Monday, September 29, 2008

Proper Etiquette

***Update: See Angry Black Woman here and related NYT editorial here.***

I didn't spend the whole of the presidential debate getting drunk. (So, there, matttbastard* :-) I had some really good conversations with my blogging buddies. One began when bfp asked
I wonder how many white folks are put off by obama interrupting mccain all the time.
I responded with something along the lines of, "Probably a lot. It's a serious breach of racial etiquette." Then Shannon asked me if I'd ever written a blog post about racial etiquette, because she'd like to read more. So this post is a little bit about that and a lot a bit about tangential topics.

Racial etiquette is on my mind because I recently taught about Southern "redemption" in both my classes. For the inevitable question about how white supremacy was maintained and reinforced, I talk about violence, lack of access to legal redress for African Americans, the politically solid South that kept African Americans disfranchised and powerless, the wages of whiteness, etc. etc.

And I also talk about how people learned African Americans were inferior through body and verbal language, the racial etiquette to which I referred. The examples are well-known--white southerners treating black southerners as if they were not individuals with distinctive names (boy, auntie, uncle, my niggers, etc.). On the other hand, black southerners used labels like Miss/Mrs. and Mr. even when they were much older than the whites to whom they spoke. Also, the use of titles by African Americans like "Boss" and "Cap'n" indicated their own servile stature.

Then there was the body language--stepping off the sidewalk for white women. African Americans were not to meet the eyes or shake the hand of white southerners--to do so would indicate some sort of equality. Of course, these habits would be used against us later, to imply that we were shifty or liars. Head bowing and shuffling were not about bad posture or laziness, but about not seeming too proud. Then there were the demands for always happy behavior, to ease white southerners' minds--no, their negroes were not surly or unhappy about their position! And again this fed a stereotype (black people sing and dance and smile about everything according to popular culture) and reinforced a standard (think about how afraid of an angry black man and so obsessed with "angry black women" we are). If you look at contemporary white southerners' views about slavery, most of them would argue how happy their darkies were in their "natural" state. It was only when people indulged in "foolish" abolition and equality talk that black people were riled up.

Black southerners were expected to mask their true feelings, their intelligence, their ambitions behind obsequious smiles and nodding. Neither were they to have any outward manifestations of said intelligence and ambition--southern history is full of examples of African Americans who were cheated, beaten, run out of town, or lynched for owning a car, or a nice house, or being educated, or having fought in wars to "defend democracy" and expecting democracy at home.

So, yes, Obama's interruptions of McCain were a breach of racial etiquette. You think there are no standards of racial etiquette anymore? Think about that poll that I linked to days ago--one of the questions asked of white people was if they thought African Americans were friendly. Think about how worried people are about whether Michelle Obama comes across as approachable. Think about how people of color in general are cautioned to be all delicate and polite in our approaches to issues that concern us. Think about the disparities in the way African Americans are punished--from schools to the legal system--for breaking the rules.

Think about Lynn Westmoreland's use of uppity. Maybe we can expect that of Westmoreland, but it's not just him or Republicans or racist white southerners.

(Here's one of those tangents). I've been mostly away from blogs and blogging for a few weeks, but after the debates, I did some reading. I've read, in some unexpected places, that, in the view of some, Obama broke some other rules of racial etiquette. He was "arrogant." He flaunted his intelligence (which, apparently, alienates people. Who knew a smart black person did that?!). He did not bow and scrape and did not always use Mister Senator.

I definitely chalk a lot of those observations up to a general air of anti-illectualism.

But not all of it.

Of course, part of me is taking it personally--I like feeling that the next president will be smart and more than capable. And, after 635 years in school, I have interests and thoughts and vocabulary that reflect my education. I'd like to believe that is evident on occasion. I would also like to believe that it is not perceived as an assault on other people's intelligence, an assault made even more problematic because I am black and should know how to play down my intelligence and play up my folksiness.

"Uppity" is posited as an insult with clear connotations, and it should be. But, I want to tell some people, don't focus on the word so much that you don't realize there are ways of implying uppity without ever once saying it.

Okay, I'll save the other tangent for tomorrow. My answer to BfP's question remains yes. Of the issues I have with Barack Obama, his intelligence, language, education, and demeanor are not among those. I'd like to hear what other people think and also hear about examples of racial etiquette (my list is not exhaustive, but I didn't want this post to become installment number 89566 of my-life-in-the-South).

*matttbastard has covered a lot of this territory and as soon as I wake up again, I'll link properly.


Kimberly said...

Amen to everything. Very insightful!

Giftie Etcetera said...

"Think about how worried people are about whether Michelle Obama comes across as approachable." -elle

This blows my mind. Maybe she's just my type of person, but I find her not only approachable, but intriguing. I would feel compelled to approach her if she was in a room with me.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...