The Articulate Plague

It’s frustrating trying to explain something to someone fundamentally ill-equipped to understand it. They’ll either get it or they won’t, and your explanation rarely has any effect on that outcome. I think I’ve said as much before.

A black woman was talking about makeup and beauty, and a white guy commented that she was very well-spoken and articulate. I rolled my eyes, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that another black person reading this already knows why. It’s one of those seemingly innocuous things you either pick up on from firsthand experience living in a particular skin or from being socially conscious – which not enough people are.

Let’s call it a symptom.

If you’ve ever played the game Plague Inc., you know that the point is to kill everyone on the planet with a pathogen you’ve created. Delightful!

As a simulation that explores the spread of disease and the devastating potential it has to obliterate us on a global scale, there are a few things you have to consider…

Time is an important factor because you want to kill everyone before the world finds a cure, so the pathogen has to be infectious enough to spread quickly. It also has to be resistant enough to changes in climate to spread widely. And it has to mutate to make treating it harder.

The tricky bit is balancing the fact that it has to be deadly enough to kill, but not so deadly that it kills its carriers faster than they can infect others – and for the most part, that’s controlled by manipulating symptoms.

You want them severe enough to be fatal, but not so severe that people notice them too soon. Because it’s the symptoms that call attention to the disease, and once people are aware of the disease, they set down the path to cure it.

We suffer from many diseases as a society – things that burn through us like wildfire before anyone takes note. By the time we realize something awful is spreading, we’re already infected and in a weaker position to fight it than we would have been had it not taken us so long to catch on.

My point is that failing to acknowledge that something is a symptom of a greater problem almost guarantees that we’ll never solve it. Now that I’ve enlightened you with the cheery parallel that is a game about decimating mankind, let’s see how it applies to this particular post. In this case, the symptom is a symptom of another symptom.

Having grown up in America, it’s no secret that when a non-black person thinks of a black person, there are quite a few stereotypes that come to mind. Some good. Most not. And one of the most prominent “nots” is that we don’t speak proper English.

It’s the consensus that we butcher the language even more than Americans in general. That every other word out of our mouths is either profanity, grammatically incorrect or ridiculous slang no one understands, yet will eventually adopt nonetheless.

It’s a given to many that we sound uneducated and illiterate to the point of being humorous, which is why it’s so entertaining to mimic us. I got my hair did and I’m hip because I said it that way! Ain’t nobody got time for that! Oh, boy, it’s fun reducing black perspectives to jaunty memes!

Since this is the way blacks are viewed here by and large, there’s always a hint of surprise when a black person doesn’t speak that way. And that surprise compels us to acknowledge the anomaly – to give that black person a pat on the back for not sounding “black”.

So we’ve ended up with a society full of people – primarily white people – who hear a black person speak in a way that would otherwise be considered unworthy of note if they weren’t black, and the first thing that comes to mind is, “My, isn’t he/she articulate!”

Of course, they think it’s a compliment – just like they think it’s a compliment when they tell us we’re not like other blacks or that they “don’t see color”.

But those of us who recognize these compliments as symptoms of the disease that is the perception of blacks as inferior in a number of ways, including in our grasp of the English language, are rightly insulted. Or, at the very least, not uplifted by it.

It amazes me how many people can’t wrap their heads around this, so I’ll draw another parallel. It’s like if I were to say to a random dude, “You don’t seem like a rapist at all!” I wouldn’t blame him if his initial reaction were, “Why would I seem like a rapist?”

Because that’s the question.

Why wouldn’t I be articulate?

The answer is because I’m black and that’s the problem. It isn’t that someone wanted to pay us a compliment. It’s that someone thought it was something that needed to be complimented as if it’s unusual when there’s nothing unusual about it.

If and when a white person is called articulate, it’s because they express themselves with an eloquence and poignant effect rarely seen in general. Meanwhile, all a black person has to do to be deemed well-spoken is structure a sentence properly. That’s how low people have set our bar in their minds.

“I went to the store to buy soup. They didn’t have any.”
“Whoa! You’re so articulate! Can you count too?”

It’s so common that it’s been addressed again and again and again – in television, film, articles, and stand-up comedy – yet those of us who don’t speak like a black caricature are still inundated with people who feel compelled to point out that we’re articulate. Then they learn nothing when we explain why that offends us because they’re too busy arguing about how we should take it.

Equally bad are fellow blacks who’ve internalized this negative perception of how we speak and instead of saying we’re articulate, say that we sound white. It’s just a different branch of the same ignorant tree.

I remember when a white coworker I’d become friends with said, “You should give me your Ebonics dictionary, because you obviously don’t use it.”

“What?”

“I just mean that you don’t speak in Ebonics and all that yo yo and he be doing and that kind of stuff. You speak properly.”

Needless to say, I schooled my friend on why that was both the dumbest and most racist thing he’d ever said to me. He got it and apologized, but it’s not always that simple. Some people just don’t learn no matter how hard you try to educate them on a cultural subject and I hope that you’re not one of those people.

So the next time you’re tempted to comment on how “articulate” a black person is, I want you to pause and think hard and honestly about why that came to mind.

Was it because their words were so moving and impactful that you were overwhelmed by the sheer essence, clarity and fluidity of their self-expression? Or was it because you were expecting them to sound like “something else”? Picture them as any other race. Does whatever they said still seem worth complimenting?

It’s easy to speak and act without thinking about why. It’s easy for people to read my comments or blogs, find out I’m black, say I just assumed you were white, and never give any consideration to why they did beyond stating I don’t sound black.

I don’t do “easy”.

Easy rarely makes you more intelligent.
Easy rarely makes you more aware.
Easy rarely makes you better.

Go hard or go home.

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