No, I’m not “So Articulate,” You’re Just Ignorant
Earlier this week, at the end of a very long work day, I took a detour on the way home to get some extra work done at my local library. I found a comfortable spot near an outlet, popped in my headphones, and instantly began writing this Wednesday’s blogpost. I had my notes, my charger, and I was all set to knock the majority of the piece out before the library closed at 9:00pm. As I typed, I noticed an older woman enter the room, make slight eye contact with me, and approach the large table I was occupying.
“Excuse me,” she said. I took an earbud out. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
Now, this particular library is small compared to most, but there were plenty of other empty chairs and tables scattered about. It was one of those classic moments of Black life where one looks around the room and thinks, Really? Of all the places you could have sat in here, you chose to come right up to me? But, I’m not rude, and there were plenty of other seats at the table, so I said, “Sure, go right ahead.”
Although there was one seat available directly on my left, I was certain that she would at least be courteous enough to choose one of the six spots that were available from end-to-end across from me, or one of the five to my right. But, of course, she chose the seat right next to me, on my left. Before you ask, yes, she is.
Slightly annoyed, but still being respectful, I put my earbud back in and continue typing.
“My air conditioning’s out, and they can’t fix it until Monday, so it’s hanging out at the library during the day until it gets fixed…well, until it closes,” she mentions.
“Oh…okay…” I nod awkwardly and continue typing, raising my eyebrows slightly.
A moment passes. I start to think she’s finally observed that I’m trying to work and finished trying to force conversation where it is not warranted, but then she notices my notes sitting between us.
She does the familiar one-finger point people use when they’re pretending like they’re asking for your attention, although they fully plan on taking it whether you consent or not.
“Um, ah. Are you writing something for school?”
“No ma’am. I’m writing for my blog,” I answer flatly. She is all too elated at my response….Great, I think to myself.
“Oh, a blog! You have a blog? That’s very interesting, well, how do those work? Do you just send out what you write, or do you post it somewhere, how do those get started?”
At this point, my earbud is just hanging, and I know that my face is saying, “Girl, I know you see that I am busy.”
I give a dry answer for her way-too-enthusiastic questions and attempt to make it clear nonverbally that I have things to do and she is interfering with my tasks. But, in a typical subconscious white-privilege, my-time-and-interest-is-more-important-than-yours-right-now move, she continues to talk.
General questions about blogs turns into questions about what mine covers; whether I know if my readers are registered to vote “…because I work with the voters coalition and it’s such a scary time;” to switching names (which I had to repeat 5 times throughout the unwanted discussion); which ultimately transitioned into her feeling comfortable enough to begin recounting past discussions with her white male friends who just feel so lost, confused, uncertain, and afraid with all that is happening today.
Ah, so this is why you came over here, I think silently. You saw a young, Black woman with big, natural hair minding her Black business in a predominantly white library, and felt inclined to pick her brain.
I sit back in my seat, fold my hands, and allow her to finish her spiel. She makes the mistake of asking what I think about her friends’ fears, unaware that my passiveness has expired.
“Well,” I begin, “…my question for heterosexual white men who are just so undone and scared in this time, is: Are you really afraid of people having an equal chance to do the things that you do and access to the things you have access to? Or, are you more afraid that equal representation and access to those various things will expose your own incompetence, complicate your own access, make you work harder, or force you to realize that you’re way more fragile than you thought?”
I revel in the shocked look on her face. She is stunned, especially at the passion in my voice during the last sentence. “W-well, I don’t think it’s that they are incompetent, but how interesting,” she says before elaborating on comments she’s heard from “Black guys,” as well.
Isn’t it interesting to observe the language that white people use to describe different races? Earlier, she so vividly told me about the feelings of the white “men” that she knows, but now Black males in the same room are just “guys.” Hm…anyway…
My face when she said Black “guys.”
She shoots the breeze a bit more, and finally I am able to begin working again. She appears to go back to her book, but then of course raises her head to tell me about that, too.
“This book,” she motions to the cover, “it’s called ‘How Democracies Die…’” (I can see that, Karen), “…And it’s by these two Harvard researchers. I’m in this interesting section where they discuss E.B. White, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with him. Ah, he wrote something….The Spider and the Pig?”
“I think you mean Charlotte’s Web,” I correct her. I kid you not, she actually said the Spider and the Pig. Cue eye roll #101…
“Oh! Yes, that’s the one,” she says through nervous and embarrassed laughter. I continue looking at her unabashedly like Stanley from The Office.
She continues to fumble and motions as if she now wants me to read this passage as this next segment of this forced interaction. Instead of turning up as I had every right to do by this point, I remain patient because I have a feeling that something is coming. When asked (barely) If I’d like to take a look, I sigh and, within seconds, I’m finished with the page & a half asserting that America was founded on democracy, but will never be the great nation it claims to be until democracy is applied to all. She asks what I think.
Without flinching, I serve her another helping of my unapologetic and unbothered commentary. “As a woman who is a part of several marginalized populations all at once, I cannot agree more with their comments. Yes, America claims to be a democratic country, but it will NEVER reach its full potential until democracy is applied to ALL, across lines of race, class, gender, etc., EQUALLY.”
My statement is firm, succinct, and it is clear that I am done playing this game of “Let’s See How Smart the Black Girl is.”
The librarian announces that library will close in 30 minutes, on the intercom above us.
Then, she does it.
“You’re so articulate!” she beams, as though being able to express myself clearly is worthy of an Olympic medal. My insides began to burn with offense.
See, I had figured out that Karen was ignorant from the moment she chose to sit next to me without respect of my personal space or the work I was in the middle of when she arrived. I knew that her interactions with Black people were extremely limited by her uncertainty about how to communicate with me, and how she referred to those Black “guys” earlier, but even more so after she had the audacity to tell me so outright. I had also already determined that Karen is a white woman who probably thinks she’s progressive, and truly believed that she was just sparking innocent conversation, but that she’s really just as problematic as many of her counterparts because she really thought that this interaction needed to be this complex. I knew all of this, but was still taken aback when she let those foul, insulting words pass through her lips.
“You’re so articulate,” rang unwelcomed in my head once more, but then she added, “By the way, what do you do?” Karen looked satisfied as if my customer service background perfectly explains why I am so well spoken.
I wanted to say, “No, I can talk to you and lose you in sentences because I am intelligent and well-studied, NOT because of where I work!” But once again, regrettably, I refrained.
Karen asked me to write down my blog’s web address because I guess she is interested in checking out yet another thing which, like my time and patience, is not for her. I scoff, and write it down, only because I knew that I would write about our interaction and I hope that she sees it. She finally offers a pleasant goodbye and leaves. As soon as she is away from the table, I regret that I didn’t give her the educational tongue lashing that she deserved. I have never in my life wanted to rewind a few moments as badly as I have since that day.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I usually never allow people to get away with making that remark. I am certain that the ONLY reason Karen didn’t get her bowl-cut verbally snatched off in the middle of the Louisville Free Public Library on Tuesday night, is because I haven’t been hit with “You’re so articulate,” in such a long time. Since college, I have become accustomed to being surrounded by, and in social circles with, other educated people who also speak proper English and articulate their thoughts better than a banana. Therefore, this interaction caught me off guard. Also, at one point a part of me figured that Karen had expelled enough micro-aggressions for one night and that she was finished. But, since I was wrong and missed my chance to educate Karen then, I’ll do it now.
Don’t get me wrong, “You’re so articulate,” is certainly not the worst thing a white person can say to a Black person, and I understand that Karen didn’t mean it in malice. But in a conversation that was already filled with tons of subtle micro-aggressions masked with a smile before that, this comment was just the tip of the iceberg for me and showed that this is a conversation that needs to be had. White people far too often enter conversations with Black people and then openly express their surprise at our intelligence. In our society, open intelligence is often stereotypically regarded as a “white thing,” that is held by white people. This is incorrect, of course, but because of that stereotype, some white people end up in conversations like mine with Karen and don’t know how to act appropriately. THAT is my issue. We need to change this logic to prevent these types of micro-aggressions from continuing.
So, Karen, if you’re reading this, print a copy. Please practice what not to say to Black people, and pass it along to your counterparts.
For the millionth time, telling African Americans or other People of Color (PoC) that they “are so articulate,” is NOT a compliment…no matter how nicely you say it or how sincere you may be. I appreciate that you think you are complimenting me by saying this, but the fact of the matter is that you do not sound complimentary at all; instead, you sound highly misinformed and ignorant. By using this statement, what you are actually saying is that you looked at me and did not expect me to have the mental capacity or skills to articulate my thoughts just as easily and eloquently as you do. You are admitting that you took one look at me and automatically doubted that I would be able to carry on a conversation with you. Which means that you are also communicating a subconscious belief in your own superiority. You are exposing that you think less of me, without even knowing or speaking to me, and were not prepared for me to conduct myself in a non-stereotypical way. In essence, you are admitting your racial bias and that is not okay. What I urge you to do, henceforth, is learn how to choose your words more wisely, and if you do not know what to say to someone, then do not say anything at all. Take your good intentioned, but tone-deaf comments somewhere else because you are entirely out of line.
Lastly, I am aware that people like me sometimes stand out in your often white washed worldview, but I am no less human than you are. Nor am I a case study, object of interest, or experimental subject for you to analyze. I am a person, and so is everyone else like me. We expect to be treated and respected as such. So from now on, respect our space, time, and humanity, the same way that you expect others to acknowledge yours. Do better, Karen, and stay in your non-air-conditioned lane.