DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was asked to give a reference for a young man. When I stated that he was articulate, the caller became offended, asking me if I knew that was an insult.
The young man I gave the reference for was black, and I am an older white woman.
How can I avoid this kind of misstep in the future? What should I say about a young black man who has overcome much adversity, and who is articulate and intelligent?
GENTLE READER: Being articulate, which means being able to express oneself and one’s ideas, is surely a basic expectation. Thus you would seem to be saying this young man is not inarticulate -- implying that he is above the low expectation one would have of him.
Do you see how that becomes an insult? And it has become particularly associated with racism, as if one would not expect a black person to speak well.
If you wish to do someone a service, which is the point when agreeing to give a reference, Miss Manners considers it more effective to give specific examples of a person’s abilities rather than to resort to such vague generalizations.