Tonight, I read an article that gave me pause on the use of the word “articulate”. I believe that the intention was to pay a “compliment” to students at a conference who were speaking up about their needs for technology in the classroom. Aside from the fact that students pictured were of color, which I knew had no real correlation to the meaning, the implications of the word in the sense that “students were actually poised and articulate” rubbed me the wrong way.
I cringed upon reading the word. It bothered me and I needed to explore why.
(I actually started this piece and restarted this piece on several occasions throughout the night. I talked to members of my family and had deep moments of pause…and enlightenment.)
Some Personal Background
Both of my parents attended segregated schools and in both of those schools learning to speak articulately was embedded within the curriculum. My mother says that this was the case because her teachers understood the world that they would face if they did not have this skill. My father agreed. Growing up, my mother trained us to be “speakers” too. It was important that we understood how to speak with authority, eloquence and clarity. We learned this skill through church and community speaking events. To my parents, being “articulate” wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity.
They also BELIEVED it to be a compliment
Reflecting on being Articulate
Neither of my parents have ever really been immersed in professional circles. My mother is a retired educator but our circles of involvement were much different. Our experiences are not the same.
My mother even echoed the phrase, “Being articulate is a compliment. Maybe it’s you. Why does it bother YOU? Maybe this is something that you need to have reflective pause about?”
I told her the story of our family friend who upon being appointed HS principal at a nearby school was cackled by a group of admins about being a “rapper” principal who would probably walk the halls of his school sagging. Upon meeting him, they’re tune changed to “Oh, he’s actually pretty articulate”. It was as if they heard him speak and decided to accept him. My mother was shocked.
I told her about the times that I listened to a state winning UIL speaker speak amongst a group of speakers. He was the only black speaker and the only one that members in the crowd referred to as articulate. Again, my mother was shocked.
I told her about the times that I spoke and was met with, “oh you’re so articulate” and the time that even my nephew spoke followed by, “wow, he’s articulate”. Shock…not compliment.
My mother said that maybe this has more to do with the obvious rift within our own race…that we have some who are very articulate and some who are not. Like it or not, there is some truth to this statement. Within our own race, there is often an aura of “class” associated with articulateness.
She reminded me that for years, black folks had to learn such skills in private because it was frowned upon publicly. Not everyone learned how to speak. Not everyone could.
My mother said…”Maybe people still expect us to not speak well.”
The more that we sat and talked, the more that she realized that sometimes this phrase was filled with more condescending tones than even she recognized. We also agreed that even with a “racial divide”, we don’t refer to each other as articulate. There is a sense of pride but not one of shock.
This phrase is almost always one that is used from a place of “privilege” to one of “less privilege”.
It’s the black exec in the office, the leader, the student speaker, the keynote, the teacher or even the brand new principal. It’s too often the person of color sitting in the gray area where being “articulate” becomes the “pass key” to acceptance…privilege.
No one calls the white speaker articulate. They expect him/her to be.
No one calls the white quarterback “well-spoken”. It’s expected.
Yet, when I speak…you feel the need to “compliment” my articulateness.
Oddly enough, when I speak…I do so with the echo of my mother’s voice demanding that I speak with purpose and clarity. I guess some might consider this as articulate.
I consider it an expectation and maybe others should do the same.