Can an African American be "articulate" (as a good thing)?:
When whites use the word in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment. It is similar to praising a female executive or politician by calling her “tough” or “a rational decision-maker.”
“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.
“Historically, it was meant to signal the exceptional Negro,” Mr. Dyson said. “The implication is that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate.”
This column by Lynette Clemetson in the New York Times is very eye opening for me -- I had not even thought about "articulate" as being patronizing in and of itself. For instance, when Joseph Biden offered his faint praise for Barack Obama (which is perhaps starting to look like a sad pattern of casual prejudice), I immediately focused on his use of "clean."
Clean? (That's the word Biden and Jon Stewart joked about on the Daily Show, too.)
I had not considered that "articulate" would be the most loaded word in Biden's lame utterance -- especially since Obama is the most eloquent of the Democratic presidential candidates in the race so far -- but there it is.
The first thing I did after reading the article was search media girl for the word. There were four hits for "articulate":
Can't see the forest for all the leaves, let alone the trees contains a quote by a gilas girl I still agree with:
Of course in the tactics of particular political struggles, compromises are necessary, but refusing to articulate the progressive position properly is not a compromise, its capitulation to the rightward downslide of our political system. That's the one immediate fallacy, I'd like to see the so-called liberal blogosphere learn to correct immediately and work to reverse long term.
What's wrong with the Democrats? uses the word as a verb:
The thing is, most of the people who voted against Bush were indeed voting on values -- values of peace, diversity, equality for all citizens, privacy, protecting the environment, reducing abortion, keeping women's bodies free from government seizure, and not running the country into a fiscal ditch our grandkids are going to have to dig out of. But the Dems couldn't really articulate that. They haven't been able to for quite some time.
And it seems like they still don't get it. Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said on the News Hour yesterday that Democrats needed to bargain their way back into the ballgame. Huh? This approach didn't quite work for John Kerry, who tried to bargain his way around gay marriage and could not or would not articulate the moral reasons why he supported a woman's right to choose.
Truth or Consequences also uses the verb form of "articulate":
So what unites progressives? Values. Morality. Justice. Many of us cannot really articulate it, we just know. We know it's wrong for the powerful to screw over the powerless. We know it's wrong to treat people struggling to make ends meet as problems to be dispensed with. We know it's wrong to use people's misfortunes in health, work and home against them. But it seems like we cannot find ways to say these things. We don't have the vocabulary. We're out of practice.
And to my post from 2005 about That fragile male ego, we find the word in a comment:
As it is, I still carry the idea that I am supposed to be listened to and that being articulate and connected are more important than hard work.
Clemetson's article points out that "articulate" is applied for only certain African Americans:
“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.”
My lack of respect for Al Sharpton dates back 20 years, and is not based on "black rhetorical tradition" but rather on things like the whole Tawana Brawley hoax, which you couldn't miss if you lived in New York at the time.
Nevertheless, I don't doubt that "white" people who are not steeped in "black" culture are not going to connect with someone who speaks in the "black rhetorical tradition." I take this lesson to heart, though. The seemingly benign racism of lowered expectations can be much more pernicious than the simple bungling by a clueless Senator.
By any standard, I do find Barack Obama to be very eloquent, especially compared with the other candidates in the field. I find myself liking him and even rooting for him, but I don't quite know where he stands for. "Hope" is a nice message, but I hope he starts to articulate more concrete positions soon.
Meanwhile, Biden should probably think more before he talks. We're just out of this very early starting gate on the presidential race, and he's already imploding. It could be that his problem is that he is articulate. When most politicians talk, I tend to just tune them out -- blah blah blah blah. Biden speaks all to clearly, and what he says can be all too revealing for his own good.