I learned something completely unknown to me in Barbara Murphy's recent commentary, "A word on the 'well-spoken'" (Sept. 2). We've now reached the point where people who are not of color can no longer use complimentary language when referring to black Americans. It took me aback to read her relate overhearing a manager where she works describing a job candidate (racial identity unknown) as "smart," "experienced," and "well-spoken." She goes on to say that "Instantly, I knew that this candidate is African-American."
She writes that "in all my many years of living in Baltimore and working for global corporations, I have never heard the term 'well-spoken' used to describe a person of any other ethnicity. 'Well-spoken' is code for black in America." All I can say is Ms. Murphy must have lived a very cloistered life. I have worked throughout the United States my entire life in organizations of all ethnicities, and have used terms such as "articulate" and "well-spoken" frequently and have heard many others do so.
Those compliments were used regardless of the ethnicity of the object of our discussions. They were well-intended and meant to convey a positive perception and observation, regardless of color. They are universal. While she may be correct in the context of a Baltimore-centered environment, she is assuredly wrong in a national or global context. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search about the terms "well-spoken" and "articulate" vis-a-vis black Americans. Surprisingly, I found that there is a strong perception among the black community that these terms are denigrating to blacks. And the rationale seems to be that since inherently racist whites can't imagine a black person being "well-spoken," then the term is applied in a sarcastic manner and is therefore disrespectful.
How thin skinned can we get? It seems that blacks have a self-perception that they are less "well-spoken" than the general population so, when the term is applied to them, then it must de facto be a sarcastic term of disrespect. So now I guess I must add to my list of "things not to say to people of color" is that any type of compliment, no matter how true and well-intentioned, may be taken as rude and racist. Which leaves me in the predicament that I can't (and shouldn't) criticize their personal attributes, but also can longer praise them. It's a lose-lose proposition. That's not a path to overcoming divisiveness and bringing our cultures together.