or unappealing, because the common misconception is that inner-city neighborhoods and anything connected with inner-city neighborhoods is broken, dirty, or unappealing. And with “articulate” – it’s been historically used as a way to pronounce someone who is black as “better” than most black people, or “different.”
        “To tell someone in the white community, and probably every other community aside from the black community apparently, that their son or daughter is a charming and articulate person would be one of the greatest compliments a parent could receive.” The issue I’m having with this statement is that it’s assuming that whites (and other ethnic minorities) have had the same kinds of stereotypes that befall on black people – by the way, Hispanic people have also been condescending to as “articulate” – I know from experience, but also from reading, that many Latina/o folks have had people compliment them on their English “You speak English really well – just like an American, good for you!” Yeah, at its face value, sure it sounds like a compliment, but the implication is “wow, I’m surprised!” Which isn’t a compliment in the end.
        “But if you say it to a black person, its offensive because they don’t feel that they should have to behave that way? Or if they do then they are conforming to standards that are not their own and are therefore being persecuted against? Who is racist?” I think with this sentence, I’m seeing the germ of an agreement, which is interesting. The point of my article was that we shouldn’t be surprised when a black person – particularly a black person who is running for office – speak well. You’re not supposed to be surprised if a black person uses “standard” English, and doing so by commenting (“wow, she’s speaks really well” “well, she should, she’s running for president”) is implying that “standard” English is somehow foreign and not for certain people. When in reality standard English is for everybody in that we all have to use it if we want to succeed by certain standards and measures of success (Which, I have problems with, too – but that’s a different argument).
        “If you described a white person as clean cut and articulate they would most likely take it for what it is, a compliment. The offense and outrage that comes with a black person being told they are well-spoken is the conscious acknowledgment that many popular black figures in the media are not. I point specifically to professional sports and music.” This is probably where I have the biggest problem with your statement – I don’t think black folks in popular culture/media are any less/any more articulate than their white counterparts. You specifically point to pro athletes and musicians, and that’s true of white musicians, too – I don’t think pop stars of any race are particularly profound or “articulate” so to single out black media figures (discounting the fact that there are pro athletes, pop stars, rappers, actors, etc who can express themselves very well – I won’t make a list because that in itself demeans them) as a counter is an issue. And again, my article stemmed from a situation in which a man was running for public office – the Chris Rock video is a great way to highlight this problem of lowered expectations that we have of black people (though, I find his use of the word “retarded” offensive), he pointed out just how ridiculous people were when they kept going on about how Colin Powell was “articulate” and “well-spoken.” Wanda Sykes has a bit (I wish I included it), in which she took issue with all of the pundits and articles asking about “Who is the real Michelle Obama?” “When are we going to see the real Michelle Obama?”, pointing out that people wanted to see Michelle Obama align herself with popular stereotypes of black women.
        Whew, that’s a lot – but you brought up a lot of good questions, and I felt they deserved due attention.
        Thanks for reading.

  5. Reblogged this on LMBRJCK T… and commented:
    Moving to Washington state has been very difficult for me… In an age where a person of color allegedly governs and facilitates the happenings of the free world, why is cogent and efficient communication STILL so shocking to non-White people? #3fifthsrule

  6. this article is total garbage. Language is something that is studied and when spoken correctly transcends race or color but not education. If a white person speaks well, I may say he or she is well spoken just the same and no Spanglish or Rap Speak is not proper English and is garbage..

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. I’m glad that the article got such a spirited response. A couple points that you brought up:
      ” Language is something that is studied” – correct, I do not have any disagreement with this statement, though I would also add that language is something that is taught – which is very important.
      “and when spoken correctly transcends race or color but not education” – this is where we start to disagree. When you say spoken “correctly” you’re merely affirming that is considered “standard English” – which in itself is constantly changing and evolving – and you’re right, standard English for the most part ***should*** transcend color and race – that’s the point of my article – when a black person speaks English properly, we shouldn’t be slack-jawed in shock or awe – especially if it’s someone who is willingly putting herself in a situation in which standard English is both the norm and a necessity (i.e. politics, education, international stage, etc.)
      “If a white person speaks well, I may say he or she is well spoken just the same” – great, that’s you, and so the article isn’t directed at you, it’s directed at the folks who think that complimenting a black politician by saying “he speaks well” doesn’t speak to years of condescension on the part of white folks who hold institutional power. To comment on an education black person’s ability to “speak well” or to be able to master the art of “Standard English” is to imply that race does in fact play a part in learning language, and that black people aren’t equipped to gain that skill, and as such, are such an anomaly, that it warrants comment. When one comments on a black person’s ability to “speak well” by saying, “He speaks well” the unspoken continuation of that statement is “…for a black guy.”
      “no Spanglish or Rap Speak is not proper English and is garbage..” – not sure whose definition of “proper English” you’re referring to, and am not sure ***what*** definition of “proper English” you’re referring to, but no, dialects, slang, and variations on English born out of culture, class, education, race, and circumstance aren’t “proper English,” but they’re languages nonetheless, that are used in a variety of ways, particularly in art and literature, but also in public/private spheres. I won’t comment on your “is garbage” note, because that’s a personal comment on these variants, which I cannot argue against – you feel it’s garbage, then it’s garbage. I feel it’s valid, and it has a place – a lot of great literature, particularly post-colonial literature including works by Alice Walker and Sam Selvon for example, use dialect and variations on English – so I would never disregard any form of language, even if I don’t understand it. Another good example is text speak, which I feel somewhat alienated by, because I’m a bit older than its primary users. I don’t think it’s smart to summarily dismiss it, even if I don’t “like” it (I don’t care much, either way to be honest), because it’s become prevalent in much of the public discourse in popular culture (and it’s found its way into contemporary literature, too).
      Anyways, I’m glad you read my article – I’m sorry that you find it to be “total garbage” though I’m glad you found it worthy enough to comment – even if you hated the article, at least you weren’t indifferent to it.
      Thanks again for reading!

  7. Chris

    If you described a white person as clean cut and articulate they would most likely take it for what it is, a compliment. The offense and outrage that comes with a black person being told they are well-spoken is the conscious acknowledgment that many popular black figures in the media are not. I point specifically to professional sports and music.

  8. Cherie King

    I completely disagree. “Articulate” is a compliment, no matter who it is said in regards to. As someone who is not particularly articulate myself, I always admire (and envy) those individuals I come across in life who ARE incredibly articulate. Someone who is articulate gets their point across in an effective manner, and, in some cases, might be able to sway opinion. I, on the other hand, am one of those people who never seems to think of the right thing to say until the day after I’m engaged in a confrontation.
    It was often remarked upon how articulate President (Bill) Clinton was, and President Obama is one of the most exceptionally articulate individuals I’ve ever listened to.
    Donald Trump, on the other hand, is most decidedly NOT articulate.
    Being articulate is an enviable skill, no matter what color skin the speaker has.
    If you can’t take a compliment as a compliment, that’s on you, not on me.

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      Heya,
      Thanks so much for reading and taking time to respond. I’m glad that the issue made you respond.
      I guess I’m talking to the issue of diminished expectations – especially around black or Latino men. The word “articulate” has been used as a way to “otherize” if you will, black/Latino men by assuming that if a black man is well-spoken, then he is somehow an exception. The genesis of the story was a eulogy for a black politician, who a white politician described as “articulate.” Being a politician, one should be articulate, it should be a default, and if one is particularly good at speechifying, like Obama or Bill Clinton (Hillary Clinton is a great example of someone who is very articulate, but not a great orator) or if one is particularly bad (like your example, Trump), then those examples should be the notable.
      Also, “articulate” has become a racially-charged word, like “thug” through its use by folks who want to create a narrative that there are “good/smart” black people and “bad/dumb” black people.
      It’s not a great term, and it’s condescending –

  9. Zerdath

    So many people don’t seem to understand the concept of words being contextually racist. Saying articulate is a compliment no matter who it’s said too is like saying yellow is a descriptor no matter who or what it’s said about.

    • thecrowdedbookshelf

      Thanks for your response – I think you said it best – I couldn’t put it better myself “contextually racist” – wonderful….

  10. Gene

    I always comment on someone’s use of proper vernacular, colloquialisms and indeed, even articulation. That is due in part to the very common, daily experiences of laboring in and amongst the common, low brow, mouth-breathing heretics, most of whom gleaned their entire (small but albeit impressively riddled with swears) vocabulary from the confines of a bathroom stall. I think it additionally stands to argue; this is regardless of the pigment of one’s skin.

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