After Joe Biden announced that he had selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, Bernie Sanders praised her in an interview on MSNBC: “I will tell you that Kamala is very smart, very aggressive,” he said. And then he delivered the inevitable, racialized compliment that makes many African-Americans cringe: “very articulate.”
Just a few days earlier, on MSNBC, Steve Schmidt, the former Republican strategist, called Ms. Harris “a formidable political leader in this country,” adding: “She’s smart. She’s quick on her feet. She’s articulate.”
I also cringe when I hear biracial or multiracial people described as “articulate.” It means that most of our community is not articulate and this is just not true. It was also said about former president Barack Obama, who is biracial. I believe we need to exist in a world that no longer uses the term “articulate” to describe someone who is well-spoken.
As Lynette Clemetson explained in February 2007 in a New York Times essay about the way the adjective was used to praise Mr. Obama, “When whites use the word in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment.” That subtext is inherently offensive, she wrote, “because it suggests that the recipient of the ‘compliment’ is notably different from other Black people.”
Much has been written about using the term “articulate.” H. Samy Alim, director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language at U.C.L.A., and Geneva Smitherman, professor emerita of English at Michigan State University, are the authors of “Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.” They wrote this:
“Intentionally or not, when Black people are given the “compliment” of being “articulate,” it’s often combined with other adjectives like “good,” “clean,” “bright,” “nice-looking,” “handsome,” “calm” and “crisp.” When someone feels the need to point out that an individual Black person has these qualities, it’s understandable that Black people who hear this will infer that the speaker thinks this is unusual and that Black people are usually the opposite — bad, dirty, dumb, mean-looking, ugly, angry, rough and inarticulate.”
Regardless of the speaker’s intentions, when Kamala Harris or any other multiracial person is described as “articulate,” many of us hear a backhanded compliment at best and a racist statement at the least. It’s time to stop using it.
Susan Graham for Project RACE