Saturday, February 03, 2007

postal scrotum: on merit, race, etc.

Richardson writes:


I'd like to point out one element of society where merit rather than race is a far greater determinate of advancement; the military. It's not perfect, but it is vastly more equal than most Americans will ever realize.


Jelly writes:

Hi Kevin!

I was just reading your most recent post, and I felt like commenting. Alas, no comments - so I'm emailing.

I think maybe I don't understand what you're talking about. If I were to meet a black person who was articulate, I shouldn't describe them as such because it might be interpreted as racist? I don't get that. Just to be on the sure side, I looked up the definition of the word, and it's described as "expressing oneself readily, clearly, or effectively."

I've met a lot of people in my life, and I couldn't break it down into percentages, but it seems like I'm sadly unimpressed when I meet a soul who isn't able to express themselves readily. Or clearly. And, especially effectively. I've met a great many people who can't/won't talk, or can talk, and do - at length - yet without clarity or effectiveness. If I were to describe a white person as articulate - that's ok, but a black person - not so? I don't get it. If the person is articulate, can't I just say that - without being thought of as a racist? What if that person is inarticulate? Then I'm just judgemental?

I don't know what to say about Joe Biden's description of Barack Obama as being "clean." It's a strange adjective. However, I watched something on TV just tonight where Bono described himself as "hot." He then corrected himself, after hearing laughter from the audience, to say that he meant "hot" in the Irish sense. (I still don't know what he meant, but assume he wasn't reffering to himself as one hot piece of Irish ass - and he wasn't, initially anyways. He made a joke afterwards.) So Buddy's use of "clean," I don't know. "Articulate," however, I'll buy.

Paris Hilton? Shhhhessssh. You tied it in to your post,....but I don't see how one socialite's idiot comments (I mean seriously, what a fucking moron she is. Maybe she felt she hasn't been garnering enough of the Idiot Worldwide Vapid Press Media attention, so she needs to drop some N-Bombs. Fucking tool.) It's overt (because she'd an idiot) racism versus unintentional perhaps implied racism. And still - I'm not sure where the line is supposed to lie. Or why.

Kevin, no one is ever going to tell me I'm "almost Korean" because of my language ability. My Korean language skills suck. However, I've been told many times, "You are almost Korean" because of my love for Korean food. (My specific love of Korean food - ie. kimchi - old and strong - or various foods I love, where most foreigners hate.)

Is that racism?


Jelly wrote:

If I were to meet a black person who was articulate, I shouldn't describe them as such because it might be interpreted as racist? I don't get that.

I can't imagine myself having a conversation with anyone-- of any race-- and suddenly remarking, "You know, you're so articulate!" I suppose there are people out there who would take such a comment as sincere praise, but if I had lived the past thirty or so years of life being fairly articulate, I might be a bit surprised by someone's pointing that fact out to me, as if it were a startling discovery, something worth mentioning. By extension, making such a remark to other people after my interlocutor has left would feel equally gauche.

I focused on "He's so articulate" because that line is a frequent topic among black comedians, who in my opinon have done a good thing by raising awareness in the non-black public of how black folks view such a comment. The remark has a specific history in America that makes it grate on the African-American ear, and you'd think a liberal Democrat like Senator Biden would know better than to say what he said. As with so many things, context matters. Take the word "boy," for example-- a perfectly harmless word in most circumstances, but when it's spoken by a 15-year-old white kid to a sixty-year-old black man, that syllable suddenly carries with it centuries' worth of venom.

I tentatively agree that one can legitimately praise anyone for being articulate; such praise can, perhaps, occur in innocuous contexts. But in the specific case of Biden-Obama, I found myself cringing. As I mentioned, though, Biden offered a plausible explanation for his comment, so perhaps he has managed to spin himself out of the danger zone. The larger media-related issue is more complex than the specific issue I was dealing with in my previous post: if, say, the conservative pundits and media decide to pound Biden relentlessly for his remark, then they will only make themselves look small-minded and opportunistic, exploiting what may have been an honest slip in order to score points with their own political base.

Regarding being "almost Korean": yes, it's meant as a compliment, and I generally accept it as such. But it's a compliment rooted in a certain species of condescension. I suppose one could counterargue that all compliments betray some sort of condescension, but the philosophy of complimenting sounds like a post for another time. I'll have to let that one percolate before I can write a clean, articulate spiel about it.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hah! Comments! You've opened the floodgates!

Some people are more articulate than others, and it seems perfectly reasonable to acknowledge that, and we do, by saying they're articulate. After some thought, I think it's interesting that I don't know that I've ever seen it done as a face-to-face compliment, and I don't know that it would be taken by anyone as a compliment if said directly to them. However, one could say, about something someone just said, "That was very articulate", and that would be a compliment. And we do say, about a third party, "He (or she) is very articulate" as a compliment. Given that Obama is particularly articulate, even (especially?) for a politician--says interesting things in a clear way that often makes one see things in a slightly new slant--it's plausible to me that Biden may have only meant that.

The historical context is there, and definitely makes things more difficult in some ways. Why should one be able to call Cuomo articulate (as many have done), but not Obama? Is it more racist to ignore the history and say it, or bow to the history and carefully eschew paying that particular compliment to any black person? I ask in a spirit of open inquiry.

And the "clean"? Maybe he meant "clean for a politician"--meaning because he's relatively new to the national scene, he doesn't have as much political baggage as more experienced politicians such as, say--Biden. I'm not saying that's what he did mean, mind you--who knows?--just that there are non-pejorative interpretations possible.

We all say things awkwardly at times, and maybe--maybe--that's all that was going on with Biden. Which would mean Biden was not being very articulate at the time. Given the choice between being considered racist, and being considered somewhat inarticulate, presumably he'd choose the latter. Given the option, which the conservative press is unlikely to give him.