Sunday, February 04, 2007

More on the bigotry of soft linguistic expectations

Lynette Clemetson has a nice article in the NYT this morning on "The racial politics of speaking well". Her conclusion is very consistent what I was trying to argue in the post a couple of steps below. Here's the crux of her piece on 'articulate':
Do not use it as the primary attribute of note for a black person if you would not use it for a similarly talented, skilled or eloquent white person. Do not make it an outsized distinction for Brown University’s president, Ruth Simmons, if you would not for the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman. Do not make it the sole basis for your praise of the actor Forest Whitaker if it would never cross your mind to utter it about the expressive Peter O’Toole.
But there was a little unintended humor in there too: It cracked me up that Condoleeza Rice's name came up a couple times as an example of a person described as 'articulate'. I've listened to a fair bit of her recently in front of congress and she expresses herself all but "readily, clearly and effectively". She's hesitant, obfuscates like mad and doesn't seem to be effective with congress. And it's not simply that I disagree with her views — What she does do is speak in that academic way that sounds educated but precisely fails to be clear or effective. Do I need to take a transcript and do a little fine-grained analysis?

I was somewhat less surprised to see Al Sharpton listed as somebody white people wouldn't consider articulate. He's actually one of the examples of a public speaker who springs to mind as speaking readily and clearly. But if you are heavily invested in standard language ideology, I suppose you'd miss that. I had originally had him and Jesse Jackson in my set of examples, but dropped them — in large part because preachers presumably still have to speak well (Ned Lovejoy aside, maybe) and I didn't know where to go with that connection.

But it's Sunday, so I'm thinking Safire, who today has me flummoxed, and on this very topic. His whole column is dedicated to praising Obama's use of language, and especially effusively for using 'a slang verb with verve', namely gummed up and Safire gets equally excited about the Senator's use of boneheaded. My immediate reaction was that this starkly exemplified the bigotry of soft linguistic expectations: These are utterly normal parts of English and it would be natural to praise only a less-than-proficient speaker of English for using them. Sounds like part of a conversation along these lines: "My, Gerhard, how your colloquial English is coming along. Now, let's work on those 'th' sounds." In fact, if you google boneheaded and various senators' names (I tried Chris Dodd and Mary Landrieu, for no particular reason), you'll get some hits, some where it's used by the senators and some where it's simply used in the same piece. Looks like a pretty common word around the Senate.

This leaves me itching to hurl fresh invective at Safire, but I'm not sure I can exclude the possibility that he's just truly this out of touch.


Nancy said...

What no one is saying is that "articulate," in the racial context, is code for "talks like a white person." (Just as "inner city" is code for "lots of black people," even when they're situated miles from a central district.) "Speaks well" puts it a little more directly, but both mean the same thing: here's someone who doesn't say "aks" for "ask" or "birfday" for "birthday"--in other words, who doesn't have an identifiable "black accent." ("Ebonics," as we used to call it here in Oakland.) That's what white folks mean when they say Condoleeza Rica is "articulate"; they're hearing past her stumbling locutions and acknowledging that she doesn't sound like their notion of a black person. Barack Obama has even more of a halo, because he lacks the cultural baggage of a slave ancestry (so annoyingly guilt-making for white people!). By the way, I grew up among soft-bigoted white people in Los Angeles and attended a majority-black ("inner city") high school where I learned a lot of racial fine points. We've come a long way as a society since then, but we still discriminate on the basis of accent.

Mr. Verb said...

Yes, this is a very important point, very nicely put, and one I've been trying to figure out nail down. I'll do a post on this as soon as time permits.


Nancy said...

...and of course I meant Condoleezza RICE. (I managed to misspell both names!)