Perhaps we should change the designation of February and March from “History” Months (as in Black History Month and Women’s History Month respectively) to “Reality” Months. In that vein we can and should use these occasions to focus on the continuing realities of racism and sexism in contemporary life — and what we still must do to combat the ever-virulent presence of such profound and chronic injustices — rather than simply glossing historic moments and iconic figures.
We can start with the vocabulary of discrimination. “Articulate” is this week’s word of shame, thanks to Senator Joseph Biden whose characterization of Senator Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” surely ranks up there as one of the stupidest utterances in modern political life — and, as if we needed this, further proof that a U.S. Senator with presidential ambitions can be pretty darn inarticulate and dim-witted himself.
Writing in today’s New York Times on “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well” Lynette Clemetson aptly summarizes the whole dim history of the insidious use of “articulate” by White speakers to describe Black speakers. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson also had an excellent Op-Ed Column “An Inarticulate Kickoff” on February 2. From my own experience I know that Clemetson and Robinson are right: when White people use the word “articulate” in reference to a Black person, even though intending the word in a complimentary way, it comes across as patronizing at best, racist at worst, revealing some sense of astonishment that the speaker can actually form whole sentences. Prejudice oozes from the sound of the word used in this context.
Frankly, if being “articulate” were a requirement for election, I can think of more than one White politician, including several presidents, who would never have made it past the first grade student council seat.
Vocabulary contributes to racial and gender stereotypes that reinforce discrimination. Strong female leaders are put down by the term “aggressive” while strong male leaders are “decisive.” Gay men have “good taste.” Single women are suspected of being short on empathy for other people’s children. Words reveal a great deal about the speaker’s true state of mind. “You people” divides the room, identifies the group as different from the speaker, suggests a vaguely derogatory disposition at the very least.
Perhaps for these “Reality Months” we could compile a dictionary of the code words that linger in the air, polluting social discourse, undermining true community. Then we could resolve to help each other and our leaders to clean up our dialogue in order to work more effectively together to achieve justice for all.
Next: Racism and Failing Schools