Race Out Loud: Manners across color lines

A conversation about manners and how cultural traditions and upbringing influence politeness

June 29, 2012

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All this week in the series Race Out Loud, WBEZ and Vocalo talked about race in frank conversations, stories and in public.

Last Sunday afternoon, I hosted a group of friends at my home in Pilsen. I recorded a conversation that has actually taken place a number of times in my circle of ethnically diverse friends. Joining me was my husband Evan and my friends Shirley, Liz, Erica and Isis. We talked about how our cultural upbringings taught us to behave differently in social situations. These are excerpts of the conversation. 

On how they view the importance of manners:

Isis (who identifies herself as black and white): I do think about manners. I bend or mend my manners based on the social situation I'm in. I know what's appropriate and I can change based on the group of people I'm with.

"It's a component of privilege [for white people] that you can just ignore someone."

Liz (who identifies herself as white): I would say that I think about manners a lot. I always think the base level is being friendly. I'm always surprised when people don't ask the teller at the bank how their day is going. Things like that are polite and I'm shocked when people order at a restaurant and say, "Let me get a burger or gimme a burger." They don't say, "May I please have a burger?"

Evan (who identifies himself as white): I don't think about manners oftten, as a checklist or anything like that. I guess in certain situations I do but I think the checklist would vary per culture. What manners should allow is lubrication for people to be able to move together without tripping on each other socially. 

Erica (who identifies herself as black): I try to live by the Golden Rule. The only time I do really think about manners is when someone is being rude to me. Then I get my checklist out.

Addressing one of the most divisive issues in this conversation, formal greetings:

Shirley (who is South American & Japanese): I work in a predominately white environment and [white people] just walk into a space and I'm standing right here and [they] don't even say hello to me. I've often wondered is it a cultural thing that [white people] weren't raised [to have that habit]? But I've noticed that people of color [do acknowledge people.] The way I was raised and how I see life, not greeting someone shows you have no manners. 

Erica (who identifies herself as black): Minorities are placed in a situation where you have to seek each other out. I think because white people are usually considered the majority, they don't have to speak up 'cause they feel comfortable. We don't always feel comfortable.

Liz (who identifies herself as white): I'm trying to remember the last time I was at a party with white people. I guess it seems strange that you would turn your head from the Super Bowl to say hello to someone who would walk in the door. 

Isis (who identifies herself as black and white): It's a component of privilege [for white people] that you can just ignore someone. For people of color, parents teach you the social graces of "you best say hello to your elders, you best acknowledge people." In the streets, people of color and black people are like, "I see you." There's a generosity of spirit and a warmth that's taught in communities of color and there's more formality in white culture.

Evan (who identifies himself as white): [I don't think] there is an enforced rule about entering a room and greeting someone who walked in.

What the two white people at the party, Liz & Evan were taught about greeting people at a party: 

Liz : I remember being sat at a table and before you sit for dinner, going to say hello to everyone if you don't know them. [But what I've learned in this conversation] is that while I think I know what it's like to respect another person, obviously, this is a big deal. Now I'm wondering if I've been going through life offending people? 

Evan: I never knew it to be rudeness and it's not an element of privilege because we do it to each other [white people] more than other communities.

The difference between being polite to strangers and people you know:  

Evan (who identifies himself as white):  Politeness on the street would involve not running into someone when you walk by them. It's more than a race issue, perhaps it's more of a socio-economic issue, but I've encountered many young African-American males who expect you to move out of their way. 

Isis (who identifies herself as black and white: [Black males] may be asserting their personhood as a subjected masculinity to be overly masculine and claim space. 

What are the commonalities between races and how have you learned to adapt to others cultures?

Isis (who identifies herself as black and white):  The base level is respect but we all see how that respect plays out from a different lens.  

Shirley (who is South American & Japanese): I've learned over the years, to accept people and their level of understanding or upbringing. Where I get fruststrated is that others don't give that in return. For example, I once had this boss who said I spoke with my hands too much and it came off as aggressive [that didn't take into account my Latin upbringing or customs.] 

Liz (who identifies herself as white): Sometimes as a white person, if you're talking passionately, it's because you're about to get punched. Before I was exposed to Latinos, since moving to Chicago from the south and marrying into a Latin American family, I was like "Oh my gosh, you're in my space, let's take it down a notch." But that's changed for me.  So has the understanding of punctuality. 

Erica (who identifies herself as black): The stereotype is that black people are always late. Clearly, I helped enforced that today. I have every intention of coming on time but there's always something that comes up. 

Last words of wisdom about manners?   

Isis (who identifies herself as black and white): Acknowledge when you're wrong, be sensitive and be honest. 

Liz (who identifies herself as white): Anytime anyone does anything for you, whether they're paid to do it or doing it out of kindness, they deserve gratitude. Also, a smile will rarely get you in trouble.  

Evan (who identifies himself as white): As long as you behave with dignity and treat people with dignity, you're going to be safe most of the time. 

Erica (who identifies herself as black): Take the time to learn about other cultures. 

Shirley (who is South American & Japanese): Be really appreciative and hold yourself and others accountable.