God's Politics

If you didn’t read my post on Sen. Biden’s blunder last week, you can read Sunday’s New York Times‘ version of it in an article, “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.” Based on conversations with a number of black public figures that “elicited the kind of frustrated responses often uttered between blacks, but seldom shared with whites.,” the Times article includes far more credible testimony than I could offer from my own experience, plus a few points that I wanted to make, but wasn’t sure how to … um, articulate. Read the whole article, but here are some key points:

When whites use the word [“articulate”] 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.”

And such distinctions discount as inarticulate historically black patterns of speech. “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.”

It is unlikely that whites will quickly or easily erase “articulate” and other damning forms of praise from the ways in which they discuss blacks. Listen for it in post-Super Bowl chatter, after the Academy Awards, at the next school board meeting or corporate retreat.

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.

Ryan Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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