Lately I’ve been talking to my friends about respect. In particular, we have been talking 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 horrified by children who don’t say “yes sir or no ma’am” to adults. They say that it is a show of respect for young people to say “ma’am and sir.” And it is disrespectful not to do it. However, when pushed to explain or explore where that belief comes from, they quickly shut down. Often resting on the idea, “my parents taught me to respect my elders. And that is what I will teach my children.” As if these simple words were an enchantment that magically elicits respect. I would like to explore and challenge our idea of how we nurture and develop respect within our children in a modern society.
Traditionally, blacks have held themselves to the highest standards of respect and decorum. My parents and grandparents asked us to show them the highest degree of respect. We were instructed in practices that showed his reverence for his position of authority. For example, most blacks can remember that these phrases are used frequently,
“Always say please and thank you.”
“Always say ‘yes sir and no ma’am.’
“Don’t talk while the adults are talking.”
“Children must be seen and not heard.”
“Don’t talk to the adults.”
“Do what I tell you to do.”
“I am your father. I am not your friend.”
“Don’t ask me ‘why’. Do what I told you.”
All of these mantras are designed to outline the relationship between child and adult. In general, the line between parents and children should never be crossed. Crossing that line in the black community often resulted in a quick and sharp correction. I have seen children test the line in supermarkets, hair salons, churches, and schools. The answer used to be a stern look or a quick blow with the hand. Questioning the parents’ decision in my mother’s time was unheard of. My grandmother ruled with an iron fist and a leather belt. You never wanted to “cross” with my grandmother. At 80 he gave me and my brother Drummond one of the worst screams ever. Not even my older brother’s advice, “just say yes ma’am to all your questions,” would save us from that beating. We never disrespected Grandma again. However, ironically I lost a bit of my reverence for her. For many years I feared my grandmother, but I don’t think I really respected her. And this idea is what worries me the most. I think black people mix fear and respect.
Blacks in America have a two-sided tradition around issues of respect. Since slavery, we were taught to obey our white slave owners. There were two main tools that they used to achieve this goal. First there was fear. The slave master used many tools to terrorize the slave and make him obey. The first layer was the language of obedience. This was the most enduring practice of slavery. After whipping, lynching, rape, and other terrorist slavery tactics dissolved, the practice of whites calling black “boy” and blacks calling whites “sir” endured. However, even as we spoke the words of respect, our anger and resentment boiled up inside. The second conditioning tool was his interpretation of religion. We were given a religious perspective that called for humility and obedience as forerunners of the heavenly promise. We were literally told that we had to obey the teacher to get to heaven. This spiritual conditional has become 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 docile 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 heinous experience called slavery that have endured, our commitment to following the rules can be very unproductive for us. Following the status quo has resulted in blacks being the lowest paid subgroup in America. We also had the least political influence due to our quiet compliance with policy makers. We have had a “Yes Boss” mentality about everything important. We’ve been saying “Yes sir” when we really should be saying “Hell no!” We should be demanding higher wages. We should demand better funded schools. We should demand a fair criminal justice system. But instead, we show our respect by saying “yes sir” to financial, social and political policies that completely disrespect us.
White people do not force their children to say “sir and ma’am.” I worked for a school that had a tradition that students referred to their teachers by their first name. White parents rarely had a problem with it. This practice was emblematic of our pedagogy of teaching. We emphasize the relationship between student and teacher as a basis for learning. The idea is that the classroom is a place to share ideas among students. Both the teacher and the student are learners. The role of the teacher is defined as a facilitator and the role of the student is that of a scholar (one who seeks knowledge). However, most black parents were horrified by the idea of their son referring to a teacher by his first name. Many of the new black children politely placed a Mr. or Mrs. before their teachers’ first names. Usually this lasted for a semester before the article was removed.
This debate about what is respectful language is really ridiculous. Today, some of the most respectful children in our country are white children who do not say “Sir and Madam”. While some of the most disrespectful kids are black who say “sir and ma’am” while littering in their 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 the word is almost extinct. The famous Senator Barbara Boxer rejected the use of the word in her response “Don’t call me ma’am.” However, we keep it by tradition. It is more like a condition, which makes us cling to this practice.
As humanity evolves, truth should be the highest goal of any society. Let’s discover our highest truth through discussion. True respect begins with the hard work of talking to children. My tenth grade English teacher, whom I call Mr. Jenkins, says that “education is a confrontation with ignorance.” This means that we need to dialogue with the children. We should not view your questioning as disrespectful. Children must be heard and seen. We need to discuss what practices will be good for our children in the future, not just blindly practicing what we have been taught. John Milton said: “Let her and Falsehood fight; who knew that Truth got worse in a free and open encounter?” Through the exchange of ideas, we arrived at our collective agreements on how we should interact with each other. Let’s keep having the dialogue, “Please sir.”