Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What's In A Name?

Buddy, Ramsey and Smiley

Those were the names of the White House ushers that the Bush twins mentioned in their letter to Sasha and Malia Obama. I'm sure most of you have heard about this letter since it made the rounds on all the cable news stations and was written about by most newspapers. If you missed it, you can check it out here.

The letter was an unprecedented attempt by the Bush twins to offer the Obama girls some advice on life in the White House. It featured practical advice on how to live in America's brightest spotlight and also some heartfelt words on how the Obama girls should deal with criticism of their father.

I'll admit that when I first heard about it, it seemed like a fairly nice gesture.

Then, my pops brought the names of the ushers to my attention. Anybody whose paid attention to the ins and outs of the White House knows that most of the lower level support staff is black. The cooks, the ushers, the maids, these are all black men and women who often have had these jobs in the White House for decades. Obama isn't the first black man in the oval office, he's just the first one to sit in the big chair.

My father was miffed by the names of White House ushers. Actually, what he was upset by, was something that was missing from the names of the White House ushers.

The word "mister."

Black folks know what's up. It's almost unheard of for us to call older black people by only their first names, let alone nicknames, unless they're related to us. It's just not done. There is a certain respect level that is assumed with our elders, no matter how menial their jobs may be.

Some folks may think I'm reaching for something to complain about, and I'll admit that I can see their point. Honestly, when my father mentioned this issue to me, my initial reaction was to blow him off and tell to stop being so sensitive. After all, we have a black man in the White House, it's time to stop sweating the small stuff. Plus, I'm sure those three men encouraged the twins to call them by those nicknames.

But, then I thought about it some more. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I began to question the casual manner the Bush daughters assumed with the ushers. It seemed particularly egregious when I considered the fact that the girls came into the White House fairly young. They weren't adults when they crossed that historic threshold, they were just teenagers. For teenagers to blithely call grown men by nicknames like Buddy, Ramsey and Smiley just felt wrong.

I don't know about y'all, but it's pretty much a reflex for me to call older men and women, "mister" or "missus." When I was kid, my parents, particularly my father, constantly reminded my brother and I to say "yes, sir" or "no, ma'am." I'm pretty sure I could get comfortable enough to call the ushers "Mr. Buddy" or "Mr. Smiley," but dropping the honorific completely seems unlikely. It would feel disrespectful.

My father definitely saw it as a sign of disrespect. He thought it was proof that Bush could never truly see a black person as his equal, and that the former president had passed that mentality along to his children. I'm not sure if I'd make it a racial issue, although I'm not ruling it out either. I think it's just another example of the casual way Bush viewed life in general.

The White House, and by extension America, was just a place for the Bush family to have fun and feel comfortable. President Bush never saw his position as a sacred trust. Instead, he saw it as a way to pad his resume, burnish his father's legacy and enrich a few cronies. The tragedy of September 11th was the only thing that pushed him from his projected path of footnote in American political history, to arguably the most infamous president ever.

I'm sure Bush didn't see anything unusual in his daughters calling grown men by nicknames, hell, how else do you address the help? Just as I'm certain that Bush left all of those folks fairly nice parting gifts upon his departure, I'm also sure he never once saw them as fully formed individuals. And clearly, neither did his daughters.

It's all in the names.


Lorraine said...

I first read those names and I was like "Uh, why do these sound like slave names?" Then, I read your post.

I wanna who came up with the nicknames for these men. The men themselves? Bush twins? They put Ramsey, Buddy, and "Smiley." Why the hell is that in quotations and the other one's arent?

Hm, yeah, I agree with you. That whole thing just rubs me the wrong way.

Clifton said...

When I was growing up there were men I only knew by their nicknames and we put Mr. and Ms. in front of that. That gentleman would have been Mr. Smiley to me too. I don't know how old your dad is but stuff like this sends my dad through the roof. He's an old school black man and everything is about respect.

Anonymous said...

I don't care if you're a waiter serving me or a doorman opening a door for me or a taxi driver or an accountant. Even as an adult, if I don't know your damn name, you're "sir" or "miss" or "ma'am" regardless of age of color or anything else.

If you're someone I'm interviewing for an article, you're Mr. or Ms. or Dr. whomever until you've referred to me by my first name several times, at which point I may loosen up.

For children in particular, I think adding the Mr. or Ms. or whatever, wehther in front of a last name, first name or nickname, is a simple lesson in respect.

And as an adult, I am loath to give folks nicknames. A waitress is not "honey" and a black man I don't know isn't "dude" and a native American ain't "chief." And so on.

I think Miss Manners can be a bit of an etiquette fascist at times, but in addressing people, I think respect should always lead the way.

Hell, I say "Thank you sir" to the 17 year old freakin bagger at the grovery store...LOL

LisaMJ said...

Hmm, it was a nice little letter. I'm sure they meant well. I can see your point but maybe that is what they told them to call them? Never thought I'd defend the Bush twins, but for me as a kid, I called most of my parent's friends either Aunt or Uncle so and so or if they didn't like that by their first name. Only one went by Mr. first name b/c I called his wife Aunt and he didn't want that and I was told to call him Mr. My Mom actually HATES anyone to call her Ms. Firstname and to hear people call people that b/c it makes her think of how slaves had to address their mistresses , Ms. Anne, etc. It could be regional, and though they are from the south, you'd think they'd do the sir, ma'am thing but really their family is really a New England one so maybe that is one Southern affectation (and I think a Bush was a lot of that) they didn't pick up. I only started using that as an adult after working around the Military for a few years even though my Mom was from the South. She knew people in the north didn't say Ma'am and Sir, so she didn't make me say it. She was even surprised once when we were in the south and one of my southern cousins called her Ma'am after she corrected her. She actually told me that for a minute she thought the girl was being a smarty pants until she remember that kids still talked that way down there.

So that was a long ramble to say, I see your point, but in this case I don't think it was meant as a disrespect. I could be wrong though.
Lisa J

Anonymous said...

The only adults who insist on my children calling them by their first names also happen to be white. It's been occasionally irritating because some of them have actually made it a little bit of an issue. "Oh no, they can call me Bill, Becky, whathaveyou, no need to be formal." and thereby forced me to put on my parent hat and say "No thank you. It's a Rule with us, all adults are to be addressed as Miss, Mrs. or Mr. and no exceptions except for family."

I have never had one single person of color debate this, no matter how assimilated.

I don't get it, at all. My children are not their peers, period. End of discussion and sorry if it makes them feel uncool, old, excluded or whatever the rationale is.

Mind you, these are some of the same people that would tsk and whisper in a minute about how "certain" children just don't respect the rules, etc.

Anonymous said...

Dude come on, that's ridiculous. These names are the equivalent of "Geeves", a butler name. Do people call their butler Mr. Geeves? I think not!

See, it's a problem with the English language itself. Mister and Sir imply authority. In French, Monsieur is just polite so it's much easier.


Anonymous said...

Also, I am a mean woman because some of the unspoken Bush advice in that letter would add "if you want to smoke some weed, the groundskeeper can't rat out without getting fired. Also, when you want to cut loose with some underage drinking, the secret service has to keep you safe while getting ditched. Basically, you have a blanket "stay out of jail" card and everyone else has to take the heat for your skankiness under the pretext of privacy and protection.

I don't worry at all that the Obama children will be held to standards far higher than any member of the Bush family, including the Bush dog, has ever had to attain.

Clifton said...

I would call my butler Mr.Geeves if that is the name he went by.

Anonymous said...

Ever see "Remains of the Day"? The head butler is not called "Mr. Stevens", just "Stevens". And that's in prim & proper 30's England. Chill.

Anonymous said...

.... A Merchant Ivory flick and England in the 30s? That's what you base your perception of respect and dignity on?

Ooohkay then, do carry on and Righto, Whiteo to you, fine Sir.

Anonymous said...

Yea the point is that rich white people used to call very well spoken, highly trained, superbly dressed prim & proper white people by only their last names. It's simply butlertorial protocol. Chill. Looks like you've made up your mind anyway so what's the point.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the point that Big Man (and others) have made several times is that not rich, not white people of times past and present equate first name basis with disrespect or uninvited familiarity. I am, in fact, quite chill and have only made up my mind to await more butlertorials from you. If you're unable to withstand a little prodding and amusement on the internet, I'll make sure not to question your frequently bemusing replies.

Honestly, you crack me up but it's not my blog so I've refrained from "wtf?" in the past but today, you cracked me right up with your Masterpiece Theatre frame of reference.

Anonymous said...

Oooh look at you using that condescending style, so very clever, you must be very proud of yourself. Did you write that all by yourself? Are you showing it to your friends so they know just how smart you are?

Anonymous said...

I am proud of myself but not for goading you into showing just how closeminded you are. You've bored me now.

Unknown said...

I think you're reading too much into this. Who says that the Bush girls gave them these names? Maybe that's what they've been going by for years and maybe that's how they introduced themselves to the twins. Also, the girls weren't 18 when they first entered the white houes. There were 7. Even though they weren't permenant residents during their Grandfather's term, I think it's safe to say that they spent a significant amount of time there and probably came to know the ushers pretty well.

This just all seems so trivial when we have much larger issues to be worried about.

Anonymous said...

First of all this is a perfect example of blacks peeping into white culture and for once not understanding it.

It's rare, but it happens.

The internship I was at this summer, one of the directors was a 60 year old ordained minister and we all called him by his first name, and he insisted on it in fact.

i personally think you're reading too much. I mean, i understand though. As black people we fight for our titles because it puts us on par with the white folk. So for us to be Dr., Rev., let alone Mr. or Mrs., really means a lot to us in our community. I also echo the sentiments that the Bush twins came up with these names like Kyra above said.

Anonymous said...

Big Man, I am with you. The way I was raised adults were called mister or missus, plain and simple. I think that titles should be used but that's just me.

Anonymous said...

Heh, my daughter and I had a little chat on the way home about just this very subject. She mentioned how cool her friend's mom is and how she doesn't like being called Mrs. Soandso cuz it makes her feel old and so even though my child feels a little uncomfortable she calls the mom by her first initial. Well. Ha! After making it clear that this wasn't about what makes the mom feel comfy and cozy and cool but that is is one of My Rules we talked about how it can be conflicting when an adult sends mixed messages. After all, my daughter is clearly not comfortable doing this but the adult holds the authority and insists ... you all get the gist.

I do understand that it seems like one of those mountain out of a molehill things and that it's rooted in the complexities of class and culture. However, for my part, it's about children and adults and the respect paid to adults. If it's all about the kids being allowed to speak to grownups on first name basis, then why do my child's teachers still insist on being addressed with a title? After, at least where we live, the staff is white, educated and are some of the best paid teachers in the state.

Just floating it out there because I'm actually curious about the different takes on this today, even though I have bigger things to worry about.

Big Man said...

Thank you all for the amazing discussion. I've been somewhat out of commission lately, so I just got a chance to read all of your thoughts and I appreciate the dissent and the agreement.

I can see both sides of this issue, and truly it depends on what each individual considers normal. My definition of normal is Mr. and Mrs. somebody else's is Smiley.

I stand by what I wrote, but thank you all for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

You know, I think it's one thing to call them by a nickname or something else familiar once there is a relationship.

I mean, if the Bush twins were prepping the Obama kids for their future dealings with the Secret Services agents (if, for example, the same folks were going to be minding Barack and Michelle's kids), would the twins have used nicknames and/or first names?

Or would it have been Agent [Insert last name here]?

I don't have any answer, but I'd be curious.

One can argue that Buddy, Ramsey and Smiley are "below" a Secret Service agent, since they're only the "house staff," but I dislike classism myself.

I'm not harping on the Bush twins for being somehow elitist and racist, but I do think it points to the subtle effects of privilege and how we treat others around us based on that.

Anonymous said...

Last year there was an article in the LA Times about Eugene Allen, who spent 30-some years on the White House staff, many of them as a butler. He was called Gene by the Fords, at least. I remember thinking about the whole first name thing when I read it, and now you've brought it up again. Darth seems to have got his panties in a bunch over the idea, but this sort of thing is undeniably and understandably a sore point with black men of a certain age.

It's true that the wealthy and privileged have traditionally forgone honorifics like "mister" when speaking to the help, but the men, at least, have retained the small dignity of been called by their last names. I'm with your dad on this one, although I can't put too much blame on the Bush Twins. They're not being deliberately disrespectful, it's just how they were raised.

BTW, a bittersweet coda to the original article was published after the inauguration.

D C Cain said...

I hope I'm not too late to respond. What I find ironic is that black people want their kids to call adults Ms. and Mr. in an effort to teach respect....yet they want those same kids to disrespect an adult's wishes about what THAT ADULT prefers to be called. Crazy.

And didn't Will and Carlton call Geoffrey by his name (Fresh Prince)?

How do you call someone Mr. Smiley? That's wack. You can call the help Mr. and Mrs. but that changes NOTHING. "Mr. Smiley, answer the door... Mr. Smiley, please hem my skirt... Mr. Smiley, we are ready to be served now."

What's the POINT?

Anonymous said...

ooooh Lolo shame on you you know you are SO wrong for that but still LMAO! I agree I don't think it's a race thing so much as a class/privilege thing. In the story I'm writing the main character calls his maid by her first name even though he suppsoed to be 43 and she is 56. It's kind of difficult to afford respect to people you think of as servants as in subservient to you. That kind of relationship changes the dynamic when you have someone working FOR you in that way it's hard to see them as 100 percent equal. I don't know the Bush twins and maybe they do have some racist tendencies but that doesn't seem a factor here

Raving Black Lunatic