HOW TO BEHAVE SENSITIVELY: PRESCRIPTIONS FOR INTERRACIAL CONDUCT FROM THE 1960s TO THE 1990s

Article excerpt

The 1990s have brought renewed interest from Americans in two seemingly unrelated issues, race and etiquette. The more one ponders the outpouring of writing on these two themes, however, the clearer it becomes that the twin interests are intricately connected. A 1993 film, "Six Degrees of Separation," made this connection manifest. The film depicts the rise and fall of a young black man who gains entry into the social world of the New York white liberal elite by mastering its diction and etiquette. With great aplomb, the film's main character, Paul "Poitier" (played by Will Smith), claiming to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, endears himself to the parents of several boarding school friends, armed with inside information received in return for sexual favors for one of their homosexual classmates. In scenes reminiscent of "My Fair Lady" (the 1964 film based in turn on Shaw's Pygmalion), Paul practices articulating "bottle of beer" instead of slurring it in street dialect, and learns customs such as sending small jars of fancy jams and jellies as a token of gratitude. [1]

These skills serve Paul well as he worms his way into the hearts of the wealthy, whose money-grubbing, status-obsessed lives and alienation from their own spoiled children readied them for the catharsis brought about by friendship with the adoring, attractive young black man. While his presence allows them to unburden themselves of all varieties of guilt and makes them feel young and radical (or at least countercultural) again, Paul positions himself to take advantage of the accoutrements of their wealth by using their apartment for sexual adventures and jeopardizing their expensive possessions.

The manner in which Paul Poitier enters the liberal elite's social world, through a mastery of its etiquette--including its racial complex--is highly suggestive. Its resonance derives from the development, since formal desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, of a new association between race and etiquette. In the case of "Six Degrees," Paul Poitier plays the race card with finesse, in a way that disarms his rich white victims. Paul's only mistake is his failure to realize that this tack can only take him so far. Liberal guilt runs deep but exists within a framework of propriety that runs deeper still. Violation of the rules of high society, an essential underpinning of which is the privacy of property, ends up destroying the very illusion of belonging Paul manages to create through a mastery of its etiquette.

The connection between race relations and etiquette in the late twentieth century begins to emerge when various kinds of sources from the period are arrayed, ranging from films and nonfiction satire to advice manuals and diversity training materials. The exact nature of the connection is not always obvious. But juxtaposed, sources divulge certain recurring themes, making it imperative to assess the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s as one in which Americans struggled and strained to define a new interracial etiquette. This essay will present some of the genres in which an etiquette of race has received attention and begin to explore the meaning of the heightened concern with race and etiquette in the late twentieth century.

As historians have established, prior to the civil rights movement (under Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North), there existed an elaborate code of conduct for relations between whites and blacks. Eye contact, pedestrian behavior, and forms of address were all strictly regulated in order to reinforce white supremacy and black submission. The civil rights movement sought not only to bring about equal citizenship rights for all Americans regardless of race but also to do away with the racial protocol expected for daily interactions. This protocol, after all, had formed the foundation for the continued subordination of blacks. Violations had led to punishments ranging from the loss of employment to the loss of life, through lynching. …