And my blood boiled. Again.
I officiate weddings as a hobby and a passion, and I had just completed a ceremony uniting a delightful young couple in a ballroom resplendent in gold and black. The newly-minted Mr. and Mrs. departed the room to the rousing applause of friends and family. Romance and euphoria filled the air.
I delivered my final instructions to the guests, advising them where and when the reception would commence, and stepped off the podium. As I did, out of the corner of my left eye, I detected a man gesturing to me.
"Hey – hey, Boss," he shouted.
Really? Really? Did he have to go there?
|Sidney Poitier knew what he wanted to be called: "MISTER Tibbs!" (MGM Studios)|
But why do white men – even young white men, particularly when working as servers in restaurants – persist in calling black men "Boss" or "Chief?"
Is it somehow ingrained in their ancestral DNA?
I started to unleash a stream of outrage and indignation in his face, then immediately thought better of it. After all, I was a hired pro in this setting. It's likely I would never see this man again. Wrong time, wrong location for a history lesson. And a wise display of restraint on my part, as it turned out, since the man happened to be the father of the groom, who had a relatively simple question. That could have turned a bit dicey. But still....
After returning home and sharing the cause of my seething, my wife said I may be making too much of such a brief encounter. She had a point. However, as far as I know, she has never been an African-American male before.
As a professional writer more than half my life, I know all too well that words have power. They often carry meanings far deeper, and sometimes more insidious, than your online dictionary might reveal. Every time I get "Boss" or "Chief" – and it happens far more often than you can imagine – I immediately flash back to one of the most memorable scenes from one of the seminal films of my teens, and the quote ranked as No. 16 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotes of all time.
Early in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night (which, if you haven't seen in 50 years, I don't know what to say about you), Sidney Poitier, playing top Philadelphia Police investigator Virgil Tibbs, is arrested on suspicion of murder while visiting his mother in the small Southern town of Sparta, Miss. He is hauled before the local sheriff, portrayed by Oscar winner Rod Steiger, who eventually ridicules his calm self-confidence.
"Virgil," the sheriff snarls. "That's a funny name for a n----r boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?"
"They call me MISTER Tibbs!" he responds, without hesitation. Blacks, who not that long before would have been forced to watch the scene from theater balconies, erupted in cheers.
That movie came out at the height of the civil rights movement in America, but in many ways great and subtle, the battle for respect rages on.
I was brought up to address every man, whether my age or (especially) older, as "Sir." If such deferential etiquette was still being taught in homes and schools today, I wouldn't be writing this.
When a white stranger takes the uninvited liberty of addressing me as "Boss" or "Chief," it jerks my thoughts to a gone-but-not-forgotten era in our nation when slaveowners, or "planters," and their hired plantation operators would designate overseers, usually black males, to keep the other darkies in line.
The white men would call these overseers "Boss" or "Chief," too, but it was the cruelest of inside jokes: while they may have had a measure of control over their own kind, they held no actual authority beyond that, real or imagined. They were powerless, and they knew it. The real bosses may have known the overseer's name, but why bother remembering it? It was totally unimportant to them.
|This is an actual chief. I have no tribe, nor headdress.|
And now, more than 150 years later, some white men still believe these are titles black men somehow will find complimentary. We don't. They are oh-so-subtly demeaning and insulting. Perhaps these men are ignorant to the origin of these greetings, unaware of the emotions they arouse.
And I am not alone in this feeling. While searching to find the exact Poitier quote from In the Heat of the Night, I came across this opinion piece from Bill Maxwell in the Tampa Bay Times several years ago:
With all the societal turmoil sweeping our country at the moment, the #MeToo movement and its fallout, a complaint like this may seem trivial, almost silly. At the end of the day, though, isn't all of it simply a question of mutual respect?
While writing this I recalled an incident this summer as I was walking into a neighborhood grocery store to do my morning marketing. A slender Caucasian man in a large straw hat, possibly my age or older, approached me at the door.
"Excuse me, Boss," he began. "I'm a little short of change for the bus, and I was wondering –"
It was early, so my synapses were firing on all cylinders. I stopped him in mid-sentence.
"I'm not your boss, sir," I replied. "I've never even met you before."
He looked at me and blinked, obviously trying to process my words.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said. "So anyway, Chief, could I possibly – "
"I'm not your chief, either," I interrupted. "I've never led a tribe, and I don't own a headdress. Now, I'm going in the store."
I left him standing there, with his mouth open. I didn't give him a dime. This man wanted me to give him money, and he still couldn't find it in his heart or vocabulary to call me "Sir." Or nothing at all!
I've had Caucasian friends tell me that I'm hypersensitive on this issue, that white people call each other "Boss" and "Chief" all the time.
Well, that may be. But I've never been present to witness it. (Maybe because they don't want to confuse the situation.) The first time I hear a white man address another white male stranger as "Boss," my outrage may lessen considerably.