I woke up to the NPR report this morning that Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden had shot himself in the rhetorical foot with the following remarks in an interview with The New York Observer:
I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.
Biden has issued the typically passive Washington non-apology apology for these remarks: “I deeply regret any offense my remark in The New York Observer might have caused anyone.” (Why not apologize for the stupidity of the remarks, rather than the offense they caused?) But though praising a United States Senator for being “bright and clean” may have been the most obviously offensive of Biden’s words, President Bush’s similar praise for Obama in an interview with Neil Cavuto the same day on Fox News – “He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate” – echoes more insidious underlying assumptions.
NEWS FLASH TO WELL-MEANING WHITE FOLKS: When you praise people of any minority or ethnicity for being “articulate,” you’re suggesting that you have deeply held stereotypes about people that don’t look like you that are only overcome by what you see as noteable exceptions. Or that “articulate” doesn’t mean, as Webster’s suggests, “able to speak; expressing oneself readily, clearly, or effectively,” but rather, “I expected you to talk like a black person, but you speak just like I do! Way to go!”
Everyone, please stop doing this.
Praising minorities for being “articulate” and similarly intended remarks are common, and once you’re sensitive to them, you’ll hear them everywhere, even in the most well-meaning liberal institutions. I was at a conference of Mennonite academics and young people examining attitutes toward scripture, where a young white male professor from one of our most progressive colleges praised the only African American woman in the room for being “so articulate.” Speaking to her later about it, she confirmed my own discomfort at his remarks. Similarly, Asian American and Latino friends tire of surprised remarks regarding their lack of accent.
I can hear the groans – “great, yet another word the PC Thought Police won’t let us use – even when we’re trying to be nice!” Yes and no. All I ask is that you practice being articulate yourself: Choose your words carefully, and be aware of how they may be interpreted. And if challenged, be honest with yourself about your own prejudice – the prejudice that infects all of us. I am the chief of sinners, and confess that I constantly grapple with the stereotypical fears, lowered expectations, etc. that I’ve inherited from a society permeated with prejudice. This may seem unfair, but it is the responsibility of those who have been given unfair privilege and power by that society to go the extra mile.
For his part, Obama has responded verrrrry graciously:
I didn’t take Senator Biden’s comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate.
This assumes, reasonably so from the context of his remarks, that Biden was speaking primarily about black presidential candidates and not all African Americans. But for the record:
Is he saying that Carol Moseley Braun wasn’t “mainstream” even though she represented the fifth largest state (in population) in the U.S. Senate? Is he saying that Jesse Jackson wasn’t “mainstream” even though he won 11 primaries in 1988 and 6.9 million votes? The population of Delaware is 783,600. Heck, [Jackson] won Michigan with 55% of the vote.
And if by “mainstream,” Biden meant “someone who has a snowball’s chance in Hades of getting elected president of the United States,” he may find himself on the outside of that category himself.
UPDATE: In fairness to Sen. Biden, a friend informs me that his legislative record testifies to his genuine concern for and efforts on behalf of people of color. I have no doubt of that. My point is that many people – myself included – may have the best of intentions, but still need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves when discussing these issues, because fairly or unfairly, our words have disproportionate power, and with that power, serious consequences. See James 3:1-12.
Ryan Beiler is the web editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.