The slave “Mister”

Contemplating and reviewing my post “The “N” Word” and evaluating my role teaching in urban schools I have come to a realization that I should look into an anomaly I observe.  12 years ago I observed something while teaching in my first urban school.  The language minority students used when addressing me was different than that way of which white students addressed me.  Furthermore, when I have taught in rural or suburban school all students addressed me in the way white students in urban schools did.  Essentially, there is a stark difference between the language white students use when addressing teacher and adults than the language minority students use.  The word I continually hear minority students use is “Mister”.

For people who have spent time working with students in urban settings the “Mister” moniker is a familiar name we observe being refereed to, or Miss (whether married or not) if you identify as female.  To most, this sounds respectful, to most, this seems as though minority students are being polite; I want to agitate this scenario.  Rarely do I hear minority students refer to me as Mr. Harrison, rarely do I hear minority students refer to other teachers as Mr. “Whatever their name is” or Ms. “Whatever her name is”, but I do know that they know our names; rarely do I hear white students not refer to me as Mr. Harrison.

In urban or suburban schools both minority and white students do not use the mono address of “Mister” they address me as Mr. Harrison; so I ask, “Why is it that urban minorities do not?”  I recall the introduction to Richard Wright’s novel Uncle Tom’s Children entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”.  I’m not going to describe the whole thing because I would rather you read it, the whole thing, because it is worth it, but there is a scene of which Wright describes something that connects to my dilemma regarding being addressed by minority students as just “Mister.”  During this autobiographical sketch Wright crafts a memory of the last day of his first job where white men fabricated a scenario where he would either suggest that one of them was a liar or he would admit that he referred to the same man by just his name, not Mister; he quit rather than be murdered.

The time of Jim Crow was a horrible tease for Black Americans; not as a slave, but not as a free man, they were still chained by racism and a slavery Jim Crow.  Worse than the time of slavery?  I think not, but at least slavery wasn’t hidden racism.  As much as I am proud to be an American as there are many things I love about being an American I am not thrilled at the “Origin Story” where white people committed genocide or what the white majority has done to many groups of people; my family name being horribly guilty of this as well.  During slavery, like during Jim Crow, blacks (minorities), were not permitted to refer to white men or white women as anything other than “Mister” or “Ma’am”.

I don’t think the track of my mind is being vague.  Similar to “The “N” Word” I pay attention to language and the history of language.  I view “Mister” and the “N” word as ways that minorities are systematically subservient.  As part of my role as their teacher I insist that when students address me they do so as Mr. Harrison.

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