Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Commentary: The Racial Politics of Speaking Well

I'm procrastinating because I'd rather eat nails than study statistics. To that end, I just read the article Definitions - The Racial Politics of Speaking Well by Lynette Clemetson for the NY Times.

You see my mother stressed that I needed to speak "proper English."

She made that such a priority that one time I recall spending the day with some cousins, and I must have picked up a phrase or the cadence of their speech. I repeated whatever it was after they left. That was a mistake because my mother let me have it, and I never made the same mistake again.

My cadence is very Anglo which made me the prime target of ridicule for the other black kids that were bused with me to the white side of town, but it endeared me to my teachers and white classmates. I didn't see the politics behind it then, but now I wonder how things would be different had I just been the smart black kid that sounded like all the majority of the other black kids.

Anyway, how I speak has made for some awkward meetings because people assume that all blacks have a certain tone and rhythm to their speech. I've had many a situation where someone has seen my resume and has spoken to me on the phone but when they meet me they're looking past me expecting a white woman to approach them. It's always something that is so common that, unfortunately, I expect it.

However, the thing is with so many African-Americans who are well-spoken ranging from merchants to hip-hop artists to talk show hosts and scholars that this shouldn't really be a surprise.

What brings this to the table is when Senator Joseph Biden referred to Barack Obama as "articulate", "bright", "clean" and a "nice-looking." He went on to explain himself.

“Look, what I was attempting to be, but not very artfully, is complimentary,” Mr. Biden explained to Jon Stewart on Wednesday on “The Daily Show.” “This is an incredible guy. This is a phenomenon.”

What faint praise, indeed. Being articulate must surely be a baseline requirement for a former president of The Harvard Law Review. After all, Webster’s definitions of the word include “able to speak” and “expressing oneself easily and clearly.” It would be more incredible, more of a phenomenon, to borrow two more of the senator’s puzzling words, if Mr. Obama were inarticulate.

That is the core of the issue. When whites use the word in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment.
That's the thing. It's that people's frame of reference is so small, that I'm still viewed as an anomaly. However, the fact is I've got a whole address book full of anomalies because they're my acquaintances, friends and former classmates.
It’s like an educated black person is a rare sighting, like seeing a spotted egret. We’re viewed as a fluke. How many flukes simply constitute reality? — Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment for Black Entertainment Television
The fact is there are many whites, like Biden and President George W. Bush who are inarticulate, but are presumed articulate because they're white. If a black person is articulate, it's worthy of a news flash and copious compliments.

The article also points out that cadence isn't the only measure of someone being articulate or not.
“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.”
I agree. He can speak and he can express himself easily and clearly. Again, that's something a lot of white people I've met can't manage, yet these same people will compliment me when I'm sitting there thinking they really should have taken a couple of speech courses in high school.

As the article says, it's not that we don't like the compliment if it's truly a compliment. The problem what's usually being said is this:
“When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person,” Ms. Perez said.

Such a subtext is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the “compliment” is notably different from other black people.
What's funny is this is now an international problem as the Metropolician says in The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.
One thing I've noticed even since 1994, when I first came here, was that Korean people always seem much more surprised to see me speak in Korean than the white person I'm with, if it's a group of foreigners w/o anyone who looks ethnically Korean.
I'll let Ms. Clemeston bring it home:
But here is a pointer. Do not use it as the primary attribute of note for a black person if you would not use it for a similarly talented, skilled or eloquent white person. Do not make it an outsized distinction for Brown University’s president, Ruth Simmons, if you would not for the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman. Do not make it the sole basis for your praise of the actor Forest Whitaker if it would never cross your mind to utter it about the expressive Peter O’Toole.
I know I'm articulate. After all these years in school and the fact that I teach English for a living, I dammed well better be.


This issue is similar to the stories I've been told by some of my Asian friends who were born and raised in the States or other English speaking countries. Let them talk to someone who assumes all Asians are immigrants and they might get the "you speak English really well!" comment. Good grief! When will it end?

It's just sad no matter the color of the person it happens to.

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