Race and Ethnic Etiquette

Forms of etiquette exist in nearly every society where different racial and ethnic groups are separated by extreme differences in economic wealth, political power, or social status. They are most developed in caste or caste like societies, in which the lower status racial or ethnic groups are enslaved or belong to economically exploited or subjugated groups. In these situations the patterns of etiquette regulate inter personal relations between the higher and lower status groups, functioning as codes of behavior designed to maintain the status quo (or a state of harmony within it) within which the more privileged groups benefit. Sociologists and other social scientists have studied the emergence, practice, and impact of these codes on population groups in countries around the world, including the US, India, Brazil, South Africa, Spain, Germany, Australia, and the countries of the circum-Caribbean (Dubois 1899; Reuter 1927; Park 1928; Doyle 1937; Myrdal 1944; Cox 1948; Frazier 1957; Sowell 1983; Bell 1992; Marable 2005). In any given society, the unique complexity and changes in the codes must be understood in terms of its own history and the currents of broad social and cultural change affecting it both from within and without.

Blacks have lived in the US for nearly 400 years, and for most of this period were enslaved. When freed after the Civil War the approximately half million freemen were unprepared educationally and economically to compete in a society still inclined to continue their subjection. The majority remained in the South, living in small towns or on farms as tenants along the rural black belt. They were forcefully united, to use a term from van den Berghe (1967), into an ”exploitative symbiosis.” Others migrated to the ghettos of Northern cities. This is the historical context from which broad patterns of racial and ethnic etiquette developed. This relationship appeared to have been more important after slavery, reflecting a state in which blacks had to struggle against economic dependency and subservience. Because it fostered mutually restricted associations on personal and professional levels between blacks and whites, the race and ethnic etiquette prevented free communication between the groups and so created an illusionary world within which both claimed to understand one another, despite their different interests and expectations within the status quo. Thus, sometimes, when protests over adverse circumstances disrupted the peaceful environment in the community, leading white citizens would often express their amazement. For many of them, blacks on their own would naturally not feel offended by not having the privilege to vote, to sit on local councils, to be able to run for political office, to be treated equally in social inter course and in places of public accommodation, or to have their stories told in the local news paper in a dignified manner. Outside the exceptional personal relationships, some of which are well documented in the literature, etiquette prevented discussion of such matters.

Whatever friendliness blacks possessed towards whites, and vice versa, was constrained by deeply institutionalized codes. Again, exceptions existed. Certain relations were taboo (e.g, dating and marriage) and these taboos were enshrined in ideology and protected by custom and law. This is clearly evident in their development in the Southern slave states as well as in the apartheid system of South Africa, which in many instances began on egalitarian terms between Native Americans and Europeans in the former, and between Africans and Europeans in the latter. The doctrine of racial supremacy provided the white slave owners in the US with a rationalization for enslaving Africans, after the experiment failed with Native Americans. In post Reconstruction America, it provided a basis for perpetuating a legal system of discrimination against the freed African Americans.

Major court decisions before and after the period of slavery established in law the anti democratic practices that inveighed against the humanity of the slave and ex slave. The role played by custom, as a basis for regulating and controlling black-white relations, centered on how the two groups got along together under the circumstances of both situations – slavery and legal and de facto segregation – in that they were often forced, out of economic necessity, to live and work in close physical proximity, but socially isolated one from the other. Just as the formal legal decisions were established to repress blacks and to keep them submissive, the patterns of etiquette emerged as an informal system to keep them in their place; they were embodied in the rituals and ceremonials of everyday life and reflected the accommodation between blacks and whites.

If one had grown up in a Southern city during the 1940s and 1950s, one would have witnessed the patterns of etiquette practiced in enforced segregated churches, schools, workplaces, homes, and on buses and trains; the proscriptions against personal relationships and sexual unions and marriage; the submissive and deferential manners of contact in public places; and in the injustice rendered by the legal system. The institution of the patterns of etiquette fundamentally derived from the strategies of the ruling class of whites to maintain the economic and political dependency of blacks, and they were prepared to invoke the force of the law or to resort to extra legal means to punish violators.

The patterns of deference symbolized in much of the behavior of blacks towards whites depended on the nature of the relation involved. For example, black males interacted deferentially with white males and avoided close personal contact with white women (this latter patterned behavior is denoted in the 1955 case in Mississippi involving the murder of Emmett Till, who allegedly whistled at a white woman); white males avoided working under black male supervisors, but would pursue personal relations with black women; and black and white children played together until the age of puberty, but avoided one another as adults. Black communities, however, developed ways of mitigating such experiences, one of which was by developing parallel social systems apart from those established by whites. These were found in black churches, schools, lodges, dance halls, music, art, literature, and humor. However, this does not represent the totality of the reaction of blacks to the codes supporting slavery and discrimination. Many rebelled in slavery by escaping with the Underground Railroad and emigrating to the North as far as Canada, with many joining the abolitionist movement against the system of slavery; others refused to remain in the country and escaped to Haiti; and many died in failed insurrections protesting against the dehumanizing system. Much of the scholarly literature on the subject of etiquette has generally focused narrowly on the psychological trauma, or on adaptive ways to prevent it, through examining the various forms of accommodation by blacks in subservient positions in the black-white relationship ( Johnson 1943; Aikiss 1944; Frazier 1957; Grier & Cobbs 1968). There are notable exceptions to this approach (Morris 1986; Scott 1997). The popular media tended to highlight stereotypes depicting the acceptance by blacks of their position in the system. Neither has devoted sufficient attention to their protests and struggles against living under such debasing conditions.

In the US today the traditional patterns of etiquette are breaking down in the wake of enormous changes, including the urbanization of blacks; the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case; the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; the social reorganization of workplaces, where many blacks perform similar work as whites and interact with them as peers; and in other public places, where, through daily association, different attitudes and perceptions have helped to redefine black-white relationships. The new generation of African Americans has not learned the old patterns of deferential behavior and the younger generation of whites do not expect it. We are observing similar pat terns of change associated with recent protest movements in such countries as Brazil and France. In the broadest sense, this suggests that the traditional patterns of etiquette, as means of social control, have lost social and political legitimacy. Sociologists must develop new conceptual approaches to explain a different set of circumstances in racial and ethnic relations.


  1. Aikiss, T. (1944) Changing Patterns of Religious Thought Among Negroes. Social Forces 23(1): 212 15.
  2. Bell, D. (1992) Race, Racism and the American Law. Little, Brown, Boston.
  3. Cox, O. C. (1948) Caste, Class, and Race. Monthly Review Press, New York.
  4. Doyle, B. W. (1937) The Etiquette of Race Relations in the South: A Study of Social Control. Kennikat Press, Port Washington, NY.
  5. DuBois, W. E. B. (1899) The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Ginn, Philadelphia. Frazier, E. F. (1957) Race and Culture Contacts in the Modern World. Knopf, New York. Grier, W. & Cobbs, P. (1968) Black Rage. Bantam Books, New York.
  6. Johnson, C. S. (1943) Patterns of Negro Segregation. Harper & Brothers, New York.
  7. Marable, M. (2005) The Promise of Brown: Deseg­regation, Affirmative Action and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Negro Educational Review 56:33 41.
  8. Morris, A. (1986) The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Free Press, New York.
  9. Myrdal, G. (1944) An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Pantheon, New York.
  10. Park, R. E. (1928) The Basis of Race Prejudices. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 140: 11 20.
  11. Reuter, E. B. (1927) The American Race Problem. Crowell, New York.
  12. Scott, D. M. (1997) Contempt and Pity. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
  13. Sowell, T. (1983) The Economics and Politics of Race. Quill, New York.
  14. van den Berghe, P. L. (1967) Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective. John Wiley, New York.

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