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Common courtesy is a small step toward racial healing

There’s a lot of meaning in the words ‘my bad’ and ‘we straight’

I walk into my corner grocery and gas station, look around, and notice I am the only white person in sight.

When we moved in 1978 to the south end of St. Petersburg, Florida, four African-American families lived on my block. Now there are 10, out of 20 houses. Half white. Half black. There’s been some white flight over the years, but we prefer the neighborliness of the black families who moved in to the half-heartedness of the white families that moved out.

When a group of journalists visited my house for a party, an African-American reporter who worked for NPR exclaimed, “Roy, I had no idea you lived in the ‘hood.”

I still prefer to describe my part of St. Pete as “integrated” rather than “diverse.” When I see the word “diverse,” I think of lots of folks from many different backgrounds. Not just ebony and ivory. The word “integrated” reminds me that we achieved escape velocity from its antonym: “segregated.”

As I walk into the grocery, I notice an older black lady coming in from her car to pay for her gas. I wait until she approaches the door, and I hold it open wide and wish her a “blessed day.” She looks a bit surprised, but offers a lilting thank you and a warm smile.

I start to move in behind her when I catch sight of something else, a couple of middle school students, also African-American. They are on their way to grab an after-school treat, and I step back again, hold open the door and say, “Here you go, gentlemen.” One looks up in surprise. The other whispers, “Thank you, sir.”

I try to be courteous to everyone, everywhere. But I practice a special brand of courtesy when people of color are involved. It is a small, small act. But behind it is a big idea: that racism manifests itself in some big ways (such as the mass incarceration of black men, the aggression of police forces, the failures of the educational system), but also in many small ways.

Those small ways, I have learned, have a name: “racial micro-aggressions.” Coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970, the phrase refers to “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of hidden messages being communicated,” as defined by Dr. Derald Wing Sue in Psychology Today.

My only argument with that definition is the adjective “well-intentioned.” I can confirm the suspicions of people of color that many of the slights, insults, and indignities they suffer are carried out by white people with bad intentions.

This is where common courtesy comes into play. Maybe it is a little thing I can use as a healing balm in a culture that appears increasingly coarse, discourteous, and uncivil. Think of it as the opposite of micro-aggression. Is there such a thing as a “micro-courtesy”?

I should pause to say what common courtesy is not. It is not my gift to people of color, or a modern form of noblesse oblige. I think of it as an expression of civic duty, but one that requires little sacrifice and earns great benefits.

Although I’ve waged my courtesy crusade for many years now, this is the first time I have made it public, a description inspired, in part, by the work of journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As one of America’s most influential young authors, Coates came to my attention by the strong case he made in The Atlantic for reparations. He started a conversation on what America owes to those who continue to suffer from the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow, describing how the maintenance of white privilege still depends upon the exploitation of black bodies.

I read Coates’ sinewy book Between the World and Me, a deeply personal reflection on race in America, framed as a letter to his 15-year-old son. This epistolary memoir was honored by a National Book Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Coates has received a McArthur “genius” grant, and many other awards.

My contemplation of racial courtesy was enlarged by two scenes described in detail by Coates to his son.

“Perhaps you remember that time we went to see [a show] on the Upper West Side. You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, ‘Come on!’ There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body.”

For Coates that moment assumes a symbolic significance, the weight of history distilled to a moment.

“I was aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defense … And he was supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said, ‘I could have you arrested!’ I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat. This desire was only controllable because I remember someone standing off to the side there, bearing witness to more fury than he had ever seen from me – you.”

The bookend of this scene is another: “Not long ago, I was standing in an airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black.”

He goes on, “In that single exchange with that young man, I was speaking the personal language of my people. It was the briefest intimacy, but it captures much of the beauty of my black world … To call that feeling racial is to hand over all those diamonds, fashioned by our ancestors, to the plunderer. We made that feeling though it was forged in the shadow of the murdered, the raped, the disembodied, we made it all the same. This is the beautiful thing that I have seen with my own eyes, and I think I needed this vantage point before I could journey out. I think I needed to know that I was from somewhere, that my home was as beautiful as any other.”

That’s a lot of meaning to extract from an exchange of four words: “My bad” and “We straight.”

My opinion is no substitute for Coates’ experience, but I will offer it anyway: The lady in the theater lacked common courtesy. The young man in the airport had it. If I had been that lady, in all my whiteness, I would have done my best to avoid bumping into the child, maybe even stopping for a second to protect him, saying “Please excuse me, young man,” with a smile and nod to the father.

If I had been the man and the airport, I would not have said, “We straight.” That phrase is not in my word hoard. But I might have said, “No, sorry, MY bad.”

I was raised in New York City and on Long Island, where micro- and macro-aggression was in the water, but I got my first college teaching job in 1974 in Montgomery, Alabama. One colleague, a woman in the business school, was particularly kind to me. She’d ask me questions about my family and how we were adjusting to life in the South. She had a bright smile and a sweet Southern accent that was like honey to my Long Island ears. “These people are so nice,” I remember saying to my wife. “They even smile at strangers when you pass them on the street.”

One day on the cafeteria line something upset my white female colleague. The black woman who served her sandwich had done something the white lady clearly did not like. I was shocked. That honey voice turned to vinegar as she spun the plate back toward the server with a sharp rebuke. This was not well-intentioned. It was vicious.

For a moment I was speechless. But when it was my turn to get my burger, I remember smiling at the server, expressing my gratitude, and wishing her a nice day. I don’t recall having anything to do with the white lady again. This is not about reparations by courtesy, except to say I was conscious of trying to “repair” the damage cause by my white colleague.

We all know countless horror stories related to the American version of apartheid in the South, of murders, lynchings, torture, the dynamite bombings of churches and synagogues. While those events and images dominate our historical perspective, less visible but more common were the daily indignities and discourtesies suffered by people then described as “colored” or “Negro.”

In 1960 Gene Patterson, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution — also a mentor of mine — wrote a column about the power of common courtesy between the races. It involved a Georgia state trooper named Lt. W.D. McDaniel who helped a high school math teacher named Mrs. Anne W. Smith after a minor traffic accident. So courteous was the trooper that the teacher went out of her way to write a letter of thanks to him – with a copy to the newspaper.

Mrs. Smith describes how McDaniel helped her and her young child after the crash in a rainstorm, emphasizing how courteous he was to her.

“The main thing was,” Mrs. Smith wrote Patterson, “he didn’t act mean. Four or five years ago I was stopped in Georgia near the South Carolina line for a much smaller offense. The fine was $75. But, worse than the fine, the state patrolman who stopped me was very nasty. He frightened me and humiliated me. That’s why I wrote the letter to the officer in Thomason.”

Patterson concludes, “She sent a copy of the letter to the Constitution because ‘the kind of consideration given me by Officer McDaniel needs to be made known to the people of Georgia who, in many instances, have lost faith in our law enforcement officers. I would like the citizens of Georgia to know that a man like this represents our division of law enforcement.”

He leaves this detail to the very end: “Only incidentally do we mention that Mrs. Smith is Negro.”

We read that now at a time when the Black Lives Matters movement has focused attention on alienation between police departments and communities of color. The Patterson column offers us a parable from 1960 and gives us historical context. Imagine that a simple act of courtesy by a white officer to a black teacher was so unusual that it was worth coverage in the paper.

I think of Lt. McDaniel and Mrs. Smith often. When I hold the door to the grocery open for church ladies and the tough guys alike. It is something I can do. And, my white brothers and sisters, you can too.

When it comes to racial reconciliation, courtesy is not the destination. That end point has nobler names like social justice, tolerance, equality, and embrace of the other. Courtesy may be a small word in comparison, but it is the threshold we must cross to find our way.

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. He is the author of “Writing Tools” and many other books.