Suggestions On How To Compliment Black Articulation/Eloquence While Minimizing White Privilege

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I’m wrong, okay? I get it. A middle-aged White guy posting instructions on how to avoid White privilege is like putting on Lady Gaga’s meat dress and walking into a lion’s den; it’s not going to end well.

First, some background. This is in response to an unarguable point made by Marley K. in her response to a question I had regarding her article “Please Stop Judging Black Men By How Articulate They Speak in White Spaces”. Her article is written to educate people like me (well-meaning Whites) concerning “soft bigotry”. Long story short, she’s right:

When White people use the term “articulate” to describe Black folks, it means we’re smart, nice, and non-threatening — because god forbid a White person is threatened and made to be afraid by Blackness. Articulate says [presidential candidate Cory] Booker can speak the words they want to hear and has just the right amount of Whiteness to assure them he’s a good guy. His light-skin makes him more palatable, so light-skin and articulate go hand-in-hand, as White folks have long thought darker-skinned Black and Brown folks are ignorant, especially if they have chosen to not speak their preferred King’s English.

Being of the opinion that one shouldn’t complain without at least suggesting a solution, I responded by asking something something along the lines of “if we’re not supposed to refer to Blacks as ‘articulate’ or ‘eloquent’, how then should we compliment those whom we feel are deserving?” She replied (in so many words) you and your people made this mess, so you figure out how to clean it up. Again, she’s right. We Whites did “make this mess” and the onus is and should be on us to figure out how to clean it up and make it right. Blacks and other POC are not under any obligation whatsoever to suggest a solution, full stop.

So here goes.

Let’s start with a set of givens:

  1. We are all human, and as such, we all need positive reinforcement, and most of us want to give positive reinforcement when we feel it is warranted.
  2. No one who is White can know what it is like to grow up and live as a non-White. As a result, we also cannot know the references, undertones, and unspoken clues in the conversations between non-Whites. What’s more, A better explanation of my claim can be found here.
  3. Whites have White privilege (hereafter WP), not just in America but all over the planet. I’ve experienced it in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
  4. Racism can be found in all races and cultures, and in any given nation, the most socioeconomically-powerful race or ethnicity will be the most racist and commit the most egregious acts of racism in that nation. Expanded to worldwide civilization as a whole, Whites are and have been the most socioeconomically-powerful race since the 1500’s. That’s six hundred years in which White supremacy has effectively been spread by word and sword (and assisted by the concomitant advance of industry and technology) across the face of the planet. It would therefore disingenuous to think that assumptions such as White racial superiority would not become embedded at the deepest levels of social intercourse among Whites, even down to the level of everyday speech in which one’s intelligence and potential are judged by how well one can mimic the tone, style, vocabulary, and pronunciation of White language, whether English or any of the other European languages.
  5. Even among the most liberal Whites, there are relatively very few who recognize the fact that when they give unqualified compliments to POC concerning speech and social interactions in “White spaces” (whether in the language used or in personal conduct), it is very difficult to do so without expressing WP. For the purposes of this article, the above example given by Marley K. in the quote above is fitting. If I were to call Cory Booker “articulate” or “eloquent”, who am I to judge? Not only is my perception of articulation and eloquence obviously and necessarily White, but even the lighter color of his skin (as compared to most Blacks) will have a mostly-positive (or at least less-detrimental) effect among the White population.

The question is, how can we Whites give positive reinforcement to Blacks without showing WP? If I say that President Obama is eloquent and articulate, such is a true statement…but again, this statement would be made by someone with only a White frame of reference. By the strictures listed above, even a more concrete description e.g. “President Obama is a gifted orator” still violates WP, for it still requires that the White person giving the compliment is deciding whether Obama was gifted and whether he was an orator.

But what if I were to say, “As an orator, President Obama ranks with the very best presidents of American history, right alongside Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy”? This still violates WP, for it requires that Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy are the informed-by-Whiteness standards by which Obama must be judged…but at least the comparison is more concrete. This is at best an imperfect solution, for the inclusion of Obama alongside Lincoln, FDR, and Kennedy doesn’t make the standards of that group any less informed by their respective skills with the language and politics of Whiteness.

Another still-imperfect possibility might be that when we Whites compliment Blacks, make it a personal comparison. If I were to say, “President Obama is a better orator than I could ever hope to be”, that would be both a true statement and less of a violation of WP. Please note that this is still a WP violation because such a judgement still depends upon one’s own perception…but at least one’s owning it on a personal level.

Perhaps one way to look at the above three paragraphs is to use a baseball metaphor. One might say Hank Aaron was a great baseball player…but who’s judging, and by what concrete standards is he being judged? However, if one were to say “The numbers show that Hank Aaron was a better slugger than Babe Ruth (and he didn’t need steroids to do it)”, or if one said, “Hank Aaron was a far better slugger than I could ever hope to be”, then we’re using comparisons that can be examined with numbers, or against one’s own skill (or lack thereof).

The problem with that metaphor, however, is that it’s a lot more difficult to apply concrete and unbiased standards to speech and conduct, especially given that the expectations for speech and conduct were defined by Whites over the course of six centuries.

The above suggestions are the best I can think of concerning avoiding (or at least minimizing) WP in giving compliments to Blacks. I will still give such compliments, however, for positive reinforcement, encouragement, and metaphorical pats-on-the-back are things that all human beings need from time to time.

If anyone has any other suggestions or criticisms (yes, I do appreciate criticism), I’d really like to hear it. Let’s at least start the conversation.

And this meat dress is really uncomfortable….

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Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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