06 February 2007

compliments in sheep's clothing

The New York Times had a great article yesterday reflecting on the ridiculousness of Senator Joe Biden's comments about Senator Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Some of you out there may sympathize with Biden's excuse that this was meant to be complimentary. Lynette Clemetson explains why that's BS:
That is the core of the issue. When whites use the word ["articulate"] in reference to blacks, it often carries a subtext of amazement, even bewilderment. It is similar to praising a female executive or politician by calling her “tough” or “a rational decision-maker.”

“When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person,” Ms. Perez said.

Such a subtext is inherently offensive because it suggests that the recipient of the “compliment” is notably different from other black people.

For other racial/ethnic minorities, these stereotypes and assumptions are sadly all too common. One of my biggest pet peeves is when White folks patronize People of Color with their compliments such as, "Oh, you speak English so well!" (I know many, many Asians born and raised in the US who have been subject to this, as well as Asian immigrants who were educated in the US or lived here for quite some time). The message is, "You're not expected to speak English because you are a perpetual foreigner in this country." The other day, I received a compliment from a woman about looking like I am hapa haole (Hawaiian for part Caucasian/white) because of my compartively light skin for a Filipina. Now, I am not saying I have anything against those who are biracial, nor am I against compliments but damn, did that piss me off...so that means being closer to White makes me more attractive? I couldn't even get my bearings to tell her why it was so irritating. What about my brother who is a very handsome young man, but happens to be very much darker in skin tone? This is going in a bit of a tangent from my original intention but I must get into it...what irritates me the MOST is when People of Color fall into this trap of internalized racist messages and take on the belief that White, Eurocentricism = better. Brown and black and yellow are beautiful! Assimilation is not the only option for survival, success, and happiness in the US (there is an entire body of literature on acculturation in the social sciences).

Okay, enough of that for now. I am planning on spending the rest of my life studying this stuff, so I guarantee there will be more to come.

The lesson of this blog is that before you praise someone, check yourself first: what are the underlying assumptions of what is "normal" or valued in your statement?


GreenCutip said...

Here here. I ask myself those questions all the time. Heterosexism is also up there with eurocentrism as being horribly racist and dehumanizing. Oh and thanks for the compliment :)

stine said...

thanks for the comment. i just trioed to post a long comment but got an error message so am trying again. this is definitely one of my pet peeves as well. i am stranded at the chicago airport and there are frequent conversations about where people are coming from, where you are going. but for me and many of the hundreds of POCs here, the question soon becomes, "no really, where are you coming from?" i have been experimenting with various responses, the most elaborate taking over an hour with a 75 year old white man from carbondale. he claims he is trying to compliment my english skills and is just curious is a well meaning way, but isn't he reinforcing his own white privilege by trying to categorize me as outside of "american?" i think our conversation was effective but it was troubling watching him leave our table only to walk on to an overbooked flight that at least 50 POCs were waiting to get on the standby list for. now that is truly "american" airlines.