When “Articulate” Isn’t a Compliment

Ethar El-Katatney recently wrote a piece on Medium called “I’m tired of hijab.” Though I’ve not worn hijab full-time in about ten years, so much of what she said resonated with my memories of being a covered teenager. People were surprised (and sometimes also displeased) that I did things like cuss when I stubbed my toe, quote liberally from songs like Baby Got Back, and participate in the school limbo assembly. The line that stood out to me the most?

“I’m tired of being the token ‘omg-look-such-an-articulate-awesome-non-stereotypical hijabi!'”

That word. Articulate. The same one a teacher at my high school used to describe my participation in the annual interfaith panel (my first and last such panel as a Muslim). The word made me bristle, even then, though I wasn’t sure why.

According to the venerable OED, “articulate” means “having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently.” So how could being called “articulate” be a thinly-veiled (and probably unconsciously-given) insult? As always, the answer lies in context.

I wasn’t the highest-scoring or highest grade-earning student at my highly competitive high school, but I was hardly some kind of underacheiver or slacker. I easily earned As in my English courses and took honors and AP classes all four years. I managed to maintain a decent GPA despite lacking in the family, private tutoring, and sometimes chemical help upon which many of my peers relied for their 4.0+s. Outside of straightforward academics, I regularly participated in debate, theater, and public speaking, and read so voraciously that all the librarians knew me by name and by taste.

The interfaith panel I was on included four students: a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu, and myself as a Sunni Muslim. We were chosen from a pool of students where I represented the median, not the pinnacle, of student potential and achievement.  The ability to speak fluently and coherently was less than a requirement among the four of us, it was expected; the actual requirements for selection went far beyond “can say words well in front of people.” We weren’t just articulate for high school students, we were the most articulate of some very extraordinarily articulate and intelligent young people.

Yet there I was. My ability to communicate, one on par with you would expect from a student chosen from many other students to speak for her religious community, was all that teacher had to say by way of praise for me. The Jewish student was praised for his ability to navigate tricky questions about Israel. Compliments for the Christian and Hindu girls, respectively, were equally specific and content-related. For me? I was “that Muslim girl in the headscarf — so articulate“, complete with emphasis and a slight note of surprise.

I wonder — what else did she expect? A blathering ball of nerves unable to sound out a single coherent syllable? Why was my ability to speak clearly and well so remarkable? The truth is that she expected something less from me than what she expected from the unveiled students, and when I proved myself to be their equal, that teacher found herself in an uncomfortable position.

Praising people for exceeding your suppressed expectations of them is not compliment. It is calling the current elected leader of the United States well-spoken and smart, as if you wouldn’t expect that from someone with his CV (Black Americans have been struggling with the very word I found myself being perplexed by for decades now). It is in the infinite variations on the “I don’t usually find [insert group here] attractive but you’re pretty” pick-up line, spoken as if insulting everyone else in that group is praise for the person being “complimented.” Lowering the bar due to perceptions of religion and/or race then praising the person for stepping over it, as you would expect from anyone else, is insulting.

When “Articulate” Isn’t a Compliment
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7 thoughts on “When “Articulate” Isn’t a Compliment

  1. 3

    It’s a question of what the “articulate” attribute relates, too. Labeling a person as “articulate” without further detail — that’s just “able to talk coherently”. Describing a person’s arguments “articulately” made or them as an articulate advocate of something — that’s actual acknowledgement for being a skilled debater and good at making points in a persuasive manner, i.e. someone well worth listening to.
    IMHO the difference is subtle but important, especially to the very people these things get said about (after all, they’re good with words because they’re aware of nuances in meaning), and sometimes I wonder how much of this subtlety is lost on the people who call others articulate, such as your teacher…

  2. 4

    “Praising people for exceeding your suppressed expectations of them is not compliment. It is calling the current elected leader of the United States well-spoken and smart, as if you wouldn’t expect that from someone with his CV”

    While I agree with you about how “articulate” is often not a compliment, I think that some of the people who called Barack Obama “well-spoken”, “smart”, and “articulate” (at least back in 2007-2008) can be forgiven. At the time I thought they were comparing him less to what they expected from other black people and more to what they had come to expect from president Bush.

    1. 4.1

      This isn’t about forgiveness or blame. I’m sorry if I said or implied that it was. As for Bush, he was less skilled than ought to be expected from someone with his CV, so I still think it’s odd that people called Obama “articulate.”

      1. It is in my considerable experience in the South, that Articulate has always been a code word for “a smarter than average [ethnic slur]” where [ethnic slur] is just any non white person, coupled with the implicit or explicit statement that obviously non white people were on average less intelligent than white people.

        So it has never surprised me at all that Obama was described as Articulate, because that word actually means to many many many people, even Democrats in the south, “He is black, and he isn’t a complete idiot (unlike most black people).” Though as a white person, I got probably a fairly large amount of insight into people explicitly stating what their racist code words meant, because when I was confused and asked them what they meant, they actually told me honestly.

  3. 5

    No need to apologize. Perhaps I should be apologizing. (Sorry). I don’t think you implied it was about blame or forgiveness. My “some…can be forgiven” was more of a figure of speech/turn of phrase than me trying to make a counter-argument. I don’t disagree with you. I was just remembering Obama’s first presidential campaign and how embarrassed many people were by Bush as president. Certainly the contrast between Obama and other black people was (and remains) relevant (and problematic for the reasons you mention). But in the particular and peculiar case of Obama, I think the contrast between him and Bush was also relevant.

    Speaking of relevance (and segues)… I could go on but my babbling would get less and less relevant to the context of this blog post. I’m glad I was able to stop myself here (or at least edit myself down to this).

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