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. 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., which I was obsessed with, 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 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. In this case, the symptom is a symptom of another symptom.

I could make this even more complicated than I already have, but it’s pretty simple. When the average American thinks of a black person, there are quite a few stereotypes that come to mind, and one of the most prominent 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 grammatically incorrect or ridiculous slang no one understands (yet will eventually adopt nonetheless).

It’s a given to many, if not most, 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! It’s fun reducing black perspectives to 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 normal and 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.

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.

It amazes me how many people can’t wrap their heads around this. It’s like if I were to say to a random guy, “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, isn’t it?

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 a level of eloquence and moving effect rarely seen in general. 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 obnoxious, and it’s so ridiculously common that it’s been addressed again and again and again, 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. And 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 us and instead of saying we’re articulate, say that we sound white. It’s the same ignorant message stemming from the same ignorant beliefs.

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 fucking 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 subject. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

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 they were so notably coherent that you were overwhelmed by the sheer clarity and fluidity of their language? Or was it because you were expecting them to sound like “something else”?

If it’s the latter, you should probably reevaluate your preconceptions.

It Doesn’t Make You Racist (But It Kinda Does)

Every once in a while, a less-melanin’d human will remark that a particular period of American history was better, wishing we could all go back to a time when things were “simpler” and our values were still “intact”.

And when that period is fraught with the inhumane treatment of blacks – which, for our country, is as likely as hitting the broad side of a barn with another barn – it isn’t all that unusual for someone to accuse him of being racist, either seriously or in jest.

Of course he objects, insisting that longing for the feel of a moment in time that just happened to be openly racist doesn’t make him racist by extension, and I agree.

Thinking the old days were swell doesn’t make you racist any more than thinking Roswell was a great place to be in 1947 makes you an alien conspiracist.

But let’s look at it another way…

It’s 1999. A brisk New Year’s Eve. You’re at a club celebrating Y2K’s approach, drink in hand, soul on your sleeve.

Your favorite band performs and brings you up on stage. You dance alongside them like a crazed spider while your friends hoot and cheer until your eyes land on someone you’ve worshiped for months without a word.

Fueled by the night’s adrenaline, you make a move. Your cheeks touch as you exchange flirtations and the sexual tension of the silence that falls in between, and you realize that everything in that moment is right.

This is the way life should be!

You later discover that a girl was brutally raped that night. While you were floating on affections and pounding away at the stage, she was dragged into a bathroom, assaulted, and left for dead not more than fifty feet away.

You watched the news about it, read about it, overheard people talking about it. You knew every unthinkable detail there was to know because everyone knew. It was a part of the club’s history now – a part of that night.

It didn’t change the tenor of the moment.
It became the tenor of the moment.

Now it’s 2016 and you’re at lunch with a friend and you say, “You remember that New Year’s Eve back in 1999 when we went to Club Hypothetical? Everything about that night was perfect, wasn’t it? Life was so much better for everyone then. I wish we could all go back in time and relive it over and over again!”

A woman at a nearby table groans in your direction. “You realize a girl was raped and beaten within an inch of her life that night, right?” And you nod, almost as if it were silly of her to ask.

Of course you realize it.
That knowledge was inescapable.

The woman’s face shrinks in disgust. “If you know what happened, how can you say it was perfect? How can you say we should all go back and relive it?” Because that’s the question hiding under the skin – how you can pine for something knowing what you know.

The truth is that it didn’t concern you. It didn’t happen to you, it didn’t happen to anyone you care about, and it didn’t have any effect on your life.

Sure, you wouldn’t wish it on anyone and you can’t begin to imagine going through it yourself. But you don’t really care in the way others think you should care, because while that girl’s night was horrific, yours was fucking awesome.

And that’s what counts – right?

It’s understandable. Bad things happen to other people all the time. If we all fell to pieces about it, society would drown in its tears, a mound of sullen husks moping about on everyone else’s behalf. And we’re not built for that.

Still…

What if it wasn’t just that one girl, that one night, that one place? What if it were all girls, every night, everywhere? What if it was the nature of that period that women, by virtue of being women, could be, would be, and were being beaten, raped and killed as others saw fit?

It wouldn’t be isolated enough for you to claim no connection then, would it? You may not know a particular woman, but you know women. We’re all born from and related to women, you may be friends with women, you may date women, and your children may grow up to be women.

You can’t detach yourself anymore because it’s no longer about a single stranger you’ve never met.

It’s about every stranger you’ll ever meet.

Could you still look that woman in the eye and say best night everrrrr when she asks if you realize that everyone like her was suffering while everyone like you was free to pursue their fill of happiness? And how what happened at the club that night was merely a testament to that dismal truth?

Maybe you could because it’s only that one night you miss. A night that, in your mind, exists independent of the darkness storming around it. A night that you have the right to long for because it was yours.

Maybe you could because you tell yourself that it wasn’t the culture you missed. It was only that club and that band and that lover.

A part of me might still question how it could be so easy for you to mourn for something steeped in so much pain. Who yearns for an island in a sea of blood?

I say all of that to say this…

Claiming that a period in history was better than now in general just because it was better for people like you is a slap in the face to the rest who were also there in mind, body, and spirit because it hammers home the point that you define the world we all occupy by your occupation.

That you view the whole of that history as the sum of your parts alone.

It creates a bubble where the things that matter to you are the only things that matter, and the fact that the values you praise are the very same values that permitted the systematic culling of a people is somehow an irrelevant footnote.

In short, it’s a reminder that at the end of the day, the meaning of race in our country and the state of the black race in particular doesn’t affect you because it didn’t affect you. So you have the luxury of calling it what we can’t:

The good ol’ days.

And no, that doesn’t make you racist, but boy, does it make you stupid if you can’t understand why many of us have grown tired of hearing white people lament the loss of a tortured past our people are lucky to be freed from right to our faces as if we’re a historical afterthought in a nation whose history was all but shaped by the story of us and how you chose to write it.