Race Relations: Even a scholar can have a shoulder chip

Bill Maxwell-2s

Syndicated columnist, Bill Maxwell

Syndicated columnist Bill Maxwell is a writer for the Tampa Bay Times and a darn good one. His Op-Ed column appears everywhere. Although the Times choice in political cartoons conveys a subtle, hidden agenda, Maxwell’s editorials are always contemporary, thoughtful and analytical.

Not this time. His recent article on race relations smacks of a lingering resentment that ties innocent language to the race card. I have long thought highly of Bill Maxwell, and I still do. But I hope that he reconsiders the opinion espoused here: At a Restaurant, call me ‘Sir’.

Bill notes that when approached by an unfamiliar, white waiter, he is sometimes addressed as ‘Boss’, ‘Buddy’, ‘Chief’ or ‘Ace’. He interprets these salutations as signs of false respect and racially motivated spite. He also feels that the term ‘Chief’ suggests that the white server wishes upon Bill the same fate that was meted to Native Americans, presumably because the word has it’s roots in the title of tribal leaders.

Nonsense, Bill! While these greetings are certainly imprecise and pedestrian, they are not racist. Please revisit your logic and perhaps your overall mindset. Let me help… [Continue below photo…]

Heat of the Night-s

In the Heat of the Night: Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger, 1968

I caught your op-ed, while eating at my local diner. Coincidentally, I was just starting to read as an unfamiliar waiter approached with coffee. He said, “How ’bout a cup of Joe, Boss?” These were his exact words.

I enjoyed the coffee while reading of your frustration with angry white servers who call you “Boss”.

My initial and instinctive reaction was to immediately support your position. If a server is aware that you take offense at a salutation (“What can I get you, Boss?”), I feel strongly that he should address you in a manner that you prefer. Any good employer trains servers in this simple maxim. After all, in a tolerant and respectful society, we should avoid discourtesy and slights—whether intentional or unconscious—and we should certainly avoid alienating or offending customers based on their religion, culture, race, national origin, or sexual orientation.

But after dwelling on your frustration and contempt for a few days, I reread the opinion and reflected on the particulars. I still think that the server should switch to a greeting that you prefer. But I disagree that he should have known in advance that you might find these terms disrespectful or disagreeable. These terms are neutral and the perception of racism is your personal quirk.

First, I am a middle age, white guy. I am often called “Boss”, “Chief” or “Buddy” by those serving me. To be sure, they are typically a stranger, younger than me, and probably less academic/professional/white collar (take your pick), but we are the same race.

While I agree that “Sir” is the gold standard (an indisputable observation!) and that these other terms convey a slight hint of disrespect, I honestly don’t think it has to do with serving an African American customer. After discussing the issue with colleagues and the waiter who called me “Boss”, I am convinced that it has more to do with culture (the server), class (the customer) , and ignorance (the establishment). Rather than racially charged greeting, I suspect that the umbrage you feel when being addressed “Boss” is related to your personal baggage and perhaps a small chip on your shoulder. The only person invoking the “race card” is you!

It would be interesting to determine if you encounter these salutations from white servers more frequently than me, or if you are more likely to encounter them while sitting at the same restaurant. But since this experiment is difficult to arrange, I respectfully request that you revisit your assumptions and conclusions—based simply on the fact that the same imprecise greetings are directed at me.

On a related note, I submit that the word ‘Chief’ has been integrated into the English language as a non-cultural term with similar meaning to its antecedent. It is in the job title of every CEO and even our president. Native Americans may take offense at the name ‘Red Skins’ (a sports team) but I doubt that anyone is offended by “chief”. Although it originates from American tribes, its English use conveys similar stature and rank. It is no more offensive than a hearing Spaniard use the phrase ‘El Presidente’.

Bill, when you enter a restaurant, you are effectively a temporary ‘Boss’ of the entire staff. If not for you, they would not be in business. Isn’t it just possible that the less refined person serving you simply wants you to know that he is grateful for your patronage? If you take personal exception with the term (and I assure you that it is a personal quirk), then I suggest that you politely explain that you would prefer ‘Sir’.

I realize that this isn’t the hot political issue of the day. But, a remarkable fraction of society’s ills can be traced to unintended inferences. Wild Ducks already know my feelings on this issue, and so I ask readers of this Blog: What do you think, Boss?