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2 July 2023

This evening, I was scrolling on Facebook and came across a video clip from the Netflix series, the "Partner Track." I've never watched this show nor am I familiar with it but in the 3 minute 22 second clip it showed a White lawyer on stage explaining to a sizable audience how his Black colleague has been teaching him what White fragility is. He says, "White fragility is when you act like a whiny little bitch and get all up in your feelings if someone calls you a racist." The character then proceeds to provide examples: "Let's say you tell a Black co-worker 'You're so well-spoken' if someone were to tell you that's actually racist and a micro-aggression and you were to say, 'I can't be racist, some of my best credit cards are black' [the audience laughs] that would be an example of White fragility." Because of the manner of the delivery, as well as the visual shots of the Black colleague in the scene, I quickly picked up that this routine was not one of using one's platform to help others but instead to do the opposite. The character then proceeds to share another example, "Remember when we ALL use to call disclosures 'opening the kimono'? [Audience laughs] Yeah. Now, if someone were to tell you that is both racist and sexist, what I used to call 'twice the spice', and you were to say something like, 'But my college girlfriend was Japanese', that would be another prime example of White fragility. [The audience roars with laughter].

Watching this triggered a memory.

Last month, I served as the officiant for a promotion ceremony of a fellow officer and friend. She was promoting to Captain and the audience consisted of about 40 people who were her Company Grade Officer peers, junior and Senior Enlisted coworkers, as well as her field grade officer (FGO, ranks of Major to Colonel) leaders. Her parents also virtually tuned in from the States. Prior to administering the oath of office I talked about the promotee as a person, as a professional, and some of the powerful gifts she possessed. The presentation went very well, and my promotee felt seen, valued, and appreciated-as she and every promotee, deserves to feel in this moment.

After the ceremony, many people approached me and shared feedback on how I had done a good job with officiating the ceremony. One FGO's mentioned how I inspired him to step up his officiating game, another mentioned that they had never seen anything like that before and were very impressed. Others thanked me for saying the things I did regarding sharing the promotees experience with being a shift worker and coming from an immigrant family. It felt REALLY good to create that special moment for my promotee and all of those who helped her along the way. Seeing my promotee light up by being celebrated by her coworkers and be the one she chose to share her story, was an honor.

But I also received some feedback that made me think. One officer mentioned that my speech was, "very articulate" another person asked me, "how were you able to remember all of those things about her, did you practice that or was it just off the cuff?" Last week as I was saying my farewells, a SNCO shared with me how my speech was "very articulate". He then went on to say, "It reminded me of a rap song in how it just flowed." I am choosing to believe that all of these comments are meant to be complimentary but to be honest, they made me question where the perception is coming from which led them to choose the words they did in the feedback they gave.

A few days after the ceremony, I reached out to a good friend of mine (who also is a Black female officer in the same careerfield as myself) and told her about the "articulate" feedback comments I received. During race conversations in 2020, she shared with me and a group of female officers how she would receive this feedback from white people who would hear her speak. At that time, hearing her story, made me question if I had the "articulate" experience. I realized that at the time I hadn't. I had been told that I talk "White" by all races of people, but was never described as articulate; at least not to my face. My battle was trying to develop and improve my communication skills as I was often viewed as inarticulate. "Don't look like that as it makes you look like your not understanding what people are saying to you" was feedback I received from a retired Chief back in my college ROTC days. While some people have a "resting bitch face" I apparently had, a "resting incompetent face." "You are dumb Kristin" were words from some of my classmates, by some of the questions I asked for things I didn’t know. "You've got to be a complete idiot to fail the AFOQT" was said by a fellow ROTC cadet (unaware that I had failed the test twice and had to get a waiver to be able to test a third time for the exam-which I later passed after. Apparently taking the test later in college gave me more time to develop the skills I needed to catch up and pass it). My journey was consistently on the education catch-up climb. I was new to being seen for being "articulate."

My friend said to me, "Articulate, just rubs me the wrong way. I’m curious if White officers get that feedback, 'wow you are so articulate!' You expected me to get on stage and not be articulate with my college degrees?" She had a point. It's the shock and complete amazement that comes with the "articulate" comment that makes it aggressive. And the racist history of how Black people have consistently been denied access to professional institutions or resources that could help us develop in an educational way, is what makes the comment racist. Yannick Marshall, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Knox College explains this concept here:

"The observation, and especially the pleasantly surprised tone in which it is usually offered, reveals that the speaker subscribes to a way of thinking that holds that Black people are typically inarticulate. “Articulate” Blacks are therefore a welcome exception to the rule. Subject to the delusion that a person’s vocabulary reflects their intelligence or cognitive power, they hold that the articulate (in standard English) Black person is evidence that not all Blacks are illiterate or incapable of speech. Their being witness to this proof, while white, is the compliment on offer....When an articulate Black person appears then, it is almost as if they should be doubly-praised because they have struggled and won against the odds of their nature. They have conquered both their inherent intellectual inferiority and the pull of their primitive culture." Marshall 2020, (In)Articulate While Black

"Thank you." Was the response I gave to the articulate comments. "Yes. I practiced. A promotion is a significant milestone for Airmen, so I definitely practice to make it special for them," was my answer to the question on if I prepared. I smiled at the comment about my speech flowing like a rap song. Looking back at it, I began to wonder if I could have provided a different response that would allow the deliverer to gain some awareness that their words had a racist undertone. As I mentioned before I am choosing to believe that the comments were meant to be a compliment. I don't believe they intentionally said them to harm me. But their comments did help me realize a truth I've been battling: the need to yield to exposure.

I've accepted that when I encounter people, just my presence may expose things in them that may not have been known to them. Their reaction to this is no longer something I choose to carry or protect them from. I used to do what I could to preserve their comfort and not call people out or be so calculated and gentle in doing so to the point that the feedback was lost. I used to feel that I had a responsibilty to help educate others on racism as I often was one of the few or the only "Black representatives" in the spaces I occupied. Thankfully, I know better now. I am not responsible for other people's education on racism nor am I am a representative for an entire race of people. I no longer need to betray myself by not standing up for myself when a racist agression (regardless of the size of it or source) is issued against me. I've been walking around feeling exposed for years because of the reality of living with the very real impacts of systemic racism or racist policies and sexism. I've denied this reality for years as I've internalized a lot of my own shortcomings in skills or others perceptions of me as dumb or incompetent, which I now know were evidence of a system way bigger than me. Others are equally capable of rising too, even if it brings them discomfort.

Before giving a Black person the feedback that they are articulate (regardless of what your own race is) I encourage you to ask yourself this question, "what do I mean by articulate?"

Reference: Link to Yannick Marshall 2020, "(In)Articulate While Black" Article:


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