Calling black men “sir”

In a recent blog post, I’m Sorry for Slavery, I said that I would adopt the practice of calling black men “sir.” I noted that ever since I was an adult there have been black men who called me “sir,” even if they were much older than I was. So this seemed like a quick and easy way to create a little more racial equity in my own life. And for me, the practice has been both illuminating and empowering.

I’ve developed a few rules as I’ve gone along, just to avoid any really awkward situations.  Specifically, I only call a black man “sir” if:

  1. I assess him to be at least 18 years old. I think calling someone under 18 “sir” is just weird, and would be viewed as such.
  2. I have a reasonable expectation that he would hear me. For example, I don’t do it to someone wearing headphones.
  3. He’s not someone with whom I’m likely to end up in a long-term acquaintance, like the father of one of my daughter’s classmates in ballet.

Those exceptions aside, I’ve had the opportunity to call quite a few black men “sir” since I wrote that post. So what happens?

Well, I typically get two different categories of response. One is a quick and casual return greeting, like “What’s up?” The second is a jovial – even surprised – return greeting, often followed by a bit of friendly conversation that I suspect (and I may be projecting here) would not have happened otherwise. In these cases the practice is a lot of fun; it creates new opportunities to liven up everyday situations with friendly banter with people I don’t know.

Of course I would like to think that my calling black men “sir” has made a difference to them, but it probably hasn’t. As with any such practice, I’m sure the greatest effect has been on me, the person doing the practice. By calling black men “sir” I have really felt the palpable presence of race in interpersonal relations between strangers. I have often found it difficult even to make eye contact with black men, particularly those under around 30 years old. I have a perception of black men feeling genuinely isolated in their own society.Maybe I’m wrong about that. But for this reason, I would really recommend this practice to anyone who does not believe that this country has a race problem.