For many years now, a British company called Debrett’s has produced a book guide to table manners, dress code and social etiquette. This guide has prevented many a faux pas and ensured the smooth denouement of business meetings, formal dinners and other potentially hazardous social gatherings. It’s a guide which is very much still referred to in diplomatic circles.
In the unenlightened old days, it was critical to know how to speak to the landed gentry, such as a prince, duke, king, or even a member of the clergy. Get it wrong and the consequences were disastrous. Addressing a bishop as ‘padré’ rather than ‘your excellency’ was simply inexcusable, exposing the miscreant to a real risk of being ostracized or possibly excommunicated.
Times move on, however, and if we address bishops at all it is in screaming foul-mouthed abuse at them from behind a banner at an LGBT rally. In such circumstances, politeness is out of the question and these days we prefer to ‘bash the bishop’. Furthermore, since people are generally ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ and have their own truths which are true to them, excommunication is no threat at all.
Despite the progress we have made, social etiquette continues to be just as relevant as in the past, even if the context has shifted. Speaking to friends and family is always easy, but it can lull us into a false sense of security. Life becomes much more difficult when we encounter a person of color.
If we are also pigment-enhanced, there is no problem. A polite ‘it’s all good bro’ is all that is required in passing. If, however, we are hideously white and need to check our privilege, just how should we act? It is in such circumstances that we find Debrett’s and other etiquette guides to be wholly deficient since they offer no guidance at all.
In all likelihood, we will freeze in such circumstances, acutely aware of historic oppression committed against the person in front of us but utterly clueless as to how to act. This is the ‘fight or flight’ instinct in all of us. Neither fight nor flight are especially polite when a person of color is extending his hand to shake, showing his shiny white teeth in a welcoming smile. We therefore must turn to common sense as our guide. Here is what we recommend:
- Remember that your counterpart of color is always and everywhere a victim and that you are the oppressor. However much you may be tempted to view the POC as just another human being, we progressives are above this. Even if he/she is a high powered professional in a bank/law firm etc., it is certain that their ancestors picked cotton for a slave owner. Pay reparations on the spot. No explanation is needed, they will understand, even if they may look confused.
- Do NOT start rapping or twerking in the street in order somehow to create a rapport and get ‘on their wavelength’. Apart from embarrassing yourself in public and possibly ending up in hospital with a slipped disc, this is cultural appropriation. We note that Miley Cirus’s career has gone downhill since THAT incident.
- Do NOT attempt to talk like dem and all dat sheeit it’s all good bro…cos u is a honkey not a home skillet.
- DO apologise for police brutality. You may not feel personally responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent black kids at the hands of cops, but your skin color is a witness to your lies.
- If you are in your car/SUV when meeting the POC, don’t make the mistake of thinking you are cocooned and safe. Whilst you may think that ‘appearing bigger than you are’ is a successful tactic, this only really works in a safari park when confronting a lion, tiger or other wild beast. POC are smarter than this.
- If in doubt, just hand over your wallet. Do not look back. By all means walk away hastily, always keeping eye contact, but do not run because they are faster than you.
Remember that most interactions with people of color are trouble-free and end without incident.
In any event, this is how NOT to go about it: