A Reflection on Being Articulate

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.


Comments 16

  1. Rafranz, Thank you for writing this and for sharing your mother’s perspective as well–it added a depth of understanding about how things evolved. I applaud your courage, and you did hit the nail on the head…in the past I used to catch myself saying that very expression and really had to examine why I was and to shift my thinking/use of that term because it can be a back-handed compliment. And I wondered why I would say that when it wasn’t something I really believed — it just demonstrated to me how ingrained in our language that bias can be. I applaud you for bringing honesty to this subject. I thank you for elevating your struggle so we can all examine our language/biases. Courage, my friend!

    1. Thank you Carolyn. Your response…your truth is everything and why I felt that I needed to write this. As much as I hated this moment, I was glad to have the discussions with my parents that followed. We needed this discussion and sharing it, to me, honored the work that they did with us and what we aim to do as a community of educators with the children that we touch. It’s the expectation of excellence that everyone deserves.

    1. Hi Donald. I think that to say that most are open would be a bit too optimistic. However, many are very open and I appreciate that. If you look at the definition of the word at face value, than many won’t see the cause for pause. However, by sharing this experience with the perspective of the conversation with my mother, I hope that they will. So far, the response has been that quite a few are.

  2. Ouch and amen! I remember as a little black girl being defined as “the proper one.” WHAT???? Despite the praise and coaching from both of my parents, it still took years for me to really understand exactly how biased those words are. I love that you can write so fluidly about topics that appear closed for discussion. And I agree; it should be an expectation. Thanks for the reflection.

    1. Thank you for this Michelle. I was called “the proper one” too. I love that our parents instilled this idea of presentation within us. It’s so necessary and the more that we work to instill this within us all, the more that this expectation will be the norm. I appreciate you so much and I adored you even before I heard you speak. You were THERE and I was and am so proud of you.

  3. First, I love you! Second, I have been (for lack of a better term right now) a “professional communicator” my entire adult life. I was a student pastor by the time I was 19 and have been preaching the Gospel every since. I also, periodically, have opportunities to talk about other things far less exciting (educational technology…haha), yet still important. I am from east Texas and stereotypically, we speak very slow and drawn out…I, by nature, follow this stereotype. I also have a slight lisp that I struggle to hide when pronouncing certain words. The amount of intense focus I have to maintain while speaking to groups of people is actually, at times, physically exhausting. Needless to say, I’m not sure that anyone has ever called me articulate (to my face). If someone had, I’m not sure I would have taken it as a back handed compliment…but, I think I agree with you. It almost seems like there are lower expectation so if you show yourself to be intelligent and knowledgable about your content, people are surprised.
    You have (once again) allowed me to view the world through a different lens. Which brings me back to my first point. I love and appreciate you!
    I hope you have a great week! Can’t wait to see what Braeden is creating this week!

  4. My good friend, Dave, is a white PE teacher who was assigned the job of roasting me when I left the district. He gave an amazing speech that had the crowd in stitches. That night, he asked me, “Tracy, do I normally speak like a fool or a mushmouth or something, because three different people came up to me and told me, ‘Wow, Dave, you’re so articulate!'” It was the first time I’d seen articulate used as a back-handed compliment for someone white, although I’ve seen it used in just that way so many times for black folks. In Dave’s case, because he taught PE, everyone assumed he wouldn’t be able to do more than grunt. They were expressing surprise, not a compliment. Years later, when people described then-candidate Obama as “articulate,” I hope Dave had a little insight why that comment was so offensive, even though President Obama IS more articulate than just about anybody else on the planet. For me, as a highly educated white person, I actually have been described as articulate many times, and I’m always reminded of my white privilege in those moments. I am free to take it as a compliment at face value, because there are no hidden layers of meaning for me. My black colleagues who make complicated matters clear, help an audience connect ideas, move people with their words, and find just the right phrase quickly are just as skilled as I am (if not more) in public speaking, but do not have the same privilege of expectation I do. The same word carries a very different meaning, because of the way it has been used as a “pass-key.” Thank you, Rafranz, for writing this post and making me, and many others, reflect more deeply. I especially loved the inter-generational thinking between you and your mother.

    1. I shared your comment with my mother and she felt every moment of your comment. I love that fact that you brought up the “coach” perception because that is definitely something that we need to visit and re-visit again. That moment gave me pause and I thank you for that.

      1. Thank you! And thanks to your mother. 🙂 Also, this is Tracy Zager (@tracyzager). Not sure why Disqus has me anonymous, but wanted you to know I’m not hiding. We need to have these conversations in the open. Thanks for being brave and starting this one.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this ridiculousness. What I hear when someone (almost always someone who is white) says, “articulate” in regard to a person of color is “oh, I didn’t expect that person to be able to speak so well.” . This is not a compliment… it’s really an insult. For those who think they’re being complimentary, I think it’s more about denying that there is racism and discrimination in such thinking.

    It’s gotten to the point where I don’t say “articulate” as an adjective anymore… about anyone. I do use the verb when I talk about what my students should be able to do, but I think the adjective has been hijacked.

    I love how much you reflect, Rafranz. When I read your posts, I know that a lot of time, deep thinking, and even debating yourself goes into your writing. Kudos, my friend. 🙂

    1. Thank you Michelle. If I captured the number of times that I wrote, deleted, wrote, deleted and repeated on several occasions, it was almost comical. Talking to my mother at 4am gave the clarity that I needed.

      I still have pause on this topic and more so on how to address the importance of speech from within our race. One thing that I learned is that change can’t come from silence. This was the first step.

  6. Personally, I don’t take the quip, “She’s so articulate”, as racially condescending to me,personally, as Black person. To the contrary: I am proud when any person, regardless of race, ethnicity, etc., compliments me on my speaking. Frankly, Americans in general, Black, White, other, don’t speak well, and, for a host of reasons, and it often isn’t due to socioeconomics. I teach at a predominately-White independent prep school, where the families are upper middle class,and, I have to say that their command of the English vernacular is rather rough and ragged. To the racial aspect of being articulate, I as a Black person, have to take the comment in real-time, and, ask myself if the comment is based on a racially-held perception.

    1. The beauty of experience and perspective is that they are different and that is great. Thank you for sharing yours and for reading.

  7. People love watching the news and recognizing people of color not speaking articulately. They make sure to dismiss whatever the news report was about and talk about the individuals misuse of grammar, clothing and or messed up hairdo. We had a black superintendent and when he spoke at the convocation he left off ONE plural ending of a word and everyone talked about him and wondered where he received his doctoral degree, and so on and so on and so on. It never dawned on them that speaking in front of a few hundred people can be nerve racking and that sometimes we can accidentally leave off an ending of a word.

  8. Thank you for sharing your perspective and your insight into why this gave you pause. We can only learn from each other if we share. What I am in color, nationality, or sex does not define my character and for some reason speech and articulation does.This may be the reason your mother’s generation focused on its importance. It is unfortunate that people have these experiences and you address it well in the last line of your text “I consider it an expectation and maybe others should do the same.” hits the nail on the head. Perhaps the recognition of a persons speaking ability is truly because it is not a focus of recent generation. It is not and ‘expectation’ so when we hear any person speak with clarity and purpose regardless if they are black, Hispanic, white, European it is soothing to the ear and attractive. I believe we do need to help students learn to be articulate not for class or privilege but for the purpose of being understood and pride in self.

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