Factor Affecting Communication: Ethnicity

Melbourne S Cummings. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. Sage Publication. 2009.

I am an African American, southern, Christian woman, born when the South recognized segregation as the embodiment of its strongest tradition—one that was legally mandated and had to be observed on penalty of ostracism for whites and even death for blacks. What I learned and practiced and lived from the day I was born is my culture. It was second nature to me and as much a part of my Louisiana upbringing as breathing.

I have always understood that culture and communication styles were an outgrowth of one’s existence. With segregation looming large in my community as I grew up, everything about me was prescribed by cultural factors: who I was, where I belonged, what I could and could not do, where I could go or stay (live), when I could or could not do something, and how I must act. Everything was connected with my culture.

The knowledge base of my culture was its community, its people, and its institutions, and I learned from them all. Those early encounters taught me lessons about the rules of engagement for interpersonal interactions with both the White and Black people I would meet throughout my life.

I remember once, as a child of about 8 or 9, being sent to this White couple’s home to pick up my older sister’s weekly wages (for housekeeping). Not understanding “my place,” I knocked on the front door but did not get an answer. I knew someone was home because of the sound of pacing back and forth and the movement of the window shades and curtains. Eventually, after a long wait at the door and constant knocking on my part, the owner opened the door ever so slightly, telling me to go around to the back. I told him what I wanted, and I guess I must have looked puzzled, so he quickly explained, very kindly, that the air conditioning was on and if he opened the door wider, all the air conditioning would leave the house! Knowing nothing about air conditioning and believing that adults don’t lie, I obeyed, went to the back door, collected my sister’s wages and a piece of candy for myself, and went home.

After observing my family’s looks of amusement, disgust, and shame, as well as listening to their remarks at my retelling, I learned several lessons about communication with Whites. My first rule was that I was to distrust them and never take what they said at face value. I also learned that if I was clear, direct, and persistent, I could get a White person to break down his or her resolve and begin negotiating.

I had very little contact with Whites as I grew up because my family wanted to protect me from the tremendous negatives of the reality of our existence. Also my contact with Whites was limited due to the very nature of the South at that time. Black people stayed in their neighborhoods, and Whites stayed in theirs, unless there were legitimate business reasons to do otherwise. The few contacts I did have simply reinforced my understanding of communication with Whites. (Communicating with people of other cultural groups was nonexistent for there was hardly any appreciable difference among them, from my limited understanding.)

Except for the occasional brush (name-calling) with the White kids who rode the bus past us as we (Black kids) walked to school, I never had a conversation or interaction with a White person my age until I was a graduate (PhD) student. Therefore, when the need for conversation and interaction with Whites arose (when they became my classmates), I was initially intimidated: I had been led to believe that they were naturally smarter (more intelligent) than me (or any Black person). I had heard from adults in my youth that “you have to study twice as hard as Whites to get half as far,” which was meant to keep us focused on our studies (but served to also raise the standards too high for some Black students). As my experience began to teach me, I learned better. Our parents and teachers had always told us otherwise. They would say, “The one thing Whites cannot take from you is what’s in your head. Study hard; learn even more than they learn. It doesn’t matter if the books are outdated; learn anyway.” I remember my first day of class in graduate school. I was in an English literature class, and a student from the back of the class asked a particularly naïve question. From the front, I turned completely around to assure myself that this was a White student before I said to myself, “I guess I’m home free in this class, if this is the level of intelligence that I have to deal with.”

I developed a somewhat cautious, questioning, and suspicious manner of communicating with Whites. I became with them proper, firm, and resolved. More than 30 years later, I still find myself using this style of communication with Whites, unless we have a personal relationship. My communication style (as is most people’s) is different with people from my own racial/ethnic/cultural background.

Growing up in the South, I was taught to speak to every adult I saw, no matter how many times during the day I saw them; to respond to them courteously by saying “Yes, m’am” (or sir); never to dispute the word of an adult; and never to look an adult straight in the eye, especially when being scolded. (“Girl, don’t you look at me in that tone of voice,” we would be told.) Respect and deference to adults was a requirement, and if ever reported otherwise, severe and swift punishment was given. As a little girl, I would pass “Miss Anna’s” house on my way to see my friend. I remember that, on one occasion, I didn’t speak to her, for I had done so a few hours before. As I passed her house, she called out to me: “Little girl, did I sleep at your house last night?” “No, m’am,” I said, with puzzlement. “Then why didn’t you speak to me? Did the cat take your tongue?” “No, m’am. How you doing today?” “Just fine, thank you. And the next time you don’t speak, me and your momma ‘gon tan your little hide. You understand me?” “Yes, m’am.”

Respect for adults was a serious matter. Each adult had the authority to spank a child, if spanking was needed. This respect and authority were assumed by every Black adult who knew one’s parents, and if the parent heard that her or his child had received a spanking from someone, the child was bound to get another for the same infraction when she or he got home. Whites were not given this unspoken authority, nor did they take it. Their threat was to ask for your parents’ names.

Children knew to be respectful to Whites, as to any other adults, but they often took liberties with them that they would never take with friends of their parents. An example that comes to mind is a time, as a teenager, when I worked as a receptionist for a Black-owned taxi company. The White owner of a store in town called a cab for a Black customer. She asked if we had a taxi that could pick up her customer, and my response was “Yes, we do.” She was outraged and asked if I knew who she was. My response was “Yes, you are Mrs. Anderson.” “Don’t you know that I’m a White woman, and didn’t your folks teach you to say ‘Yes, m’am’ and ‘No, m’am’ to White folks?” Of course, I responded that I had been taught to be courteous to everyone and that I had been courteous to her. She eventually demanded from the owner that he fire me for “sassying” (talking back to) White people or she would not give him any more business. I refused. I was fired.

Disagreements about how Black people should speak and interact with Whites happened all the time, so most parents had prepared their children for certain eventualities. Usually, parents insisted that their children acquiesce to what the White person said for two reasons: one, so that the child would not get in trouble with the authorities or with any White person and, two, so that the child would be able to keep her or his job (the money was needed). In my case, I was saved because I had another job as a musician at a church and, most important, I had been courteous.

There were other things that dictated my (southern) behavior, as well. From the time I can remember, I went to church at least three times on Sunday and at least once during the week. We were told that with all the poverty and other indignities suffered during the course of a week, Black folks would go out of their minds if they did not have the Church as support. In church, they were able to “take their burdens to the altar (or to the Lord) and leave them there.” This ritual, this deference to God, would allow them to cope with the next week’s difficulties and situations. It was at church that we became familiar with our African heritage (though Africa was never mentioned—it had been made more a badge of shame than of honor).

It was at church that we were introduced to songs that brought memories of our past to the forefront, songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Gonna Lay Down My Burdens, Down by the River Side,” and “Steal Away, Steal Away Home.” These songs and others also showed us how our forebears were able to make it through slavery by depending on each other and on God. Drums and tambourines, the spontaneous holy dance, the call-response of the minister and the congregation, the prayers to God that also invoked the spirits of our ancestors—all were given a place and space in spirited worship services that allowed Black folks to be in touch with the very essence of their being. Songs told us to “hold on, a change’s gon’ come” because “God’s gon’ trouble the waters.” These songs were taught to us to give us the strength and courage to move forward.

Music, dancing, singing, and storytelling, whether in public or private settings, were a part of most interactions or gatherings. Even in serious conversation, the cultural tradition is to make points clear by sharing an experience, telling a story, referencing a Biblical passage or proverb, quoting some adage that had been overheard from an adult conversation or a sermon or hymn in church. This practice continues to this day. In gatherings of friends, it is not unusual, no matter what the topic, to hear someone say, “As my mother would say …” It is an African American cultural pattern to give homage to the ancestors, to remember and respect the past.

African American culture is solidly rooted in the Christian Church. Probably the most important institution we have is still the Church. It is probably the only institution that we can call our own, for though it is not indigenously ours, it was made ours by the ingenuity of our forebears. It was the place where Black folk could find relief, comfort, and peace from the negative forces of the world. We were taught early to respect and revere God and His house. The church was sacred ground, for not only did we worship there, we also learned how to live, how to conduct ourselves, and who we were as a people.

The church was also the place where we were taught to protest ill-treatment. The tradition of protest grounded in the Church was not confined to the 1950s and 1960s but reached back historically to the 1800s with the example of Absalom Jones, RichardAllen, and Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. We often heard of Booker T. Washington through discussions of the importance and prominence of Black colleges and universities. Teachers and a few business leaders talked quietly about W. E. B. Du Bois when they spoke proudly of the good that he did through the organization he founded, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They spoke quietly of him and the organization because they knew that if Whites found out that they were promoting and supporting the organization, they would be fired and even run out of town. It was considered subversive. Anything that dealt with ridding the South of segregation was considered anti-American or communist inspired and was the ground for all kinds of retaliation.

Despite the fear of losing their livelihoods, our parents, teachers, ministers, business people, and so on showed us pride, perseverance, and determination, telling us that, despite the odds, we would make it. I remember in the 1960s when we all went off to college, our parents proudly told us to go on and protest, to stand up for our people and for our rights but just try not to get our pictures in the newspapers because they (our parents and community folks) might get fired or run out of town. In the end, they evidently decided that their modeling behavior of “doing what was right” was more important than losing their jobs, their homes, or their businesses. (And while, initially, they were threatened with the loss of their jobs, the Whites realized they were unable to run their businesses without the Black people, so they rehired them.) They taught us to fight for our rights and for our freedom, to resist bondage no matter what the consequences. This seems to be a cultural trait dating all the way back to Africa. But for us in the South, we were taught what to do and how to do it in the church; the place we went for solace was also the place we went to learn to protest.

As a child growing up, the church was the center of our lives in the South. There was very little in the way of entertainment for Black youth then outside of school activities. Socializing, like most everything else, was left to the ingenuity of the adults, the children, and the needs of the community. It was through this ingenuity that cultural values, ways of knowing and being, were ingrained. After-school hours and weekends were spent cleaning the house, washing and ironing clothes, fixing up things in the house and around the home that needed repair, helping neighbors or someone from the Church who needed help. Responsibility; concern for family, friends, and neighbors; respect for the home and the neighborhood were taught. As youth, we saw our community members rally around those in need, and as a result, we learned a respect and reverence for adults, especially older adults. We were constantly taking food to the elderly or someone who was ill. We had to go to the store for those who couldn’t walk or found it difficult to do so.

There were certainly colorful ways to teach us lessons about how to behave, just as there were about how to treat each other, how and why to tell the truth, and so forth. Sometimes, we were told powerful stories with morals; at other times, we were given adages about truth and behavior. We all knew that “a child was to be seen and not heard.” That little saying had to do with the fact that no adult would tolerate “back talk” from a child. A child did exactly what an adult told her or him to do—nothing more, nothing less—or there would be severe consequences to pay. I heard over and over again that “what goes around comes around,” and I understood its meaning and teaching as if you do bad things to people, someone will do bad things to you. But when I heard a group of adults talking about something particularly egregious, I heard one say, “Don’t nothing go over a devil’s back that don’t buckle under his belly.” I was floored. I had never heard that statement before, not in reference to things children did. I soon found out that for the old folks to use this reference, it had to be unbelievably bad behavior. I discovered later that something bad happened to the person who had initiated the first act. I heard the same group saying, “I told you, God don’t like ugly!” And then the other person said the familiar “Folks don’t believe that what goes around comes around.”

Girls were usually upbraided by adults who saw them do mean things to other girls with a gentler rebuke: “Pretty is as pretty does.” We all wanted to be considered pretty, so we were admonished by calling attention to our behavior with references to our physical attributes. We understood them to mean that we could not be pretty girls unless we treated people with a sweet, pretty spirit.

The dearest story I will always remember was about respect: not the usual respect a child must always have for adults, but how one particular man showed respect for my friends and me. It absolutely changed my behavior, which was why my mother took the time to explain it to me (and my friends) in such particular detail.

My friends and I had been playing and were sitting on the front porch resting, and giggling as little girls do. An old man (at least to us) who was passing by the house saw us, stopped, took off his hat and deferentially nodded to us as he said, “Good evening, Miss Peaches, Ms. Micky, and Miss Honey” (every Black child seemed to have had a nickname in the South). Naturally, we spoke to him, but then began giggling almost uncontrollably. Deacon Hall, as he was called, replaced his hat and went on his way.

My mother was nearby in the house and heard the entire exchange. She called us inside and had us sit down. We couldn’t imagine what she wanted for we were just playing, staying out of her way. She had a very stern look on her face when she started to talk to us. She first asked us why we were laughing so hard when Deacon Hall spoke to us. We told her how silly and funny he was for calling us “Miss” and bowing at us with his hat in his hand. She, then, told us the story of slavery and segregation and how “Negro” people were treated. She told us how the Negroes had to work for White people, clean their yards, attend their cotton plantations, and entertain or play with their children. All the while when the children were 5, 6, 10, and 11, the men call them Mary, Jenny, and Martha (by their first names). But as soon as they turned 12 years old, these old men had to stop calling them by their names and called them “Miss Mary,” “Miss Jenny,” and “Miss Martha” just because they were White and the men were Black. Black men have to bow to them and take their hats off to them.

White folks say that that’s the way they want Black folks to show White “women” respect. Deacon Hall believes that if he has to show White women respect when they turn 12 years old, then the least he can do is show his “own kind” respect, too. “So I never want to hear any of you laugh at Deacon Hall. Instead, I want you to smile at him every time you see him and speak to him. I want you to respect him because he’s showing you how much he respects you.” Throughout my mother’s talk with us, she was crying. We didn’t understand her tears then, but we all do now. I cannot remember ever disrespecting Deacon Hall or any other adult again. It was a powerful lesson, as were most of our lessons about race.

Just as powerful were our teachings about love, respect, and responsibility for family. These lessons started at home and were reinforced in school, at church and in the wider community. As children, we believed that the name of God and “mother” were practically the same. We always heard sayings such as “There’s nothing like a mother’s love,” “A mother’s love is more precious than gold,” and “What did your mother say?” The family (as in most cultures) was the center of our existence. Being Black in the South, we came to know also that if our parents were not around (e.g., if they were at work), our older siblings were in charge. It was their responsibility to take care of the younger siblings in every way. I hardly knew the difference, except in name, between my parents and my older siblings, for I had to obey them in the same way I obeyed my parents. They helped me to do everything: They helped me with my school work, cooked and fed me, gave me baths and dressed me, fought my battles and interceded on my behalf. As they grew up and left home to start their lives on their own in places where segregation was not so blatantly practiced, they continued to act as surrogate parents. Each of them helped our parents provide for college for the younger ones. It was their responsibility.

As our parents aged, taking care of them became the responsibility of the siblings, as well, for their parents, the thinking goes, cared for them the best they knew how when they were young and unable to care for themselves. According to each of their “talents and gifts,” all the children provided for our parents, so that their lives were lived out at home, happy and fulfilled until their deaths. This was our duty, our responsibility, and, most important, our desire. It seems now, for many older Black southerners, an abomination to observe children placing their parents in nursing homes, despite “how times have changed.”

One of the biggest things that “outsiders” celebrate about Black southern culture is our food. The South is known for its delicious food, and most southerners are excellent cooks. I believe that one of the reasons food is such a fixation is the tendency to use practically every living creature for eating. Growing up, I remember that the active pastime for men and boys was hunting. Most men had rifles, and a rite of passage for boys was receiving a B-B gun for Christmas. (Boys often got in trouble for aiming at and/or shooting at the wrong thing.) Fathers planned outings to go into the woods to hunt, often taking their boys along to teach them. They would come back with quail, rabbits, squirrels, possums, deer, and the boys would proudly bring back a small bird. They would hang their catch outside to drain the blood and “skin” the hides. All parts of these animals would be used (e.g., the intestines of hogs, fondly called chitterlings). The smell was awful, but our mothers (and sisters) would prepare the animals for delectable meals, using all manner of seasonings to rid them of their wild, natural taste.

Later, I discovered a lot of this was done because of poverty. Black families in the South were usually poor. Recipes had been passed down through generations of slaves who had been given only the leftover parts of animals to eat. “They made the best out of a bad situation and fed their families” is one of the more popular sayings that explains Black southern foods. It is because of poverty and ingenuity that one of the famous southern cultural traditions is its very tasty, spicy foods. The cakes and candies were made to reward the children for their good behavior and for eating whatever was placed before them.

There is not a time when we southerners go home for visits that our friends don’t have a list of goodies that they require us to bring them back: meats, sauces, breads, cakes, and candies.

African American culture is an extremely complex subject, just as American culture is diverse and complex. Because a large part of American culture is based on immigrant cultures, depending on where one resides, the culture may consist of tendencies, beliefs, and ways selected from several different immigrant cultures. Additionally, as times and laws change, people relocate, technology advances, and educational levels increase, interactions with people of different backgrounds become a common part of our lives. No one in the United States of America lives in isolation.

Even southern culture during segregation varied depending on where—in which state and which part of the South—one resided. Rural and metropolitan ways of interacting and socializing are also different, as individuals from the same families are different. People grow and change. Some change because the times change. Newer generations experience some of the basic tenets of their culture, but they also develop their own values and beliefs. Some are based on extensions of what they learned from their parents, but some also come from what they learned and experienced from their own surroundings and the ways they look at the world.

Though most of what I have discussed about Black American southern culture was that which was instilled in me as a child growing up in my southern town—where interactions were mostly Black to Black, by the time I left for graduate school in 1969, the revolution was well on its way. Not only had Black people gotten civil rights laws changed, but White women had joined the protest and were fighting for their rights as well.

My own initial realization that African American culture is a complex subject happened when I was a PhD student in my first intercultural communication class at UCLA. The class consisted of mostly White students, but there were two other African Americans as well. Clearly, there were differing opinions and perspectives between the Black and White students, but for me, the most salient disagreement was between another Black student and me.

The discussion centered on how people select role models as part of their cultural selves. What is it in one’s culture that makes one person pattern her or his life after another? Is it her or his chosen profession, the sound of her or his voice, the way a woman or man carries herself or himself, or what and how she or he wears her or his clothes? And then there is the issue of values—what is important to a person, what does she or he find worthwhile, what does she or he consider right or wrong, what does she or he respect or disregard? It was this discussion that made me realize that there is not a monolithic African American perspective shared by all within the race and across generations.

Culture also has to do with environment, with exposure, with one’s way of life. I talked of teachers as being my role models (as did the other female Black student in the class, whose parents had migrated from the South). The male student kept looking at me, incredulously, all the while I spoke. He finally exclaimed, “Teachers!? What kid wants to be a teacher? They’re not cool; they have no money! No cool cars, no sharp clothes! Parents and teachers can’t compete with the fast life of the city, sad to say, but I’m from New York City, and that is my reality.”

Yet, as I relive our conversation, I realize that his reality still manifested itself into his being a PhD student. What accounts for that? Where were his parents born and raised, or their parent’s parents? Despite “his reality,” who had he chosen for his role models? How did he decide that he wanted to be a researcher, an academician? How far-reaching is culture?

Often, we look askance at our young people today and fail to see any of our own cultural traits or traditions in them. All we see is the media/technology culture that surrounds their generation. Yet we hear them proudly speak of themselves as African Americans or Blacks. We see them dutifully care for their sick parents. We hear them speak the language of their peers: hip-hop, neosoul, bling-bling, YouTube. We think that they have exchanged one Black American culture for another. But is that realistic?

There continue to be competing claims on “Blackness.” This competition began in the 1960s, when we wondered aloud, “Am I Black enough?”; when we recognized that we actually enjoyed and liked our White friends; when we chose to straighten our hair and stopped wearing our “afros”; or when we chose to buy our homes in the suburbs and send our children to tony private schools for a better education.

I have no doubt that I am the product of my environment, that I reflect the opportunities and experiences I have had, that I am driven by the needs and wants and desires of my existence, and that I am my culture in a unique form. I communicate from this perspective, and I am confident of this truth.

Suggestions for Discussion

By recounting the story of Miss Peaches, I hoped to provide a personal account of African American culture from my perspective. But I always thought that while this perspective was unique to me, it was also shared by many others in my community. In fact, I believe that my story reveals quite a bit about how African Americans communicate, both within their own communities and outside of those communities. In this section, I want to identify some of the dimensions of the story that I believe are worthy of further consideration from a communication perspective. I hope that you will reflect on the following dimensions of the story and come to your own conclusions when considering the challenges that I pose for each dimension.

Common Culture. It is widely believed that African Americans share a common culture. From my perspective, there are parts of Miss Peaches’s story that reflect a common culture, and there are parts that argue against this idea. I hope that you will go back to the story and look for what it is about the story that justifies this belief and what dispels this notion.

Communal Culture. I pointed out earlier that an aspect of Black American culture is that it is communal. Look for examples of communalism in Miss Peaches’s story. Is the characteristic of communalism limited to African Americans? Think about examples of communalism from other ethnic groups or from your own experiences and/or observations. How, if at all, does communalism vary among ethnic groups? How could communalism provide either a benefit or a barrier to effective communication between people of different ethnicities?

Afrocentrism. Afrocentricity is a broad notion of communication that deals with the idea of an African-centered means of interpreting what we perceive of the world. What, if anything, can you see in Miss Peaches’s story that makes it Afrocentric? How does awareness of an Afrocentric point of view help or hinder communication among African Americans or between African Americans and people of other ethnicities? Is “Whiteness”—the tendency to view the communication patterns of the dominant culture as being “normal” and “taken for granted”—the opposite of Afrocentrism?

Interchangeability. I used both of the terms Black and African American in telling Miss Peaches’s story. What is the significance of using these terms interchangeably? Are there times when one term is preferred over the other? Can you “get in trouble” if you are not African American by using the “wrong” term?

Nonuniqueness. Some of the cultural traditions I discussed from my experience of being African American are seen in other cultures. What does this say about culture in general? Are all cultures really mostly alike with only a few differences among them, are cultures mostly different with only a little overlap, or is the truth somewhere in between?

The Legacy of Segregation. Since segregation is no longer practiced in the United States on an official level, one might easily wonder what value there is in discussing it in today’s society or in the context of African American culture. Yet segregation is still a very significant portion of African Americans’ experience in the United States, and its legacy remains fresh through stories such as the one about Miss Peaches. How does the segregation of the past affect communication between various ethnic groups today? How does this legacy still turn up in everyday activities (e.g., separate Black tables in campus dining halls and campus clubs whose members are, pretty exclusively, Black students)? Should we forget segregation and if so, how? If not, why not?

Religion. In Miss Peaches’s story, there were several instances where religion as a cultural tradition was mentioned. In the African American community, some scholars point to religion as being one of the negatives of this culture, but for Miss Peaches, religion was always a positive aspect of life as an African American in the United States. I hope that you will give some thought to how this aspect of Black culture can be seen as both positive and negative. And returning to the previous point, it has been said that church is one place where segregation still exists in the United States. I hope that you will think through why this seems to be the case, and what about separation in worship is both positive and negative.

Black Enough? Toward the end of Miss Peaches’s story, I reflected on how Black culture has been in a constant state of revision and how younger people may criticize older people for being, perhaps, “out of touch” or even “not Black enough.” To me, it’s the nature of culture to evolve, and yet some things do endure. I hope that you will think about the various cultural forms that being Black takes and that you’ll consider how competing claims on who represents the “real” Black culture are part of that evolutionary process.

The Role of Gender and Generation. Miss Peaches’s story is about a woman who grew up and progressed through adulthood in a particular time and place. The story of a man from that same time and place would have similarities, but it would also have important differences. And African Americans who came of age even a generation later share a different story. As you consider Miss Peaches’ story, think about what you can extrapolate from her narrative to understand gender, generational, and ethnic influences on cultural groups.

One or Many? Miss Peaches’s story relates one person’s experience and ideas about African American culture. It is, indeed, only one person’s story; but if certain elements of it ring true, then it is probably shared by others as well. As you reflect on this story, I encourage you to think about how the perspective of one person’s life informs you about African American southern culture.

In the final section of this chapter, I have provided citations to a range of excellent current scholarship on how various approaches to the study of communication consider the role of ethnicity in the communication process. I hope that you will use these sources as a means of deepening the understanding of the role of ethnicity that I have introduced to you by telling you the story of Miss Peaches.