Monday, February 12, 2007

"He speaks so well."

A number of Black Americans are offended by a non-Black person referring to any Black person as "articulate." According to many, it is an example of those back-handed compliments to which Chris Rock so humorously, but indelicately refers: "[Saying an educated man] speaks so well isn't a compliment. 'Speaks so well' is some $#!+ you say about a retarded person... that can TALK!"

So, many Blacks see it as an insult and many whites see it as a compliment. Tony Cox, of NPR's "African-American RoundTable," (read or listen here) refers to this difference of interpretation as "a cultural and linguistic divide." He compares it to the statement from times past, "You're a credit to your race."

In that same February 7th episode, Ron Christie, former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush, mentioned how he once participated in a good panel discussion, in which he was the only Black person, then watched as an audience member by-passed the white panelists to tell HIM how incredibly articulate he was.

Mr. Christie's reaction?

"I'm a lawyer, what did you expect?"

He's got a point. Mr. Christie went on to say he'd received similar reactions in the White House, during his time on-staff there.

What do you think?

Certainly poor usage can taint an otherwise useful word or group of words. And, given the examples I've heard on NPR and on Dwayne McDuffie's messageboard, I can understand how one could be offended by the phrase, at times. Still, there are times, I've been told, when there's no hidden meaning behind a statement.

I believe it was Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the show, Freestyle, who mentioned that he's often used the word "articulate" to describe 3-year-olds he's heard using big words very well... for their age. I assume his point was that the compliment is relative to something else - in the case of his example, age.

I think that example is instructive in more ways than one, though. Perhaps someone who walks past a group of white people to the one Black person on a panel isn't saying, "You speak so well... as compared to other Black people." Instead, perhaps s/he is saying that "You speak so well... as compared to the other panelists."

Maybe I'm just so happy to get such a compliment that I'm blinded - unable to read between the lines. It's hard to say.

Your thoughts?


B. Good said...

I say take the compliment, and leave it at that. Unless someone clearly says that I speak so well for a *anything*, I would just say "Thanks", and keep it movin'. Reading between the lines is extra.

Miz JJ said...

I think comments/compliments say a lot about the person giving them and their own beliefs and expectations of black people. Usually when people say to me I am so articulate there is a bit of wonder and amazement in their voice, which pisses me off. I respond like the lawyer. I graduated with an honours degree from the one to the top universities in Canada, what did you expect? Backhanded compliments do not sit well with me. However, to each his own if you feel there is no negative intention then roll with it.

West said...

I could kinda see that "wonder and amazement" being a sticking point.

Are you sure it's not that you're such an extraordinary orator that you amazed them on the basis of that, alone?

Perhaps I'm too stupid and vain to be offended or suspicious when I ought to be.

Bahlactus said...

It's always a matter of perception, I suspect -- your own, right?

Perhaps a lot of us rock a flavor where people don't see us coming, and when we do speak, the verbiage gives them reason to pause and challenge their own preconceived perceptions about us.

When I was a youngblood, people would always comment on how articulate my hustle was -- back then, that said to me they felt they could relate on some mature level and not have to step to me as if I was an unawares youth.

I'm good with the fact that my natural flow causes people to challenge their static notions, if that is really what's going down.

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Xiasuko said...

I've experienced both the compliment and the condescension. I think it's safe to trust your gut--you usually know in the moment what the person meant. So if it strikes you as good, then it probably is.