‘He’s So Articulate.’ What That Really Means

Just as the word “bossy” can have a different meaning for women, the word “articulate” can hold a different meaning for people of color.

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President Barack Obama

While I applaud Lean In’s recent launch of their Ban Bossy campaign—some like it, some don’t—I encourage them to do more.

It’s not, of course, that there’s a problem with the word “bossy”; it’s that societally, we hold different expectations about bossiness for girls and women. And just as we need to work to change how girls and women can be perceived differently from men and boys, we also need to work on the different expectations that we hold—whether consciously or unconsciously—for white people and people of color.

And if we’re “banning” words with this sort of double standard, then the word “articulate” comes to mind.

“Articulate,” of course, doesn’t have the same negative connotations as “bossy.” But we’re all familiar with the scenario in which someone comments in surprise at how “professional” or “well-spoken” a new black co-worker comes across, or how “articulate” an African-American presidential candidate might be—as then-Sen. Joe Biden once remarked about then-Sen. Barack Obama, an episode chronicled at the time for the New York Times by former managing editor of The Root Lynette Clemetson in the essay “The Racial Politics of Speaking Well.”

In that context, the underlying message is clear: We (a white-dominant society) expect black folks to be less competent. And, speaking as a white person, when we register surprise at a black individual’s articulateness, we also send the not-so-subtle message that that person is part of a group that we don’t expect to see sitting at the table, taking on a leadership role.

One might easily shrug off as oversensitive a minority co-worker or friend who is upset when described as articulate. After all, what harm can a word, meant as a compliment, really do? Yet our expectations of others—including whom we expect to be articulate or a leader—are often based on stereotypes.

Subtle expectations and stereotypes, however, can have huge impacts. Researchers have found that simply changing the description of a task so that it falls more or less in line with societal stereotypes can impact performance. In one study (pdf), researchers described a task involving golf as measuring intelligence, and white participants performed better than black participants—consistent with a stereotype of whites as being more academically intelligent. When the task was described as measuring athletic ability, white participants performed worse and black participants performed better—consistent with a stereotype of African Americans being more athletic.

Similarly, researchers have found that when African-American students, prior to taking a test, have to fill in demographic information—including their race—a stereotype that black students are less intelligent can be internalized, causing black students to underperform.

What does all this have to do with calling a woman bossy, or a black friend articulate? By calling a woman bossy, we’re reminding her that society expects her to back down, be a follower and not be too aggressive or loud. When we call a person of color articulate, it can suggest—either intentionally or unintentionally—that she’s exceptional, whereas, by contrast, it can suggest that white people are automatically assumed to be articulate.

To create a space where everyone can “lean in,” then, I recommend that Sheryl Sandberg and others not just work to ban “bossy” but also consider leaning in on “articulate.”

A. Gordon is a recent graduate of the University of California Berkeley Law School.

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