Wednesday, March 09, 2005

you're so articulate...

I came across an article called The Soft Bigotry of Loose Adulation, written for slate.com by William Saletan. In it, he said:

...If you're black, Hispanic, or a member of some other group often stereotyped as incompetent, you may be familiar with this kind of condescension.
It's the way polite white people express their surprise that you aren't stupid.
They marvel at how "bright" and "articulate" you are. Instead of treating you the way they'd treat an equally competent white person—say, by ignoring you—they fuss over your every accomplishment. When James Baker and Brent Scowcroft do their jobs, it's a non-story. When Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice do the same jobs, it's a newsmagazine cover.
To which I say: Okay, wait just a second here. I’m completely aware of how frustrating it can be to be underestimated. No one likes being condescended-to. And there’s nothing wrong with educating people about how their words are perceived, how sincerely-meant compliments can sound patronizing. But if we’re going to scorn people just for thinking that someone is “exceptionally articulate”, I think it might be good to consider what exactly it is we’re asking for.

Consider the context here: in the conversation about Race in America, we have established some givens, including the fact that non-whites struggle against a legacy of oppression. Limited opportunity, shortage of role models, and lack of access add up to the absence of an educational tradition. Racially-focused support organizations on college campuses around the country make no bones about the fact that for non-whites a college degree is often a very big deal. It’s still far more common for a non-white student to be the first in his/her family to earn a degree than it is for a white student.

Furthermore, who represents non-white America to the rest of the country in our media? Is it thousands of educated, intelligent non-white Americans? No, because they’re normal and boring just like everyone else. Instead of their voices on TV, we hear rappers and professional athletes -- neither group being notoriously well-educated. Crack addicts and car thieves being arrested on COPS are not known for their articulateness, and have you noticed the racial breakdown of the perps those programs show?

We are reminded over and over -- in fact, we’re almost beat over the head with it -- that the playing field is drastically tilted in the white man’s favour. That Non-white America receives sub-standard education in run-down inner-city schools. That the numbers of those who “make it” are pitifully small, and that the majority is still being left behind. That X% of black men are incarcerated at some point in their lifetime. That the forces of overt and institutionalized racism work together to keep the person of colour from achieving success in the white man’s world. That such success is a tall order, and requires exceptional talent, hard work, and serious dedication.

And furthermore, traditional “black speech” is non-standard English. It shares many traits with the speech of uneducated, “inarticulate” whites (double negatives, non-standard verb conjugations, restricted vocabulary, etc). It’s difficult for Mr White Man – who’s spent years learning to fit his speech to very specific rules – to imagine using “Ebonics” on purpose, and it’s extremely difficult for him to view its use as particularly articulate. It doesn’t matter that some of the most clever use of language ever is found in the impromptu rhymes of rap battles – Mr White Guy never sees that. To him, "black speech" sounds uneducated, ungrammatical, and extremely limited. (And in point of fact, compared to the English language as a whole, it IS limited – it’s a dialect, not a language in itself. There are millions of words that one can use as part of standard English that don’t fit into Ebonics.)

So now we come to the individual who -- against all odds -- has succeeded. He or she has braved the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to take his/her rightful place in society. And now the rest of America -- over-privileged, under-challenged White America -- is suddenly, bizarrely, supposed to think it’s no big deal.

To expect White America to have the same reaction to Condi Rice as it does to Brent Scowcroft is ridiculous. It’s asking that everyone forget everything he/she has ever heard about Race In America. It’s asking people to operate under an extraordinary level of pretense (or self-delusion).

Does anyone imagine Black America in general isn’t proud of Rice? (Or even of Powell, charges of Oreo-ness notwithstanding?) Rational people recognize that their level of accomplishment (and "articulateness") is noteworthy for anyone, and that it has all the more significance because the people in question are black.

So when Mr. Oblivious White Man acts surprised that you’re bright or articulate, it’s not because he expected you to be stupid -- just not so educated. Yes, he’s a bit of a moron for letting it show, but it doesn’t mean he’s a racist.

Articulate and intelligent white men are rare enough -- and they’ve had all the advantages. To ask people to act like highly educated, articulate, successful black men are the norm is a little like asking them to believe the race issue is over, the good guys have won, and The Dream has already come true.

3 Comments:

At Wed Mar 09, 11:48:00 AM PST, Blogger No_Newz said...

I am amazed at how bright and articulate you are. :P
Lois Lane
P.S. you knew that was coming, didn't you?!

 
At Wed Mar 09, 04:31:00 PM PST, Blogger Erik said...

I see your point(s) and you have good ones. I think this is well put: "To expect White America to
have the same reaction to Condi Rice as it does to Brent Scowcroft is ridiculous. It’s asking that
everyone forget everything he/she has ever heard about Race In America."

However, I have a few comments: The fact that I see a lot of rappers and athletes use ebonics,
does not cause me to be in utter shock when I hear a black teacher, talking head, or joe black man
at safeway using standard English in a proficient manner--because I know that athletes and entertainers in this country make up a ridiculously tiny percentage of the black population as a whole. I'm not even a genius (I don't think. Maybe I am, actually), yet I'm able to grasp this. The fact that so many are unable, is annoying.

Indeed, ethnic minorities in this country ARE less 'successful', statistically-speaking, so it's
not strange that the Rices and Powells of the world stand out. But can you imagine how old it would get, as a standard middle-class black dude, to constantly hear how 'articulate' you were?
Yeah, there are worse burdens in life, but Saletan has a point when he says, "If you're black, Hispanic, or a member of some other group often stereotyped as incompetent, you may be familiar with this kind of condescension. It's the way polite white people express their surprise that you aren't stupid."

My other main point is that it's annoying when people don't see things exactly like I do in every respect. Also, if they are not as enlightened as me. Both of those things. In fact, if you're going to be both of those things, you might as well forget it. Just kidding. Pay attention to what I'm saying here.

 
At Sat Mar 12, 03:25:00 AM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

thx, lois. ;-)

erik, i take your point(s) -- i guess my point should have been that
a) yes, it would be seriously annoying, and
b) but it's still understandable

 

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