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Respect Beyond Ma’am and Sir
I have been talking to my friends lately about respect. In particular, we talked about teaching our children to say “ma’am and sir.” This is a very sensitive topic for African Americans. Some of my closest friends are terrified of children who can’t say “yes sir or no ma’am” to adults. They say it is a sign of respect for young people to say “ma’am and sir”. And it’s no respect. Yet when pushed to explain or discover where that belief comes from, it quickly shuts down. I often rest on the idea, “my parents taught me to respect my elders. And this is what I will teach my children.” As if these simple words are a charm that magically bring respect. I want to explore and challenge our idea of how we nurture and develop respect in our children in a modern society.
Traditionally, blacks have been held to the highest standards of respect and decorum. My parents and grandparents asked us to show them the highest degree of respect. We have been instructed in practices that demonstrate your reverence of their position of authority. For example, most black people can remember these frequently used phrases,
“Always say please and thank you.”
“Always say ‘yes sir and no ma’am.’
“Don’t talk while grown people are talking.”
“Children are to be seen and not heard.”
“Don’t talk to adults.”
“Do what I tell you to do.”
“I am your relative. I am not your friend.”
“Don’t ask me ‘why’. Do what I say.”
All these mantras are designed to outline the relationship between the child and the adult. In general, the line between parent and child should never be crossed. Crossing that line in the Black community often results in a swift and strong correction. I’ve seen kids try on the line in shops, barbershops, church and schools. The response was usually a stern look or a quick slap of the hand. Questioning the decision of the parents on my mother’s day was unheard of. My grandmother ruled with an iron fist and a leather belt. You never wanted to “cross” my grandmother. At 80 he gave me and my brother Drummond one of the worst noises of our lives. Not even my older brother’s advice, “just say yes ma’am to all his questions” would save us from that lashing. We never did another disrespectful thing to grandma. Yet ironically I have lost some of my reverence for her. For many years, I was afraid of my grandmother but I don’t think I really respected her. And this idea is what bothers me the most. I believe that blacks mix fear and respect.
Black people in America have a two-sided tradition around issues of respect. Dating back to slavery, we were taught to obey our white slave masters. There were two primary tools they used to achieve this goal. First there was fear. The slave master used many tools to terrorize the slave into obedience. The first layer was the language of obedience. This was the most enduring practice of slavery. After the floggings, lynchings, rapes, and other terrorist tactics of slavery ceased, the practice of whites calling blacks “boy” and blacks calling whites “sir” immediately followed. Yet even as we spoke the words of respect, our anger and resentment boiled inside. The second instrument of conditioning was his interpretation of religion. We were given a religious perspective that commanded humility and obedience as a forerunner of the heavenly promise. Literally, we were told that we must obey the teacher to get to heaven. This spiritual condition has become a part of the religious DNA of the black community. As a result of these two enduring practices, the language of obedience and the spiritual mandate of obedience, blacks have been the most complete subgroup in America.
This could be the most destructive of all time of the negative metal legacies of slavery. While there are many practices from that atrocious experience called slavery that have survived, our commitment to following the rules can be more unproductive for us. Going with the status quo has resulted in Blacks being the lowest paid subgroup in America. We also had the least political influence due to our silent compliance with the policy makers. We have a “You’re the Boss” mentality for everything that’s important. We said “Yes Lord” when we should really be saying “Hell Naw!” We should be demanding higher wages. We should be asking for better funded schools. We must demand a fair criminal justice system. But instead, we show our respect by saying “yes sir” to the financial, social and political policies that we totally lack.
White people don’t force their children to say “Mr. and Mrs.” I worked for a school that had a tradition of students referring to their teachers by their first names. White parents rarely had a problem with this. This practice was emblematic of our teaching pedagogy. We emphasize the relationship between student and teacher as the foundation for learning. The idea is that the classroom is a place for sharing ideas between students. The teacher and the student are both students. The role of the teacher is defined as facilitator and the role of the student is scholar (one who seeks knowledge). However, most black parents were horrified by the idea of their child referring to a teacher by name. Many of the new black children neatly put a Mr. or Mrs. before the first name of their teachers. This usually lasted a semester before the article was dropped.
This debate about what is respectful language is really ridiculous. Today, some of the most respectful kids in our country are white kids who don’t say “Sir and Ma’am.” While some of the most disrespectful kids are black who say “Mr. and Mrs.” while throwing trash in your yard or show more than a few inches of ass as their pants fall below the waist. If you look up the word “ma’am” many dictionaries say that the word is almost extinct. Senator Barbara Boxer famously rejected the use of the word in her response “Don’t call me Ma’am”. However, we have it by tradition. It is more like the condition, which kept us to this practice.
As humanity evolves, truth must be the highest goal of any society. We discover our highest truth through discussion. True respect begins with the hard work of talking to children. My 10th Grade English teacher, who I call Mr. Jenkins, says “education is a confrontation with ignorance”. This means that we need to dialogue with children. We should not see his questioning as disrespectful. Children need to be heard and seen. We need to discuss what practices will be good for our children in the future, not just blindly practice what we have been taught. John Milton said “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth did worse in a free and open encounter?” Through the sharing of ideas we come to our collective agreements as to how we should interact with each other. We continue to have the dialogue, “Please Lord.”
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