Note to My White Self…

I did it again.

I offered one of those back handed, racist compliments that expose how much work I still have to do as a recovering racist. Even worse, I did it during a panel discussion at a cross-racial dialogue conference where I allegedly represented a “woke” white person. Here is what happened.

In describing a recent conversation with a black woman, I said, “I was talking with a very articulate black woman…”

Sigh.  I should know better.  I’ve read and even written about this peculiar racist habit.  I’ve explained it to many white people who don’t get it. Describing a black person as “articulate” implies this attribute is unusual and requires comment. Such compliments subtly support the racist trope that black people aren’t articulate.  Fortunately, someone almost immediately called me out on my use of the qualifier “articulate” and I acknowledged and apologized for my racist rhetoric.

I suppose I’ve made some progress. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what I did wrong.  Five years ago, I would have been defensive and objected to any critique.  Today, I’m slightly embarrassed and thankful that someone called me out.  I am also due for a refresher on when the qualifiers and compliments of white people are racist.

Rule #1

Unless a reference to the skin color of a person is relevant to the story, a white person referring to someone as black is usually racist. 

In the situation above, describing the woman as black was necessary. My story was about her experience as a black woman dealing with racism.  The story wouldn’t have made any sense unless people understood she was black.

However, in most situations, noting the race of someone is unnecessary and often motivated by unconscious racist bias.  For example, telling my wife that a black salesman knocked on our door is racist. Informing her of the salesman’s skin color only makes sense if I think she needs to know that specific information.  Though I didn’t do this consciously, I may have been warning her that black men – whom I’ve been indoctrinated to associate with danger and violence – were in our neighborhood.

Often, in my experience, the use of the descriptor “black” by white people is completely irrelevant to the story.  The real motive in describing the person as black is to affirm some racial stereotype.  If you want to read more about this dynamic, I’ve discussed this rule at length in the post – “I Say Racist Things.

Rule #2

Unless the adjective used to describe a black person is pertinent to the story, the adjective used by a white person probably reflects their unconscious prejudice and is not actually complimentary.

Many compliments of black people by white people share a common theme – the black person being complimented is an exception to the rule.  Suggesting a black person is “articulate, hardworking, intelligent, studious, respectful, competent, beautiful, level headed, etc.” is often said with the unstated “for a black person.”  White people compliment the black person because they have had one of their racist stereotypes challenged.  Unfortunately, rather than examining their own prejudice, the white person’s compliment actually serves as a means of reinforcing the racist stereotype – “My opinion of black people is still correct.  You are the exception.”

Additionally, the backhanded compliment allows the white person to think well of themselves.  Why did I mention that the black woman in my story was articulate?  Was my motive to compliment her or to exhibit my graciousness?  This is especially common in progressive circles where white people seek to demonstrate their solidarity with people of color.  In 2007, Joe Biden once described Barack Obama as “articulate, bright, clean and a nice-looking guy.”  While Biden intended his remarks to be complimentary, they were rightly condemned as racist and he later apologized.  While all four qualifiers are suspicious, no one would ever compliment a white politician for being clean.

In my racist assertion, describing the black woman as articulate was completely unnecessary.  Whether I thought her articulate was irrelevant to the story.  She did not need my accolades as a preface.  Her worth was not enhanced by my approval.  If I had simply related her words, the power of her statement would have been obvious.

Rule #3

Describe the behaviors and impact of black people’s actions rather than offering qualifiers and adjectives.

Here is what that black woman said.  She told of how when she arrived in Africa for the very first time, a weight she’d never been aware of dropped from her shoulders. She was suddenly in a place where everyone around her was black, where she didn’t have to fear what the next white person she encountered might say or do.  She spoke of how incredibly freeing that had been, of how her health improved.  After two weeks of liberation, she arrived at the airport to go home.  She described how that burden of living in a white world fell heavily on her shoulders the moment she was greeted by the white flight attendant.

The proper response to such a story is empathy and personal reflection. Thankfully, on the day I heard that story, I did not add to her burden by telling her “how articulate she was.”

Black people don’t need our compliments.  They aren’t waiting with bated breath to see if the white person is going to approve of them.  They know how often those compliments are really insults.  Indeed, the giving of compliments is often paternalistic, implying that black people’s value is directly connected with how much they please the white people around them.  White people need to carefully check this impulse to re-center attention on our alleged superiority and graciousness.

It is usually about here in any discussion of backhanded racist compliments that some white person will say, “Well, if I’m going to have my every word scrutinized, I just won’t say anything.”  Which brings me to my final rule.

Rule #4

Since racism is so deeply embedded in white behavior, it would benefit white people to talk less and listen more.

Not saying anything is often the right response.

Appreciation and gratitude are better than compliments.  When your black waitress provides great service, remarking on her politeness isn’t appropriate.  Leaving a good tip is sufficient.  When a black man does excellent work, complimenting his “competence” is only slightly less insulting than calling him “a good boy.”  A simple “great work” will do.  A raise would be even better.  When a person of color speaks in a way that makes you think or feel differently, there is no need to compliment them for “being articulate.”  Simply tell them that their words made you see the world differently.

11 thoughts on “When Compliments Are Racist

  1. I have a dear friend who loves turtles. Turtles are a great metaphor for her as she is a retired police officer who wore a vest for many years. That vest was her protection. Not long ago I found a great purse with a large turtle on the front of it and knew it was a perfect gift for her. Being a police officer for many years she was not accustomed to carrying a purse so it was an adventure to take it with her on a shopping errand. My heart broke as she told me that she learned what that carrying a big purse brought attention to her that she had not experienced before and she found herself being followed through the store. It was not because of her cool turtle purse. It was because my friend was black. She also carries a retired officers badge and a concealed weapon. She was followed because a black woman with a big purse carrying a large purse might mean she is a shoplifter. I have a big purse and have not been followed through a store. I am white. I am sad.

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  2. My husband and I are white. I just saw Kamala Harris interviewed and she discussed the possibility that she may be named as Joe Biden’s running mate. She is my top choice and I was listing that attributes that she possesses that make her my favorite, including that she is articulate. I use this word often and it was not intended with the parenthetical “for a black woman.” My husband immediately pointed out that I should not use this descriptor in her case. And I see how it can be insulting (I think). Can you help me to better understand how I can navigate conversations like this?

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    1. This is a tough one and one I have struggled with personally, but every time I’ve used the term “articulate” to describe a black person in the presence of other black people, I have been challenged. This suggests, in our presence time, most black people hear the “for a black person” whether we intend that or not. I’ve had to learn that centering the discussion on my intentions is a whitecentric act. Centering the discussion on how I am heard by black people is being a respectful ally. I have also learned I can be complimentary in other ways. I can say, “When Kamala Harris speaks, I am inspired and encouraged.” That may sound like the same as “articulate” but notice how the compliment is more about her impact on me than my opinion and judgement of her – she is articulate. Perhaps there will come a day when calling a person of color “articulate” will no longer carry the same racist undertones, but we are not at that day yet.

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