Portrait, Benton Harbor, MI

An African-American, who looked to be in his late thirties, scanned my groceries at the checkout.  As we made small talk about the weather and the price of spaghetti squash, he addressed me with a title I, at first, ignored.  It happened a second time, and I ignored it again.  When I heard it a third time, I couldn’t let it go.  Eying his name tag I said, “Aaron, you don’t have to call me sir.”  The surprise on his face suggested to me a white guy had never said this before.  With customers waiting behind me there was no time to go deeper into the conversation.  As I grabbed the bags containing my purchases, he handed me my receipt.  We smiled.  When I started to walk away he reminded me, “Sir, don’t forget your cat food.”

First of all, I get it.  Employees address customers as “Sir” and “Ma’am” all the time.  It’s not a racial thing but a customer service thing, a politeness that greases the gears of human interaction.  If Aaron had been a white guy scanning my groceries, I (twenty years his senior) would have thought, “Gee, it’s really not so bad getting old when strangers address me as sir.”

In this instance, though, I felt a strange awkwardness.  Was a black guy being especially polite to a white guy because it’s still a white society?  Did his parents teach him at an early age to make sure to say “Sir” and “Ma’am” when talking to white folks because he might get into trouble if he didn’t?

This got me thinking about a conversation I had with church folks years ago.  I’ve long forgotten the context, but I asked, “Should our government make reparations to African-Americans for 350 years of slavery and free labor?”  By their angry responses, you’d have thought I suggested we remove the cross from the sanctuary or change the color of the carpeting!  “What do you mean reparations?  My family never owned slaves!”  The conversation ended before it started.

The young man in the photograph I took is a resident of Benton Harbor, Michigan’s poorest city with a per capital income of less than $10,000.  The troubled town is over 90% black.  By contrast, Michigan’s richest town, Bloomfield Hills, boasts a per capita income of over $110,000.  It’s 90% white.  Twice as much is spent on the public education of children growing up in Bloomfield Hills as is spent on children in Benton Harbor.  It’s easy to predict which children grow up better equipped to succeed.

It’s not hard to come up with a host of other disparities between the races in America.  The gap is getting wider.  I believe future generations will set things right on those issues we don’t seem to have the will to address.  Aware of the role slavery played in the economic development of our nation, and knowing the inequities that exist today, I’ll never feel comfortable being addressed as “Sir” by an African-American.




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  1. Ron Irvine December 9, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

    I share your sentiments. There is a awkwardness among the more sensitive of us whites due to the shame and disgrace of the past. I never expect a “sir” but I’m learning to appreciate a respectful acknowledgment. Something that feels good to me is that I am being more intentional about is addressing others with “sir”.

    I live in a poor inner city neighborhood of Grand Rapids and am the only white guy within several blocks. I walk an hour per day in my neighborhood. I find it interesting that 90% of the people that I pass are black and that 90% of the time they will say hello or acknowledge me in some respectful way in response to my greeting. Of the 10% of white people that I pass, 90% will not acknowledge me. There are a lot of invisible dynamics in culture. It is good that others are attune to them and struggling with equality along with me. Thoughtful post!

  2. Donald Newsom December 10, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    Daniel, your comments are right on target. I suggest this: Try addressing EVERY male you meet as “Sir” — the hispanic high school kid who is decades younger than you; the black bus driver when he lets you off. It’s a small gesture, but maybe it helps to level the playing field.

  3. Matt H December 10, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    I bet he calls all customers “Sir” or “Ma’am” regardless of race. Why is your cashier’s race making you uncomfortable? Over-compensating for so-called “liberal guilt” is not necessarily productive although I understand your line of thinking.