by Doctor Science
Following links from The Warmth of Other Suns, I'm currently reading Caste and Class in a Southern Town by John Dollard (first published 1937). Dollard was a Yale sociologist with a strong interest in Freudian psychology who did "field work" in Indianola, Mississippi, in the mid-1930s. Dollard was mostly interested in a "study of the Negro mind" by interviewing a variety of black informants of all classes. He also talked to many white people who lived in town, but confessed that he knew very little about the lower-class whites who were mostly rural.
Cut for multiple videos.
When discussing the way the racial caste system gives whites a "prestige gain", in the form of constant submissive behavior from blacks -- ranging from quiet respect to fawning admiration -- he says
Here is the sort of submissive response that white men like: A white man speaks to a Negro, "How are you, Sam?" Sam: "Oh, pretty good for an old nigger." In this case the Negro takes toward himself the derogatory attitude of the white man, calls himself by the name "nigger" which has so much negative affect for Negroes. A Negro responding in this manner establishes himself as definitely knowing his place and puts himself in a good way to get whatever he wants from the white man. Lower-class Negroes are quite expert at managing white people through their vanity....[emphasis added] I was struck by this, because I've noticed that it's *really* difficult to not feel that people who chat nicely with me while they're doing me a paid service are "really nice" and "having a good conversation" -- when they're economically incapable of disagreeing with me.
It is an odd thing, but white people seem pretty completely taken in by this behavior of the Negro.
Anyway, it's interesting and cynical-making (cynicalizing?) how very difficult it is to resist feeling that, even though other people are clearly flattered for base reasons, when it's directed at *me* it must be sincere.
Issues of flattery and prestige overlap with issues of manners and courtesy. I knew, of course, that Southerners then (and now) pride themselves on cultivating a standard of manners not found in the cruel cold North, one where the title of this post is as close as you get to an insult, and where children learn to say "Sir" and "Ma'am".
What I hadn't realized before reading Dollard's book is how loaded "Sir" and "Ma'am" were in the South. Dollard reports that a friend, coming to town after him,
reported only one complaint against me: I had addressed a certain Negro woman as Mrs. ... It was useless to explain that the woman was a high-class Negro, that I could not help saying it because "no other words would come out of my mouth."I hadn't realized that the good Southern manners of calling people Sir and Ma'am, Mister and Mrs., also involved being careful *not* to use them for the wrong sort of people. Respect only counted if it was *not* universal.
Was this the first time a black man was called "Mister", in a Hollywood movie? What was the first time a black woman was call "Mrs." or "Ma'am"?
Do Japanese manners have a flip side, like this -- where you can get into trouble for being inappropriately respectful? I'm not talking about mocking someone by using high-falutin' terms of address ("Yes, Your Worship"), but where using a general term of respect for someone low on the social scale is felt to mock the whole social scale. When Dollard addressed a Negro informant as "Mister" or "Mrs." the black people didn't feel mocked or slighted -- indeed, middle-class blacks felt these terms of address should be their due, and resented that they never heard them from local whites. Sometimes it made the black informants anxious or embarrassed, because they knew that Dollard's courtesy might get them into trouble for being "uppity".