Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

HOW THIS ETIQUETTE BOOK

DIFFERS FROM OTHERS

Holly: It pretty much covers everything and it’s not too stuffy. I liked that with the anecdotes they sometimes used ethnic names, like Sediqui. It’s not all Carol and Susan.

Karyn: Because times change and etiquette changes with the times.

H: I wanted to ask you, since you’ve read a lot of etiquette books, was there a difference in the sort of things that were explained and how they were explained?

K: Yes, I think so. As a teenager, I made a decision that the Pledge of Allegiance did not speak to me personally. I like the fact that there’s an etiquette book that covers this issue. They’ve also got a section here on full-immersion baptism, and you won’t find that in other books.

H: African-American rituals are going to be different.

K: It’s more than that. The other etiquette books assume a level of knowledge that this book does not assume.

H: I got the sense that the glossary was really different from one you would find in an etiquette book by a white writer. Like defining bar mitzvahs and hors d’oeuvres.

K: Even though it’s called Basic Black, I have white friends who are first-generation in their family to go to college, and this book would be very useful for them.

CLASS VS. MONEY

H: It really is about class mobility, isn’t it?

K: It’s the quiet, unspoken thing about the book. Most of the people who read etiquette books probably don’t need etiquette books. I got the feeling that a lot of people who need to see this book aren’t going to see it. I believe it’s truer in the black community than it is in the white community that class is not tied to money. We have people running around who have lots of money, but who—for lack of a better term—have not learned the etiquette to go with their money.

H: True. A lot of times, as we move up in certain social situations, there is this feeling of, “Oh, I need to impress these people.” Some people will really kowtow to whites in a way that they won’t with blacks, which is really annoying. We all fall into it. Maybe it’s not a race thing so much as just a status thing.

ETHNICITY AND ORIENTATION

H: I like the way Basic Black handles things like someone making a racist remark, suggesting that you say, “Oh, that’s so unlike you.”

K: I think that’s something that our generation has lost. One thing I love about my parent’s generation is that they were too dignified to let white folk get to them. The attitude was, “No matter how you might act I will always behave like a lady.”

I also liked how the book worked in the gay-and-lesbian angle. We should refer to gay and lesbian people as “gay” and “lesbian,” no matter what they call themselves. You certainly would refer to Jewish people as Jewish and black people as black no matter what they call themselves. So the N-word is unacceptable even if we call ourselves that.

THE HELP

K: My mother used to always joke, “Always be nice to the help,” even though we had no help. But we as black folks are more aware of that because chances are you’re not more than a few generations removed from someone who was “the help.” I know that the person who brought us the tea might be a student, she might be anything, and for me to treat her as less is improper. This book keeps going back to the humanity of people, no matter their status.

H: I did part-time catering when I got to D.C. People did just assume that I must be really ignorant. It’s so rare that someone does treat you like a human being. I remember working a tea, and there were all these wealthy, rude, older white ladies, except for this one lady who knew that this obviously wasn’t the only thing I did. She said what’s your name, I’m going to look for your byline.

K: I’m a part-time cocktail waitress. When I wait tables, every once in a while someone will say, “You’re an actress,” or “You’re in the arts,” and it’s so nice to have someone see who you are.

PERPETRATIN’ A FRAUD

K: Be honest: We all know someone who’s perpetrating a fraud.

H: Or I wonder if I am.

K: Me too. I remember waitressing one night and this guy made a big deal out of ordering off the wine list. I’m not going to pretend to know about wine when I don’t, and he goes through the list and says, “Well, do you have any German wines?” and I said, “No sir, not that I know of,” and he said, “You don’t have any Blue Nun?”

H: That’s hilarious!

K: It was all I could do not to fall out. But I wanted to tell him he would have done better not to have perpetrated the whole fraud.

H: Keeping up with the Joneses, that’s a big problem. You were poor or your parents were poor, and now you’re a professional. What do you do with your money?

K: I like that the book addresses when the label means more to you than the clothes.

H: That’s a bad habit but that’s really not a race thing. It’s a class thing, but that’s how we deal with these differences right now. Like you said, we’re just not ready to deal with class. Have you tried your jujube yet? It’s a good jujube, very adult.

K: Hmmmm, that’s exquisite. Very intense flavor.

TIPPING

K: I was very happy to see the section on tipping.

H: You know our people have a problem with that.

K: (whispers) We really do. I didn’t want to believe it. We undertip. Those of us who are aware of it tend to overtip to compensate for the black people who don’t tip well, so I pay the black tax.

H: I argue with my mom, ’cause she’s a tither. She says, well I only give the Lord 10 percent. But…

K: The Lord’s not waiting on your table.

H: What I say is give unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, which is another Bible verse. You pay more than 10 percent in taxes, and if the standard in society is 15 percent for good service or 20 percent for very good, that’s what you should give.

CELL PHONES

H: There are still a lot of people who go to movies or shows with their pagers or their cell phones on.

K: Unless you are a doctor, there is just no reason for you to be sitting in a restaurant on your cell phone.

H: Or with your cell phone on the table, which the book doesn’t talk about…

K: It doesn’t?

H: No, but we should e-mail them about that. It’s a status thing—just to show you have a cell phone—and it’s totally unnecessary.

K: I remember I went with my fiancé to the barbershop, and this guy was sitting in the barber’s chair on his cell phone. Now you know, even Queen Elizabeth tells them to hold her calls while she’s gettin’ her hair done.

BLACK TIES THAT BIND

K: I have a white friend who is fascinated by black culture…

H: Don’t we all. The negrophile.

K: It’s so true. I can remember eating in the dining room at the Capitol with him, and all the customers were white and all the waiters were black. He noticed that whenever someone brought us something, I’d say hello or I’d nod. I explained to him that you don’t go into a room with other black people and not acknowledge them. It would not have occurred to me to ignore the waiters. I like the fact that no matter where I go there’s probably someone I can bond with.

H: I think that’s the hope of Basic Black: You might travel, you might become a sophisticate, but remember where you came from. It’s about remembering those origins, cultures, and traditions—that sense of humanity. How do we hang onto that and move into this other world? I don’t know; it’s hard.

EVERYDAY ETIQUETTE

K: What so many black Americans go through is simply ignorance. Our lives would be a lot easier if more white people just practiced good etiquette.

H: For the average black person, etiquette is tied more to humanity and being a good person. I think for some upper-class people etiquette is not about being more human, it’s about maintaining their class privilege. Proper etiquette when they’re referring to “the help” is to call her by her first name, because if you called her “Mrs.”—even though she is an 80-year-old grandmother—that would be conferring too much status on her. That’s a totally different definition of etiquette.

K: For example, we have to walk past homeless people everyday. We shouldn’t ignore them. Even with our waitress, I don’t want to run her back and forth. She doesn’t exist to fulfill my every need.

H: I think it’s truly evil to forget those things. I don’t want to live so insulated a life. It would affect my humanity. I don’t want a life where I don’t notice the homeless among us.

K: To acquire excessively means that you have to take from someone. And who are you taking from? How many minions are running around meeting your every need? Are you tipping the people what they deserve? Capitalism is anti-etiquette. Society would probably collapse if we really practiced etiquette the way we say we want to.

H: That’s true.

K: Here’s the check. (To waitress) Thank you.

The ladies contemplate the bill. As they calculate the check, they take into account the wonderful service, and of course they follow the rules of etiquette and tip accordingly. CP