A transformative moment for many black males of my generation came as we watched In the Heat of the Night for the first time, the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier as police investigator Virgil Tibbs. The moment is when Rod Steiger, the racist sheriff, says to Poitier: "Virgil. That's a pretty funny name for a colored boy from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?"
"They call me Mister Tibbs!" Poitier says.
His delivery is so powerful that blacks, especially males, in that recently integrated theater applauded and screamed for joy. The sheriff has been put in his place by a black man.
We walk into the street feeling a bit taller. Poitier taught many of us that we should care about how we are addressed and greeted by white males, especially by those to whom we hand over our hard-earned money for services rendered. He taught us that we are defined by the names we are called.
Label me a hypersensitive old man for caring about how I am addressed and greeted by white male employees in customer service after all these years. How I am greeted or addressed, in fact, determines if I stay to be served or immediately walk out of a place. I never return to some businesses.
Few things anger me more than to sit at a table in a restaurant only to have a white male waiter ask, "Can I get you something, boss?" or, "How's it going, boss man?" or, "What's up, buddy?" or, "You need a menu, bud?" or, "What can I do for you, chief?"
My reaction depends on whether I'm alone or with others. If alone, I walk out without a word or stay and lecture the offender before ordering. If I'm with someone else, I bear the insult. I leave a small tip or no tip if it's Dutch treat.
What prevents a white male from simply asking: "Good evening, sir, what can I do for you?" What compels him to use "boss" or "boss man" or "buddy" or "bud" or "chief"? I often stand aside to observe how the white clerk who just called me "boss man" treats white male customers. In almost every instance, the whites are called "sir."
Following is a brief lexicon of the terms black men of my generation find insulting.
Boss: This is a disingenuous form of address. It pretends to be deferential when, in fact, it is masking disrespect. It is a term in the workplace, where underlings take orders from the person with the top job. It does not belong in relationship between the paying customer and the service employee.
Buddy: When a white man, a total stranger, addresses a black man with this term, it is condescending and demeaning. A black acquaintance told me that "buddy was the name of a mangy old hound dog" he recalled from childhood. He said that when called "buddy," he feels as if he's not being taken seriously, like he's an object in a game.
Chief: It may sound benign, but it's a vicious address. Urbandictionary.com defines it as a condescending term, equivalent to "buddy, pal, boss, ace, slick, and champ." Its use reminds me of our shameful history with American Indian chiefs. We disrespected them, took away their power and killed many. Why would a person in customer service address a black male, a complete stranger, with this term?
Not a single white female has ever addressed me any other way than "sir." I've never heard a white female use "boss" or "buddy" or "chief" with a black male.
So what's up with white males?
Although I'm not a social scientist, I am convinced that racism, conscious or unconscious, drives many white males in customer service to use these demeaning addresses and greetings. They cannot bring themselves to use terms of respect for black men, particularly graybeards like me.
Employers whose bottom lines depend on quality customer service should adequately train their white male employees to treat blacks with respect. That training should begin with the simple lesson of always using the gold standard of addresses and greetings: "sir."
Old black men like me would love it.