Joe Biden’s first toe into the 2008 presidential pool has turned into a stumble, and the backlash from his decidedly odd comments about Barack Obama has been fierce. (CNN)
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” (Watch Biden’s comments and Obama’s reaction )
The initial outcry was primarily over the word “clean”, with most assuming an unstated “as opposed to all those ‘dirty’ black folks”. While there were (and are) a few people who managed to remain calm about what Biden probably meant (and didn’t mean), it didn’t slow the reaction.
However, offense at the use of “articulate” is slowly gaining ground on “clean” — particularly since it happened again (this time by President Bush), andWaPo’s Eugene Robinson has joined the rush to take up the gauntlet today:
What is it, exactly, that white people mean when they call a black person “articulate”?
As it happens, President Bush used that same word Wednesday to describe Obama. “He’s an attractive guy. He’s articulate,” Bush told Fox News.
Will wonders never cease? Here we have a man who graduated from Columbia University, who was president of the Harvard Law Review, who serves in the U.S. Senate and is the author of two best-selling books, who’s a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and what do you know, he turns out to be articulate. Stop the presses.
Using George Bush as an example of soft racism is not the best possible choice, since pretty much everyone is articulate compared to our notoriously tongue-tied president. However, the assumption is that white people generally apply the word differently to black people than to white.
Articulate is really a shorthand way of describing a black person who isn’t too black — or, rather, who comports with white America’s notion of how a black person should come across.
Whatever the intention, expressing one’s astonishment that such individuals exist is no compliment. Just come out and say it: Gee, he doesn’t sound black at all.
Is Robinson right?
I think the answer is yes, but it’s a maybe and a sometimes — and to explain why, I’ll have to turn to my own life yet again as an example.
Most of my readers (and all of my friends) know Polimom, I think, as race-neutral — even color-blind — but what people don’t realize is that it took a series of difficult confrontations with myself to get to this point… and that I’m still on the journey.
When I wrote earlier this week about apologies for slavery, I mentioned a cousin with whom I made a research trip some years ago. What I didn’t tell you is that I learned rather more on that excursion than how my family lost their land, or for which unit they served in the Civil War. I also learned something about my own soft bigotry, assumptions, and expectations… and I learned it the hard way, by embarrassing myself and making my cousin uncomfortable.
How, you ask?
The first day together, I introduced him everywhere we went as “Dr.”, apparently to emphasize his PhD, though it wasn’t conscious.
What an embarrassing thing to write. I’m cringing even now.
Friends, I can absolutely guarantee you that my cousin is not the only person I know with a PhD, and as far as I know, I’ve only ever emphasized one other person’s educational achievement: that of my grandmother, who went off to college in her 60s in search of an unfulfilled dream.
My grandmother’s educational achievement was unusual and interesting because of her age, and my cousin’s educational achievement was unusual and interesting because….?
You get the picture, I’m sure.
To this day, I cannot understand how my cousin kept his equilibrium. The only thing I remember him asking was, “Why did you say that?” — and I don’t recall him probing my ridiculous rationale (whatever it was). In fact, he and I have never talked about that again, and I’m not sure we ever will.
However, Polimom’s travels and experiences along the race-relations path do not apply to everyone. Many — maybe most? — folks would never have been as insensitive and naive as I was. Furthermore, if I use the word “articulate” today to describe someone who is black, should I be automatically pigeon-holed as again (still?) expressing surprise at an exceeded expectation?
Because I do use the word (although never for GW Bush), and when appropriate, I apply it to people of all ethnicities. Articulate is, after all, a real word in the dictionary, and it accurately describes many people.
Should Hillary Clinton take offense that she is often described as articulate? Does that mean people are surprised to discover a woman (*gasp*) who can speak well? Maybe. I’m sure there are people who do think that way, but automatically assuming soft racism and bigotry every time is, I think, over-generalizing.
Sometimes, a word is just a word. The unfortunate problem is that it’s impossible to know when that is, even for those who use it.