Monday, July 20, 2009

More on Etiquette

Looking at my post about the importance of dressing and behaving well in public, I noticed two cultural blind spots on my part: the first is that immigrants to Canada and the US, particularly from more 'traditional' cultures, often dress and behave a lot better than the locals; the other is that this discussion about dressing and behaving with dignity has, of course, been going on for decades now in the black community. The always good Ta-Nehisi Coates writes today:

"I think it's easy to underestimate how much this Organic Black Conservative tradition resonates. It really is one of things that connects us. It's about going upschool to check on your son, and finding out that the kids that are cutting up the most in class, are the one's whose parents are the least involved. It's about walking up Lenox, at ten in the evening on Sunday, and seeing eight year-olds out playing. There's a deep sense, in all of us--even left-wing me--that we aren't doing enough.
I don't know that that sense is rational. I don't think it makes policy. But we have a strong need to believe that we don't have to wait on policy reform (read: the consent of white folks) for change. That if we just change how eat, how we raise our kids, our study-habits, how we talk to each other, then everything will be OK. I feel like that all the time. It is the religious part of me."
He's right. I recognize a lot of this having lived in a few "black neighborhoods" and working with a lot of older black men. I remember listening to guys my father's age agonizing about why they can't get their sons to dress and speak better. My own parents, who were certainly working class too, generally told us to do what we wanted and not worry too much about what the old farts thought about it. My father is a great man, but he can be a bit obstinate, and I remember my parents fighting over his insistence on wearing his dirty work clothes to PTA meetings. His point: if they didn't like it, well then screw 'em! I remember, as a child, thinking that there was something snooty and phony about being too dignified. Luckily, we lived down the street from my grandfather, who spent hours teaching us how to comport ourselves. He was pretty old school.

However, it was funny to me because, in the largely black areas that I've lived in, the men my father's age dress just like my grandfather. It's not dressing "rich"; it's just dressing well. They look sharp. Maybe this is what's so weird to me about Hamilton, another working class city with a largely white population- I see men in their 40s with dirty, sleeveless shirts, hanging jeans, and a general demeanor of angry defiance- if you don't like it, then screw you! I'm not actually used to seeing this in large numbers of middle aged men. It seems weird.

As for the "Organic Black Conservative tradition", it's strange how little you hear about it, outside of the black community or its media. Coates is absolutely right here: there is a strong cultural conservatism in the black community, an almost "Midwestern" emphasis on dress, demeanor, family, faith, and tradition. I always called it "churchy", meaning no disrespect. So when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama talk about these things, they're speaking within a tradition; there's nothing 'revolutionary' or even unique about it. Coates is also right that it's tempting, and probably wrong, to assume that these behaviors can solve every social problem. I do think that this Organic Black Conservative tradition he's talking about might gain a bit more attention with Barack Obama, who is absolutely a product of that tradition, becoming President. But, that's another post.


Holly said...

I'm too stupid to write out my thoughts right now (It's a zillion degrees here today) but I will say I find this stuff fascinating, and could talk about it for hours. Thanks for posting on this subject.

rufus said...

No problem. I look forward to reading your thoughts when the weather is cooler.

Holly said...

OK.... here's a part of what I was thinking. These notions are all personal observations & conclusions, and in no way backed by methodical study. Probably backed by a lot of personal bias, in fact. Most of my observations come from a very limited geographical region, as well--there is probably a strong and long-standing culture in this case.

If you compare two people of similar social/economic/educational background at any level of society I have had access to, the black men will almost invariably have better dress and comportment than the white men.

With women, it is more balanced. The young children of black parents seem to be better groomed and schooled in etiquette than those of white children of comparable status, while the white children likely have more status symbols in terms of toys and accessories.

If those observations are valid, they lead to the obvious question of why it should be that way. My guess is, the white men are already white, while the black men are expected to show that they are Not The Bad Kind Of Black Man. (and of course there are many who deliberately try to antagonize this expectation).

Women, I think, face slightly less judgment on this front, because the traditional roles of women are mostly about the same until you get into elite realms. For instance, the physical tasks of being a mother have no regard whatsoever for class or ethnicity--they are biological facts.

Children are simply taught what their parents believe is going to give them the best shot in life. Perhaps good dress and comportment are critical for the survival of a black man (I can believe it certainly was, and for a LONG time!) while white people might find that having the trappings of success is sufficient and necessary.

There is so, so much more to all this, of course. Even my generalizations are only applicable to the tiny slice of American life I've experienced personally, and even within that there are countless exceptions and contradictions. Inherent problem of discussing individual behavior in a group context...

Holly said...

Please forgive my collection of typos and grammatical flailings, it's early, I'm trying to bang out coherent thoughts before the temperature today reaches combustion levels.

Also: I actually think it's good that there are people challenging the idea that dressing and behaving well will solve the problems of the black people in America.

If we accept the idea that identity is partly performative, then there is the problem of the well dressed, well mannered black man performing *that* role, instead of, say, the role of a socially equal entitlement. If we are all equals, then we are all equally entitled to dress like crap, be an ass in public, and so on.

Make sense? I hope so. We're up to 25°C which is my cut off for sense-make.

Rufus said...

I know what you're talking about. I've actually posted before about what I call 'black swells'- maybe black dandies would work better: basically, my current male fashion heroes are all new money blacks. It's amazing how many black men that become successful will start dressing like Gatsby, whereas new money whites dress like they're in the frat house.

I even see this in my department. Academics dress professional but shabby- probably to show that clothes aren't on their minds. But the black professors in my university dress really sharp. They feel no need to dress down, I suspect.

And it's not exactly class-based either. After a certain age, most black men I've seen dress with style and dignity, regardless of their background. In contrast, I've been to country clubs that were filled with rich, white people dressed like slobs- er, I mean 'casually'. It's sort of weird.