Unpack This!

A heartful guide to navigating microaggressions

“You’re so articulate!”

Q: I’m a dark skinned, black person with college educated parents and a college degree. I’m met again and again with surprise from white people about the way I talk and the assumption that it means something about my intelligence and my character. What can I say to them that would begin to open their eyes to the fact that their assumptions are racist?

A: I’m hearing how deeply frustrated you feel that people are surprised when you speak in a way they don’t assume is typical of black people. I can imagine so many reasons for your frustration. I’m wondering if you want to live in a world where people’s expectations of who you are and what capacities you have are not determined by how you look and what your ethnicity is? I can imagine how painful it is, even as you receive what seems to be a compliment, to wonder – are they really responding to something specific I said or did that was truly meaningful for them, or is this compliment simply a reflection of their surprise that a black person spoke the way I did. I can imagine how hard it is to trust this kind of feedback, not knowing what it’s based on, when you don’t know what it means.
One of the challenges for you or those of us who receive these comments is that we don’t actually know where the speaker is coming from. That dilemma, that uncertainty, is at the heart of the experience of microaggressions. We don’t know the person’s intentions, but there’s a grey area where we’ve experienced the speaker’s intention both ways. I’ve had people say to me, “You’re so articulate!” And follow it with, “You don’t sound like a black person.” A different person started the sentence the same way, but followed it with, “I love the care you put into choosing the exact nuanced word for each concept – it’s fun to meet another person who loves language the way I do.” You can imagine how those two statements are so different for me – one stimulating anger and pain over my deep longing for me and other black people to be fully seen; the other leading to excitement about finding a kindred spirit.  When someone leads with, “You’re so articulate” I don’t know where they’re coming from. And so I worry. If I speak up, will they think I’m just being sensitive, just being that Angry Black Person? What if they really are touched by something I said?
Another aspect that makes this phrase so challenging is the implication of what it can mean about black people. So often, there is this stereotype in the United States of what it means to be black. And in your naming of your parents’ and your educational achievement, I hear your desire to have these achievements be seen and acknowledged.  I can imagine that there’s a balance you’d love to see, where people don’t automatically assume a lack of education when they see a black person, while at the same time maintain awareness of the structural barriers that continue to make getting that education a challenge in the US. I think we all get why assuming every black person we see is uneducated would be a huge problem. I want to speak to the other side – the problem of focusing solely on the individual merit of a black person who has achieved advanced academic goals.
I’ve seen people celebrate black people because they went to college or had a job. These behaviors are seen not only as laudable, but as unusual for a black person. People judge the black person who achieved these goals as being a “good” black person, someone who did something right. While it may be true that a smaller percent of black people than white people have attended college or have a job, praise of the individual black person who achieves these goals can minimize the structural inequities that black people experience in the U.S.
The lower rate of black people going to college has to do with a host of structural factors. Black youth receive more severe infractions, including suspension and expulsion, for the same behaviors than white youth do, leading to black youth missing more school and having a harder time getting into college if they do persist and apply. Black families have less wealth to pay for college because of current conditions like earning less money for the same work, and are also dealing with the continuing impact of historical inequities, like redlining and the forcible ejection of black people from their property and towns in some parts of the US.
Focusing on the individual black person to the exclusion of the contemporary and historical contexts giving rise to our current situation makes it seem that we all succeed or fail on our own merit and character, perpetuates the myth that there are the good, industrious black people and the bad, lazy black people, and ignores the social structures that make it so hard for many folks to achieve certain measures of success no matter how hard they work.
So, what can you do when someone says this to you? 
Check in with yourself. In this moment, do you have the energy and resources, the desire to work on this relationship or put energy into helping the other person understand what it was like for you to hear what they said? It’s not always there. If you’re exhausted or heart-broken, if you won’t be seeing the speaker again and don’t expect to have an ongoing relationship, one option is to simply walk away, give yourself some empathy, or call a friend who gets it and can help you process what was triggered for you in a supportive way.
But sometimes when we check in, we find that sharing our authenticity is what is most important in that moment. It could be that you want to share what’s really going on inside you hearing those words because you have hopes it might lead to a stronger connection with the speaker. Or, maybe you just want the relief of being known, for once, about how painful this repeated experience is , even if you’re not hoping to repair the relationship. In that case, you might choose to speak up, share your truth.  You can name your impact without attributing intention to the speaker. “I’ve had people say that to me and tell me they said it out of surprise at hearing a black person talk like I do. When I heard you, that memory got stirred up again, along with my frustration that we still live in a world where people have stereotypes about what black people are capable of. I don’t know yet what your intention was in saying that, but do you get why that was hard for me to hear? ”
When you share the impact of what was said, it can take some skill to keep the focus on the impact and not shift to focus on the other person’s intention before you get the sense you’ve been heard. My suggestion is to continue to advocate for a reflection from the speaker until you have trust you’ve been fully seen for the impact you experienced, until any mourning or pain that wants to be expressed has been expressed. And, at that point, you can choose whether or not you still have the resources to hear from them what their intention actually was.
If you are now drained, you can let them know that you can imagine there’s stuff coming up for them, and that you don’t have the resources to attend to it. You can make an agreement to meet at another time to hear what’s up for them (if it truly serves you to do so), or you can encourage them to think of folks who can offer them support. This can seem harsh and radical, but it’s changing a pattern that happens all too often when microaggressions occur. The pattern is one where the person impacted puts energy and time into ensuring the person who did the act feels better, is seen for their intention, regardless of the cost to the person impacted.
If we trust that people have many opportunities to get support and are resilient even in the absence of external support, we remove the demand that the person impacted must find the energy and resources to take care of the very person who stimulated their pain.  The speaker can find others to help them understand (if they haven’t already), why their words were painful to you, or to empathize with the very real pain that they might experience when their intentions are not seen. Empathy and understanding for the speaker doesn’t have to come at the cost of choice, care and healing for the one impacted. Instead, we can create a space for authentic dialogue, where each person gives as much as they truly want to give. We can bring awareness to long-standing patterns that prioritize care for the person defending their intentions rather than the person who’s been impacted by their actions, and transform those patterns by attending to impact first, especially in relationships where dynamics of unequal power and privilege have been established.

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