Colonial Fool Part I: Are You Being Served?

So, I just have to be cranky for a minute.  This morning when I went into ‘Sweet Inspiration’ cafe in the Castro for a nice cup of tea before meeting with friends for brunch, I experienced something that is unique for black men who frequently have to navigate white worlds.  The gentleman before me was greeted by the counter person with the words, “how can I help you sir?” to which the patron replied with his order.  This customer probably looked to be a fairly typical Castro-ian (35, white, male, decent income…judging by his backpack, etc.) he was wearing tennis shoes and a t-shirt.  When it came my turn for service, I was greeted with “Hey, man…”  As far as I know, I look fairly typical if even a bit affluent as Californians go (shorts…it’s 70 degrees, sunglasses, casual linen shirt) but I do have dreadlocks and brown skin and these I believe are the exclusive reason for not being greeted without any kind of deference of respect.  I was greeted according to my race and not to my status as paying customer.

Why am I cranky?  Because this happens to me every day, everywhere I go…except for black establishments, where I am always greeted as “sir.”  I feel a right to be cranky about this because, for many years, I was in the service industry.  I learned early on, that if I didn’t greet a customer as “sir” or “ma’am”, it would surely show in my tip.  I am greeted this way by both young and old, male and female.  The only consistent thing among these service professionals is that they are all white.  Now, this isn’t everyone.  I think there are some people who have gained a little bit of a clue and realized that by greeting me as “man” or “bro” or “dude” or “blood”, they are not showing me any kind of solidarity.  Instead, they are only showing me the fact that they are aware of my skin color and the history in this country that surrounds my skin color…oh, and their deep rooted fear of being in relationship with me.

I suppose I could be happy to be greeted at all. My parents have shared stories of traveling to the South in the 1950’s and not being served at all.  I have also experienced the “we’re just not going to serve you until you leave” thing in more than one state north of the Mason Dixon.  But somehow I thought we had passed a law against that…

So with this brief blog entry, I will begin a series of pieces all about deconstructing American colonialism.  For me, colonial rule is alive and well.  Not only in white people trying too hard, but in where faith sits in our culture and how it divides us racially and culturally and economically.  Colonialism is also alive in how we continue to purpose women toward sex and procreation.  Colonialism guides us in how we see masculine and feminine and it continues to create systems of “us and them” that began with the decimation of the native peoples of this land. On top of it all, I own part of this way of being; I am at times responsible for perpetuating the legacy of colonialism as any “Taylor the Latte Boy” who calls me “man” or a black woman “sister” or greets Latinos with ‘hola’, etc.  As far as I can tell, more than any other ill in American culture, it is the continued perpetuation of colonial values, ethical priorities, relationships, social definitions and a host of other cultural perversions that stands in the way of our living into the most important value that is espoused by both lofty world thinkers and children everywhere: to be loved.

Therefore, dear ‘Sweet Inspiration’ Barista, cute though you may be, you have a lot to learn.  For although I do identify as a man, I am not your “man” and you can’t relate to me better by assuming a linguistic posture that you think might be “familiar.”

You can call me “sir,” thank you very much.

Kristin Chenoweth singing “Taylor the Latte Boy”

4 thoughts on “Colonial Fool Part I: Are You Being Served?

  1. Adam,

    I’m having real trouble getting from the A of “hey, man” to the B of colonialism. While colonalism has left a legacy, to assign it as an explanation for this interaction seems like more than a stretch. It seems like a real reach. I’d be willing bet that he would have greeted a young white man with dreadlocks in the same way.

    And you simply have not provided enough data, merely an anecdote. One incident is not a pattern. Are all the people of color being addressed this way in this establishment?

    If I might offer a somewhat less totalizing explanation than the great monster of colonialism, isn’t it entirely possible that he simply saw you as hip? “Hey, man” is the ancient hipster greeting, not a term of disrepect, much less colonial racism.

    “Sir” on, the other hand, is the language of the military and the patriarchy. It arose from feudal culture. And while it may be a term of respect to some, others find it less so. I have personally been addressed that way such that I was quite sure I was being mocked, although the tone was perfectly respectful.

    Might you not be guilty of confirmation bias – seeing patterns that confirm your preconceptions, your prejudices – where there are none?

    Maybe, just maybe, colonialism is inadequate to explain the complexity of this interaction?

    By all means continue your critique of American colonialism, but please be more rigorous. Anything less undermines the critque.

    Frank

    • Thank you for your comment Frank. I think you do bring up an excellent point about the term “sir” and I look forward to exploring it more deeply. However, I think you did miss the point that this is exactly what you said, an anecdote that is a stepping off point for the future posts to come. You also missed that this was far from one incident, it is actually a life pattern (second paragraph.) What I didn’t share is that this is a regular conversation among black Americans. The co-opting of black language and customs is exceedingly well documented and is most easily exemplified in the current popular use of the expression ‘bro’ not to mention the use of the ‘high five.’ It was a writer’s choice to not go into a lengthy description of this aspect of the anecdote.

      Your comment about this young man seeing me as ‘hip’ then begs the question of how are we defining ‘hipness?’ Do dreadlocks immediately say that one is ‘hip?’ If so, what are the cultural assumptions that go along with that observation? I am grateful for your pointing me in that direction and I will certainly dig deeper. I would, however, respectfully caution against referring to anything related to modern ‘hipsters’ as being “ancient” and possibly encourage you to research the word ‘hip’ and its origins in jazz subculture. You are right, colonialism is most certainly inadequate to explain the complexity of the interaction; I am simply highlighting (as a starting point) that it is most definitely a part of the interaction that is worth exploring.

      Thank you again for reading.

      Adam

  2. I am white and identifiably queer / trans. I notice many customer service interactions where the person before me was greeted differently than me. Is it because I’m presumed lesbian? (I especially get this feeling from older POC.) Could it be my imagination? Could it be something completely unrelated to queerness and something else about how i connect with other people? I can never really know. I’m hesitant to ascribe meaning to the interaction with certainty. I cannot know the reality of the person behind the counter, working hard for little money, and what experience they are having of me.

    And none of that is to deny homophobic and transphobic realities of our society.

    And even when people want to be respectful, it is often difficult to know what that looks like for a specific individual. Different cultures show respect differently, and within cultures, individuals have different feelings for what is respectful for them. Many masculine expressing female-bodied people hate being called sir, and some of us love it. No way for the customer service person to know without asking.

    • Thank you so much for your comment! This is a great observation and an important one to lift up how these social constructs are problematic for everyone; and to observe that we cannot know what someone’s experience is like and therefore it is challenging to ascribe meaning to their actions based on isolated interactions. At the same time, I have to acknowledge 40 years of having this same interaction. From being a little boy who was always asked about basketball instead of football or baseball (let alone my actual sport of figure skating) to being an adult who had three more interactions with people that day following this one where I was addressed as ‘bro’, ‘yo wassup’ and ‘dude’…there’s a pattern that is worth exploring.

      As you say, the customer service person has no way of knowing (been there, made the gaff, had the egg on my face and lost the customer.) But this is kind of my point, why take the risk of greeting one person as ‘sir’ and another as ‘man’? The best tactic would be to be neutral and engage everyone with a spirit of equanimity and attempt to meet people where they are by first listening, without assumption.

      Thank you again,

      Adam

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