A smart Puerto Rican

I’m sure that most everyone has already heard about Sen. Joseph Biden’s inspired description of Sen. Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” As if we needed yet another ignorant white presidential candidate. Less reported was that the current ignorant white president made similar remarks on Fox News, describing Obama as attractive and articulate.

Much has been written about the incident and the true meaning of those words, both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere (which I’ve been too busy to keep tabs on lately, so I unfortunately won’t be linking to any of the wise words that I’m sure my favorite bloggers have written on the topic.) Today I read two good pieces on the incident; from the New York Times, ” The Racial Politics of Speaking Well,” and another spotted on the blackfolk LiveJournal Community, entitled “An Inarticulate Kickoff.”

Both articles discuss how the frequent labeling of certain Black folks as “articulate” belies racist undertones. First, it indicates a certain degree of surprise that a Black person is intelligent or well-spoken – as if this is an anomaly, rather than something as commonplace as, say, a white person possessing the same qualities. As Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment at BET, is quoted in the NY Times article, “It’s like an educated black person is a rare sighting, like seeing a spotted egret. We’re viewed as a fluke. How many flukes simply constitute reality?” (A spotted egret! Gotta love it.)

The articles also discuss how the “articulate” label is reserved only for Black folks who are not just well-spoken, but well-spoken in a very particular way. From the Times:

… such distinctions discount as inarticulate historically black patterns of speech. “Al Sharpton is incredibly articulate,” said Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. “But because he speaks with a cadence and style that is firmly rooted in black rhetorical tradition you will rarely hear white people refer to him as articulate.”

And from the piece by Eugene Robinson:

What’s intriguing is that Jackson and Sharpton are praised as eloquent, too — both men are captivating speakers who calibrate their words with great precision. But neither is often described as, quote, articulate. Apparently, something disqualifies them.

I realize the word is intended as a compliment, but it’s being used to connote a lot more than the ability to express one’s thoughts clearly. It’s being used to say more, even, than “here’s a black person who speaks standard English without a trace of Ebonics.”

The word articulate is being used to encompass not just speech but a whole range of cultural cues — dress, bearing, education, golf handicap. It’s being used to describe a black person around whom white people can be comfortable, a black person who not only speaks white America’s language but is fluent in its body language as well.

And the word is often pronounced with an air of surprise, as if it’s an improbable and wondrous thing that a black person has somehow cracked the code. I can’t help but think of the famous quote from Samuel Johnson: “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

I’ve had quite a few of my own experiences with being labeled exceptional or articulate in a such a way that the words “… for a Puerto Rican,” though left unsaid, came through loud and clear. The first such incident that I remember came in high school, when a white acquaintance was thoroughly surprised to hear that I was Puerto Rican, because I didn’t sound like other Puerto Ricans she’d encountered. When I asked what she meant, she said something to the effect of “you know, you sound smart.” My budding racial consciousness was offended, but I more saddened to hear almost the exact same thing from a coworker at McDonald’s a few years later – this time, another woman of color.

My mother, who was born in Puerto Rico and was poor for much of her life, likes to jokingly say that she’s a “smart Puerto Rican,” usually in response to some ignorant white jerk acting the racist fool towards her. The joke relies on “smart” and “Puerto Rican” being somehow contradictory. She’s always been extremely insistent that I learn “proper English, discouraging any slang or “street talk,” correcting me every time I said “yeah” instead of “yes” and whenever she thought she heard me leave the “be” off of “because.” It wasn’t enough that I knew the rules of English grammar and could speak and write within those rules when in an academic or work setting; it was a constant requirement, even in casual speech.

I never sounded anything like cousins my age, whose parents weren’t similarly obsessed and couldn’t afford to send them to private school, like my parents could. Language was among many things that created a cultural gulf between me and them, that made me something of a weirdo in my family. My mother was indeed raising me to be fluent in white America’s language, both the spoken language and the body language, because to her, that was the key to my success.

And was she wrong? Probably not. When it came time for college interviews and applications, and later, job interviews, none of my abundant nervousness was about my ability to speak or write; I know that I can talk the talk, and talk it well.

However, in cracking the code of white America, I think there’s also a great deal to be lost. I’m fluent in “standard” English, but when it comes to Spanish, I’m left struggling to express myself. I can understand a great deal, though with some effort, but I can’t speak very well at all, despite it being my family’s native tongue, and despite having studied it for four years in high school and a semester in college. Usually, I’m too ashamed at my lack of skill to even attempt to speak Spanish to Latino strangers. When I meet a white person who can speak Spanish better than me, that shame and frustration becomes tinged with anger. And that feeling of being the weirdo of the family never quite went away (though being a politicized, butch, raging homo might have something to do with it, too.) Class, education, and cultural differences all add up to a significant amount of privilege that most of my family – and far too many Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and people of color in general – will never be able to access.

But while that privilege affords me many an opportunity and many a comfort, it comes at a price: a distance, a disconnection, a weirdo status. I’ve got all sorts of deep down insecurities about being perceived as “too white” and “not Puerto Rican enough” by other people of color. The racism that we’ve internalized tells us that to be highly educated, upwardly mobile, and well versed in the rules of English grammar is to be white, or at least closer to white; that these are things that are not really meant for us; that, if we possess or attain these things, we have in fact lost a little of ourselves, our authenticity, our connection to our people. And mostly, that’s just racist bullshit meant to keep us down; but in another, sad way, because of a certain trade off that can exist between cracking the code and preserving your ties to your culture and your people, it’s true.

15 Responses to “A smart Puerto Rican”


  1. 1 nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez

    great post. a lot resonated with me.

  2. 2 nexyjo

    this is an excellent analysis. there’s a billboard right down the street from my house that says “he’s an articulate black man” in bold white letters, with the strikethru in red across the “articulate”. it sparked conversation between my hubby and me on several occasions. he was definately starting to get it, but when i showed him your post, i saw the lightbulb turn on above his head. thanks for the great post.

  3. 3 Thirza

    My mom never let me speak in slang either, she didn’t want me to seem uneducated. And I always hated it when someone told me I was smart in a surprised voice. I know what you mean about feeling like it’s a departure from our cultures. Although I think, well, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but sometimes it seems that the native community up here in Canada is getting more accepting of the divergent lives of say, someone who went into academia vs someone who lived on the streets (or someone who lived on the streets and then went into academia). It’s a class thing I guess, but I feel like the class differences don’t create such strong barriers in Native communities compared to white communities. I’ll have to think about that more though.

  4. 4 Boricua

    I’m happy that we can share this sensitive subject. It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life being a Puerto Rican who speaks proper English. Ask yourself, and anyone else who seems confused about the concept, since when does white (or black for that matter) America hold a patent on proper English?

  5. 5 latemodel

    If you seek to be insulted,you will find. Get over yourself. Your writing is only fair. When the comparison is to Sharpton and Jackson, then yes, Obama is articulate.

  6. 6 Jack

    thanks, yo. glad to hear it resonated.

  7. 7 Jack

    thanks! always happy to help turn on lightbulbs.

  8. 8 Jack

    i feel like it’s not even a departure from culture so much as a disconnect from community. like, if you’re attaining this level of education or living in these ways that are so different from the rest of your community, largely due to racism and classism, then there’s this kind of disconnect that comes with “success.” and since success is so largely based on standards set up by a racist society that privileges white values and culture above everything else… you’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  9. 9 Jack

    thanks for reading and sharing, fellow boricua. :-)

    white america definitely shouldn’t hold that patent – but it does. in order to learn “proper” English, you’ve got to be lucky enough to get a decent education, and we know that many youth of color are getting sub-par educations. so how exactly are they supposed to learn the rules of the language that they need to speak in order to achieve “success” in our society?

  10. 10 Jack

    can you demonstrate exactly why or how Obama is more “articulate” than Sharpton or Jackson? both are skilled orators by any standards. how, exactly, are you defining “articulate?” (whatever way you are, clearly i’m not up to your standards, with my writing that is “only fair.” luckily, i’m not too broken up about not making your grade.)

  11. 11 Karim

    Such an amazing post. I totally agree with all that you had to say.

  12. 12 nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez

    i think latemodel finds obama more articulate because he doesn’t speak as much from his diaphragm, like sharpton and jackson. all that terrifying Black Man Timbre probably makes latemodel wanna cry.

  13. 13 Ms. Pet

    In my understanding…

    “Articulation,” is White Power Code for “Passes the final test of “whiteness,” thus Superiority in English Colonialist White Supremacist Though/Society.

    Language Skill/Ability = Intelligence is the myth ((scientifically proven false, countless times)) that is used to distinguish the Superior and thus “pure,” Whites from the obviously inferior in ability (Ablism) and therefor economics (Classism) of trash who happens to have caucasian skin.

    When they start talking about his “articulation,” it basically means he’s reached two thirds of the three main pillars that make up ‘White,” under the English White Supremacist Power Structure.

    He’s rich (class), he’s mastered the “Articulation,” which includes: pronounciation, enunciation, rhythm, and to be “proper,” softness, ie: NOT speaking from your diagphragm ((one of the things that makes us white folks so anal)), etc. NOT just the proper words, semantics but more importantly HOW those words are spoken.

    Since he is rich (Class) and has the Language Ability = Intellectual Superiority (Ability/Disability) there is only two choices:

    1. Acknowledge his skin color as black and thereby acknowledge that the root of our beliefs, perspectives, etc. White supremacy is fals OR

    2. Declare him…White. (Regardless of the color of his skin)

    They are saying to White Middle/Upper Classes, “Don’t worry about his skin color, why look how he talks! No Colored Person could speak so superiorily, trust us…he’s White and no threat to you or our power.”

    It’s this weird denial thing middle/upper whites collectively do. Denial is used when the psyche can’t deal with the truth staring them in the face. They can’t deal with the fact that he’s black and has money and language therefor intellectual ability of by their definition “superior,” quality and so…we need to be made to believe that this person is…White Like Us.

    It’s kind of a “flex clause,” built into White Supremacist Ideology to deal with any people of color who might exhibit class and ability skills either equal or superior to whites. Same thing happens with poor whites…

    If your a poor white, and you master the Language= Intellect (Ability) and obviously have Caucasian skin, again two thirds of the Ability, Class, Race triad, you go from being labelled “White Trash,”

    to “Genteel Poor.”

    ” White trash was a unique case within this larger culture of systemic racism. Everyone was non-white by virtue of the fact that they were poor, because by definition to be white was to be economically, socially and biologically superior…It became a group identity used widely in discussing race politics for the next 150 years. Within this structure there were Whites, Blacks, White Trash and other non-whites. ” http://kpearson.faculty.tcnj.edu/Dictionary/white_trash.htm

    The author quoted is speaking from an American Perspective of course. In Canada the term “White Trash,” refers to whites on welfare, disability, “the system,” and generally, the left, Punk leaning ones. The Brits use another word, but the similiarity is, poor whites are considered, by those on the left and the right of the middle/upper classes to be inferior and therefor unspoken today but still understood subconsciously, “non-white,” or at least “impure, untrue,” Whites. “Redneck,” is used to describe the conservative ones. However…

    In English White Supremacist Canada, historically French Canadians, having caucasian skin, were considered “non-whites,” inferior and “trash,” due to their Intellectual Inferiority as proved by their poor…English Language Skills.

    Still to this day, Collectively speaking, English Canadians consider themselves to be superior culturally to French Canadians due to Language. Not what IS said but rather…HOW it is said….ARTICULATION. Speak from the diagphragm = loud and LOUD = Inferior. There is a specifc rhythm, pronounciation, enunciation, tone, and use of inferred language, or “code,” saying one thing to mean another that must be mastered in order to be a “superior,” and thus “pure,” White.

    Between English and French Canada, racism is fought through language not skin color. Skin Color is then used in both cultures against people of color. But whether it’s language or skin color it falls down to Race, Ability and Class.

    The French, (race) cannot seem to master articulating proper english, (ability) therefor they are less intelligent and this is the cause for their poverty. (class)

    African Americans(race) cannot seem to master articulating proper english, (ability) therefor they are less intelligent and this is the cause for their poverty. (class)

    Obama has mastered how to “speak white,” better then most white people, therefor, since no person of color can be equal or superior to a white without completely destroying White supremacist Ideology…he’s “Articulate,” as in, “Not a true Black.”

    That’s this white trash femme’s understanding of the message being sent.

    *************
    I’m poor White Trash Femme with Disabilites, English Canadian, born and raised upper middle class, lived soon to be 20 years on the system due to Ability issues, which include disabilities that affect communication and language skill. And sorry, I might do malapropisms, mispronounce words, even choose the wrong word and all this means is my ability to communicate through language is..disabled or lessened in some way, it doesn’t mean…I’m of poor intelligence.

    P.S. Love your Blog!

  14. 14 joyann bradley

    Excellent post. I can relate. By marriage, I have an English (Bradley) last name. I am Puerto Rican. I can’t tell you how many times I have said, “I am Puerto Rican” and I get the surprised reaction…”REALLY? I would have never guessed, I thought you were Italian *or something”. I have even honestly had someone say, “You don’t act Puerto Rican”.

  15. 15 Malia

    Wow. Finally, someone just like me. My father is from Honduras and never taught me Spanish. I’m White looking, so when I tell them I’m going to visit my grandmoth in Honduras in a week, they ask if she’s an ex-pat. :(

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