Just last week The Focus, a Rutgers University publication released several articles about "outstanding graduates". I was among that list and it was such an honor. I got a call several weeks ago from a reporter who told me I had been selected to be profiled for this publication. She made it very clear that she had already begun her research on me using the internet and then she requested an interview. The interview was fantastic. It was conducted via phone which was mutually convenient and lasted about two and a half hours. The reporter asked me about everything from my childhood to where I see myself in twenty years. It was a great time for me to reflect on my experiences as a young boy, my relationship with my father and the many activities I participated in over the years regarding social justice and education. It was through that process that I remembered how I got to where I am in life today. In addition, the reporter asked me about current issues and events such as the election of Barack Obama and the idea of a post-racial society. Never coy about sharing my beliefs, I told the reporter that we do not live in a post-racists society because racism regardless of the color of our president is alive and well.
In that moment I also spoke about several personal experiences that I've had encountering racial ideologies and stereotypes. Aside from more obvious examples such as seeing racist messages being displayed on bumper stickers to being followed around stores when I am in casual clothing, I told the reporter that I'm often reminded of the existence of deep racial ideas when people, specifically whites, come up to me after speaking engagements and say in a rather condescending and shocking tone "you speak so well" or "you're so articulate". I used to view all of these messages as compliments for which I was grateful, and then suddenly I began to pay close attention to the shock and amazement in the voices of those white audience members who thought I "spoke so well". For me the shock and amazement became a signal of something deeper.
You see when we are shocked or amazed by something it is often because that something surpassed our expectations. We may assume that a movie, play or concert will be ok and find ourselves captivated by the end of the show because we didn't expect it to be so great. Other times we are shocked and amazed because we simply have no expectations at all. We have no expectations because we don't seriously care about what's to come. And so I find myself connecting the shock and amazement to something deeper. Sometimes, and I'm not saying all the time, but many times I believe that when people say to me "you speak so well" it is because they subconsciously expected less of me and I have to assume that much of this lower expectation is attributed to the fact that I have often been the only Black voice in a predominately White room.
I don't consider the shock or amazement concerning my articulation to be an indication that white people who are so impressed are racists, rather I consider it to be the result of many folks having a one-dimensional or limited view of Blacks because much of their information concerning Black culture comes from the media which has not always shown a positive image of Black America. In this sense, the surprise that a person feels when they see an articulate Black person is the direct result of racist ideas that are embedded in many white Americans.
If you are reading this and you have seen or may see me speak please do not feel hesitant about giving me compliments on my articulation. Just as I "speak so well" most times I can determine when someone is genuinely impressed with the content of my speeches and not the just simply with witnessing grammatically correct and complex thoughts coming from a Black mouth.