Foolish, condescending, and inarguably one of the most cringe-worthy things you can say to a Black person: “You’re so articulate!” It’s a tired, old line that’s been drilled into my ears ever since I learned how to speak, and I’m incredibly sick of hearing it. Now, if you’re wondering what could possibly be wrong with being labeled what Oxford English Dictionary defines as “having the ability to speak fluently or coherently,” consider the root of this racially-charged diction.
When someone calls me “articulate” with amazement in their eyes, I immediately envision my white peers and I standing on pedestals—only mine rests so far below theirs that I have to crane my neck up to even glimpse them. Though the way my white friends and I speak is extremely similar, I am often held to a far lower standard of capability than they are simply because I am black. “Articulate” is a pitifully disguised way of telling me that I speak intelligently for a black person. By not-so-subtly suggesting that the mere idea of a well-spoken black person is astonishing, you assert the assumption that black people whose speech does not fall into this specific category are less educated is presented as well.
In a February 2014 TED Talk, poet and educator Jamila Lyiscott explained the widespread frustration that black people feel towards being called “articulate” through a compelling spoken word essay. “Do not judge me by my language and assume that I’m too ignorant to teach,” Lyiscott says matter-of-factly as she goes onto explain that she “speaks three tongues,” a different voice when she’s with her friends, at home, and in school. Her words desperately need to be heard by anyone who still throws around the word “articulate,” because they clearly express that being Black automatically makes speech a unit of measurement on the scale of intelligence.
“Articulate” is a double-edged sword, because while it back-handedly compliments Black individuals whose voices are deemed eloquent, it disparages those who speak with African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics. Though Ebonics is frequently regarded as “lazy” and “broken” English, it has a rich, complex history and has historically been a powerful tool in the literary arts, as proven by acclaimed authors Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. A Black person not meeting your benchmark to qualify as “articulate” does not mean they are not well-spoken, knowledgeable people.
“I know that I had to borrow your language because mines was stolen, but you can’t expect me to speak your history wholly while mines is broken, these words are spoken by someone who is simply fed up with the Euro-centric ideals of this season, and the reason I speak a composite version of your language is because mines was raped away along with my history, I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us that our current state is not a mystery.” –Lyiscott
Before labeling a Black person “articulate,” understand the insult to their intellectual capacity that is loaded in that word and that, as Lyiscott remarkably expressed in the quote above, Black people who do not live up to such a twisted standard of articulation are not less educated. The way that they do speak often holds an important connection to their identity. To put it simply, if you wouldn’t call my white friend who’s standing right beside me speaking exactly the same way I am “articulate,” swallow your words when it comes to me. To those who believe my voice is prim and proper only in respect to the pigmentation of my skin, I hope you know that my words are also the daggers fighting to destroy the very stereotype you speak.