Articulate Blacks: Racist Assumptions?

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Something most white people would never pick up on without help is that it's sometimes insulting to compliment black people. In particular, it's insulting to say something nice about someone who is black that you wouldn't say about someone who is white. Such a compliment assumes that it's surprising that this would be true of someone who is black. A good example is the common practice among media types to speak of certain black people as articulate (see Mixed Media Watch for an example). How often do you hear white people being called articulate? I don't think it's all that common. Pay attention, and you'll discover that it's a good deal more common with black people, especially young black men. I've never heard a young white politician being called articulate, except I think in the case of one who happened to be a teenager, where there might be less expectation for such a thing. But Barack Obama, J.C. Watts, and Harold Ford, Jr. get it all the time. You don't generally hear it of professors of linguistics, unless it's John McWhorter. You won't hear about economics professors being articulate, except when it's Thomas Sowell.

Now I'm loath to call this racism without explaining more carefully how I'm using that word. Such a statement would be received as nonsense by most white people, because most white people (indeed, most English speakers) use the word 'racism' to refer to a deliberately negative attitude, and that's not what's going on here. This is why academics who specialize in race matters have come up with terms to describe this sort of thing to distinguish it from the more standard and obvious cases of racists. This is unintentional racism. It involves racist structures in society. It involves residual effects on the attitudes and actions of well-meaning non-blacks. But I think this is a case of that sort of racism, at least generally. See MW's comment in the Mixed Media Watch post for good reasons to think this is often a kind of racism even when you don't think it is.

This is something I've been aware of since reading John McWhorter's Losing the Race. As I said, it's not the sort of thing that most white people would notice otherwise, even ones who are more sensitized to these general sorts of issues. I paid attention to when I heard the word after I read McWhorter's discussion of the issue. What few occurrences I encountered did seem to fit the mold. But then a few weeks ago I heard someone call Ann Coulter articulate. Does this refute the claim that calling young black men articulate stems from some kind of racism?

My immediate thought was to think that it was a good counterexample. If Ann Coulter could be called articulate, then calling someone articulate doesn't always mean you were assuming they weren't going to be articulate for racial reasons and then were surprised to discover otherwise. After all, she's as white as you get. Whatever is going on in this case is not anti-black racism. (It isn't anti-white either. The people talking about her were white, and race really was the furthest thing from their minds.)

But it occurred to me that this could after all be part of the same general phenomenon. Many people consider Ann Coulter to be a hot blonde. Do people expect hot blondes to be articulate? It may well be that such a hot blonde constructing such rhetorically clever sentences with such a quick wit surprised them. If so, then it's not racism, but it is what might be called Hot Blondeism, and it follows a parallel structure to the kind of racism that's relevant to this.

But I'm not entirely sure that was what was going on in this context. I don't think the people speaking were thinking of her as articulate in a way that was contrasting her with other hot blondes. I remember the context making it clear that she was being compared with other political commentators, many of whom are most certainly not hot blondes. I'm thinking of people who have a following but aren't quite as good rhetorically as she is. In terms of this contrast, Ann Coulter and Al Franken might be articulate, but Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh are merely fan favorites who wouldn't be as seriously complimented on their linguistic craftsmanship. (I put Michael Moore in this category merely for style, not to indicate that I think any of the other three could come close to being as insane as he is, which would require something on the magnitude of holocaust denial and defending Southern slavery.)

All of the people I've just listed (including Franken and Coulter) stand in contrast to commentators like George Will or Mort Kondracke, whom you should expect to represent the issues fairly, with views that are more intricate and nuanced, not always in line with some party line and usually for careful and creative reasons. I don't think Coulter and Franken are of that caliber in terms of intellectual rigor. But they're articulate in a sense that Sean Hannity isn't. They represent the position they hold in a rhetorically effective way, well beyond how a Limbaugh type might do so. So it may not have been Hot Blondeism in her case. It may have been Political Commentatorism, the assumption that political commentators would be more like Michael Moore than Al Franken.

Even so, it does suggest some sort of surprise that she would be articulate, which fits with the sense that most instances of calling young black men articulate involves a similar assumption. The parallel still stands, and this is thus not a counterexample to the claim that no one gets called articulate unless there's some reason (usually not a good one) for expecting the person not to be articulate. This really is an empirical matter. It's not something you can just come up with in your thought processes, with an assumption that no one could possibly call a young black man articulate without it being from some sort of racism. I was prepared to count this as evidence against the claim. I think it turns out, however, that it's not evidence against the claim, because the one case I know of could be explained by similar reasons.

16 Comments

Here's another hypothesis: in Anne Coulter's case the surprise at her articulation comes from the fact that she's a conservative.

Jeremy, your point is well-taken. To give an example from my own life, it is exceedingly annoying to live as a white expat in Korea and be contantly complimented on my ability to use chopsticks and eat spicy food. This might seem very minor, but when it builds up day after day and year after year, it can add a lot to my cultural stress. This compliment shows that people assume I am unable to do either task. That is not so complimentary, particularly as I am part-Mexican and have been eating spicy food all my life. After all, no one would compliment a Asian-American for their ability to eat spicy foods or use chopsticks. These small actions do serve to make me uncomfortable and create some distance between myself and people around me. I can imagine that being constantly complimented for being articulate in my own language (English) would be far worse.

BTW, it would be interesting to read more on definitions of racism. I get stared at constantly in Korea, and while that may not be "racism" it is wearying and irritating. I feel I cannot just walk around outside comfortably. I have to always be aware of the impression that I am giving to other people. I know in some parts of the US, black people experience the same stares of curiosity and it must be just as much a burden to them.

Andrew, I'm pretty sure this was on Fox News. I very much doubt it had anything to do with her being conservative. Even if the person who said it wasn't herself conservative (as I suspect may be the case), Fox News employees are fully aware of very smart and careful thinkers among conservatives in a way that I think is at least a little less true at other networks.


Hannah, I like those examples, particularly the spicy food one. I think the chopsticks example isn't as exact an analogy, because chopsticks do come only from Asian cultures, while spicy food is not from one particular culture but from many (even if not all). It's thus more like being articulate, which isn't specific to any language or culture (though I admit that it does go against cultural norms in some cultures, not that people don't buck that trend).

The most comprehensive treatment I've done of racism is my Racism Double Trilogy. I don't know if that's the most careful place for definitions, but it's something. It's what I generally start with when I teach race in my ethics classes. The white voyeurism post comes closest to what you're talking about with the staring, but I think the first four posts in general (what was supposed to be the first trilogy) are about kinds of racism that white people tend not even to be aware of. (The second trilogy is about harmful practices that the victims of racism perpetuate and tend not to recognize, focusing in particular on their manifestations in black America.)

The one post I remember that does get into some of the more careful distinctions between kinds of racism is Can There Be Structural Anti-White Racism? It doesn't focus on the standard kinds that academics identify but argues for a kind that isn't usually seen, but it does explain the kinds of racism in the process.

You might also find my reflections on the PCA statement on racism to be of interest. It's about how the church should deal with race issues, and I aruge for some pretty controversial positions in it.

Point taken, but what are we supposed to say when a person IS particularly well-spoken? I haven't the foggiest idea about Anne Coulter, other than that "hot blonde" never crossed my mind in reference to her, but as for Thomas Sowell, he is particularly well-spoken, in a way I wouldn't characterize most people. I wouldn't characterize George Will as articulate, even if he does write well, because he's not in the habit of expressing complicated ideas clearly and precisely for the lay reader. He's in the habit of expressing opinions. Peggy Noonan doesn't strike me as particularly articulate, though she does have a certain gift for words.

But "articulate" does strike me as a particularly apt characterization for Thomas Sowell. While such a characterization isn't shocking for me in consideration of his racial heritage, it's almost mind-boggling in comparison to Alan Greenspan, who shares the same profession.

Well, you could say that he's good at making complex and intricate details of economic theory easy for someone without training to understand. This makes it clear that you're contrasting him with other economists and not other black people.

You could say that he engages in careful argumentation. This contrasts him with other pundits, who may not do so as often.

The key is to use terms that signal that you're contrasting him with others of his profession, other pundits, or ordinary people as a whole. This avoids two problems. One is that many people wouldn't use this particular compliment unless they were contrasting him with other black people, and you thus distance yourself from that sort of thing. The other is that the regularity of the first problem leads many to assume that you're doing the same thing even if you're not, and you would thus be avoiding that charge. Those who are tuned in to racial disparities like this tend to see it even where it isn't, and it's worth making an effort to distance yourself from it when you can.

I've been "complimented" for being articulate when I was in my early twenties. I don't know if articulate means I'm good at communicating my thoughts or that I say ask instead of ax.

But now that I'm older, it's changed into something else entirely. I'm no longer just articulate, but I "don't fit the stereotypical black man image" either. Not that I know what the stereotypical image is. Maybe it's different for every white person based on their experiences. I'm certain it doesn't help that I'm married to a white woman who wasn't exposed to black culture until she met me. I wouldn't say it really upsets me. But it does sadden me. Simply because it is unintentional racism that has some basis. Even if that basis is manufactured.

Carlton, I think things the ask/aks thing is exactly what some people mean by this. It has to do with pronouncing things the way most white people do.

For others, it's closer to what the word normally means, but I think there's a much lower threshold for when someone would use the word.

For the record, linguistically speaking, "axe" is a perfect equivalent for "ask." Chaucer used it in his Canterbury Tales. It signifies not "bad diction" but an English dialect less directly related to the London suburbs.

In regards to using a whole sentence to signify "articulate but not in the sense that they mean, the necessary correlative is that I be constantly aware of what they mean and think. In order to avoid giving offense by apparent racism, I must constantly be aware of the racism of others. This is a difficult balance. For in my effort to increase my racism awareness, I may begin to make more comments on race which, to those who are uneducated in me, may then be interpreted as various racist slights. It's happened to me before. This is all the more complicated by the fact that I must experience my racism vicariously, racism comes differently to a black man than to a Latino or an Asian. And where I live, there are far more Latinos and Asians than Blacks. It's my understanding that there may be as many as two black families in my town. That is not an exaggeration. The predominant minority in my town speaks Portugese. Some 30 percent of my seminary is Asian, predominantly Korean, with some Chinese, including this 2nd generation Chinese guy I've had two classes with and who is incredibly... articulate. That is, he's far better spoken than me, his ideas always well-formed before he asks the question or makes a statement.

However, to compliment him in conversation on how articulate he is would be ludicrous, like coplimenting Tony Blair on his accent.

Kyle, if your first paragraph is supposed to mean that historically they're just two difference dialects of English then I agree. If you mean to say that there isn't a standard accepted pronunciation in formal, standard English, then I don't agree. I'm perfectly happy to do descriptive linguistics and accept different dialects as fine, but there is a normative element in what's considered good English according to certain societal standards, whether that's a good or a bad thing. That affects things, and a descriptive linguist will accept that this normative standard operates in a society that evaluates accents. It's not a perfect equivalent in that sense.

I'm fully with you on the issue of having each further statement of explanation interpreted in a radically different way than intended, each building on some thin edifice of the assumption of racism to constitute further and further evidence of racism. It happens to me online all the time whenever I question if a particular statement or action is necessarily racist. Those who assume that something that can be perceived as racist must be racist will then take any questioning of that as a sign of further racism.

Mostly I was questioning the rigidness of that normative element. I had always assumed people who spoke in an "uneducated" way did so because they were... lacking in some faculties. So I was quite shocked to discover those same faculties lacking in one of the "greats" of English poetry. It was an eye opener for me, convincing me that "standard" English varries some with the company.

The "linguistically speaking" bit was supposed to be irony. :)

I found a nice comment on this issue by John McWhorter, with reference to Senator Barack Obama (D-IL):

I like that he is a thinking person. I like that he is good at rubbing a noun and a verb together. Often black people are termed "articulate" whose verbal skills would elicit no comment if they were white, but Mr. Obama actually is bracingly adept with words.

Notice that he doesn't think it's automatically wrong to call a black person articulate. It's just when people do it when they wouldn't say the same about a white person with the same verbal skills that annoys him.

The problem with the majority of American Blacks is they are NOT articulate. People come here from S. America and Asia and learn English by listening to the national newscasters; they send their children to our free schools and become good, employed, educated,tax-paying citizens. The majority of blacks were born here, yet refuse to take advantage of the opportunity to learn the language of their country, and instead make up their own, drop letters off the end of English words and have bastardized our language. They expect the USA to “Change” for them rather than for the common good, and are so ignorant they vote for someone just because he’s their color rather than listen and realize his “articulation” is not saying a damned thing about how or what he will “change”???. America - Love it Or Leave It!

Retired Professor

The English language does change, is changing, and will continue to change. If you wish, we could go back to the less-bastardized English of Beowulf, but I imagine that's not what you mean. There's just a particular time period you want to favor arbitrarily that you hold up as the one unbastardized time-slice of the history of English. (And I'm sure many of your complaints would be against things that occurred often enough in the pure English of whatever period you select, since most such things that most people complain about are usually older than the people complaining about these new perversions of English.)

There are some anti-intellectual strains among some in the African-American community, and if anyone refuses to learn formal English to use in formal contexts, then that's only hurting them. But it's pretty ignorant to claim that the majority of blacks haven't learned the language of their country. They know the language, and they speak it every day. Most black people who speak the dialect of Black English can easily switch to formal English when they're in formal contexts. Their dialect is no less a dialect than the one you've arbitrarily picked out as the one you think is special. It has its own rules, but it is a rule-following dialect, just as yours is.

As for Barack Obama, it's pretty clear that black people had to be won over by his arguments/rhetoric. It took a while for him to get the support of black America. Hillary was favored for a long time among blacks. He had to win them over. So it's not his color that did it for them. It's what he's saying. And he's saying quite a bit about how he'd change this country, most of it in ways that make me really hope he doesn't get the chance. He's very smart and effective, and someone like that who happens to have his views could do an awful lot of damage.

The only way english is changing is it's being dragged down by people who, although it's their only language, don't speak it very well, or have trouble beyond VERY basic use (exclusively ebonics speakers are like swimmers wearing water wings. They limp along at half the pace when they try to speak words that aren't slang that use multiple syllables...sometimes even *2* syllables trip them up, one such common mistake is "fuss-strated" instead of "frustrated"). When you have people changing the meaning of words (like how ghetto people think "crucial" means "awesome"), or making incomplete statements the norm ("When people disrespect you, they make you feel less than." ...Less than WHAT?! You don't finish a sentence like that, fellow black people!) all that's happening is a downgrade.

Except the kind of English you consider proper English is exactly the downgrade you're talking about from previous generations' English, and those versions were the same kind of downgrade from the generations before them. This is how languages change. And it's simply not true that what linguists are now calling African American Vernacular English (no linguist ever called it Ebonics) is a simpler version of English. It's simpler in some ways and more complex in some ways, and it has a regular grammar and follows rules, just not exactly the same set of rules as standard English.

oh wow dab and offthepink I absolutely cannot believe my eyes you guys write some disgusting things it shows that you play a part in the systematic problem of racism and the destruction of the minds of people(OPEN YOUR MINDS)

JEREMY such a great point of view and knowledge on this issue you have even enlighten me.
thank you

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