A lot of people read and enjoy my work- a readership I’m grateful for. But there’s one loaded compliment that jars me more than a thousand racial slurs. It’s being told I’m eloquent.
This comment does not mean the same thing when directed to me as when directed to my white counterparts. Eloquence is loaded with racial implications. If you are a first, second or (like me) a third generation immigrant, you’ll be all too familiar with the coded compliment of ‘you speak so well’. Eloquence is the arbiter of British assimilation, with compliments such as ‘you speak so well’ offered to us immigrants as a marker of reluctant acceptance. If we’re not speaking ‘well’- perhaps with the thick, lilting accent of my grandparents- our intelligence is called into question. Complementing eloquence is part and parcel of the big British colour blindness project, with its efforts to ‘not see race’ by erasing our difference and heritage by demanding us to assimilate.
During London’s riots of 2011, BBC Newsnight held a discussion on the causes of the riots with novelist Dreda Say Mitchell, author Owen Jones, and historian David Starkey. After expressing admiration for Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and likening black culture to a contagious disease, Starkey earnestly said: ‘listen to David Lammy. An archetypical, successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on the radio, you’d think he was white.’
You speak so well. You’re very eloquent. You have a good grasp of our language. You’re an acceptable immigrant. You sound like you belong here!
The flip side of being deemed as acceptable or respectable is that the line has been drawn on who is an acceptable immigrant, and who is not. David Starkey made that point clear.I’m not interested in being some kind of model minority. Until none of us are unacceptable, we are all unacceptable.
I’m aiming to deconstruct and decolonise destructive constructions of race in the same language that created them and enforced linguistic violence on my home continent. There is a bittersweet compliment in being told that I have a great grasp of the English language. Tell me that my work changed your mind. Tell me that it altered your world view. But don’t call me eloquent.
FURTHER READING: “You Speak Good English.”