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.

Sphere: Related Content


  1. Wow. In the time it took you to write this post, you could have completed your reading!! "-)

    I'm not American. I'm Jamaican. But I've heard that argument before, and (to the extent that a person who has grown up in a society where a bright black kid is just a bright black kid in society full of bright black people can understand another reality), I understand.

    Truth is, language denotes status, and stereotypes are still a very real and present feature of modern society. Blacks don't exactly have demographics on their side either. And as long as this obtains, people will be expressing surprise at intelligence, "clean"-ness, "bright"-ness and "nice-looking"-ness in Afro-Americans.

  2. Actually, the reading for that stats class was no joke. This was a welcome break.

    It's a correction I do very often now. I'm talking to someone who isn't black. They're being complimentary and going on about how educated or whatever I am. I remind them that I've got an address book full of black people just like myself.

    I'm hoping with a first couple who represent exactly that people will recognize that there are variants in black society too. We'll see.

  3. That was a great article. I absolutely relate to it. Coming from Nigeria (an English speaking country I might add), the worst assumption that I still encounter is the look of utter surprise when I open my mouth,chiefly for 2 reasons: I speak English well and with a sometimes British and sometimes American accent.
    I take it all in stride though, and hope that because everyone can't know everything, it is an opportunity to educate. Either that or take a (noticeably) long, irritated breath and rattle off my stock answer: I'm educated and actually read books.

  4. Yeah, it's frustrating isn't it? However, you're right. No one knows everything, so that's a good way to look at it ;)

  5. What a powerful article, Regina! Thank you for writing it. I think it will inspire a lot of people. I'm an executive coach at the Speech and Accent Academy, and I help people speak with Precision, Elegance and Influence. I couldn't have said this better myself! When Obama ran for president, I had an influx of young African American men, who said, "Please, teach me how to speak like that." Being articulate and well-spoken in any language is a ticket to success.

    Thanks for being a role model and trail-blazer!

    All the best, Lisa Jeffery

  6. Thanks for the comment. Glad that you help people and good luck with your business. I hope this comment helps your SEO efforts. ;)

  7. SEO? I had to google that, to understand what you meant. No, this is really me and I'm really giving you a personal sincere compliment. I don't do SEO, I think it's unethical. I don't compliment authors on their articles very often. But when I see someone who wrote an article as astute and beautiful as yours, I feel it's worth a personal, sincere compliment!
    Lisa Jeffery

  8. No, I really did think it was a sincere comment. However, my cynicism came bursting through, but it was meant as a ~nudge, nudge, wink, wink~. It's pretty common that business owners get tips to leave comments on sites and posts relevant to what they do to build inbound links. I get badly written comments all the time linking to random sites. Companies do that because a lot of people don't monitor their comments, so they get through. I've always monitored my comments, so with ones like that I just mark as spam and never publish them.

    In contrast, your comment was on the topic and well-written. It definitely deserved to make it through the filter. Had I thought your comment was pure spam, I wouldn't have published it. You made it through my filter because I knew it was sincere. :)


Hey there! Thanks for visiting my blog. It's my first blog, and I'm glad folks are still stopping by even though I'm no longer living in South Korea. Feel free to comment. If you want a personal answer, leave your email, and I won't publish the comment. Nasty comments and spam links will not be tolerated.