This Thanksgiving, break the habit of thanking white people for things you didn’t ask for
Maybe Southern Hospitality was just another charm written in the spell book of recipe’s my mother brought with her from Alabama. Along with a magical bread crumb-layered baked mac and cheese and candied yams and collard greens, my mother somehow seems to know how to conjure a level of pleasantries that had often been the jinx that kept Black Southern folk alive in the era Jim Crow. The constant “good morning”s and “I’m sorry”s and extending yourself way more than you should have to and expecting nothing in return. The honorifics for every adult who crosses your path. The “thank you”s for everything anyone does for you—even if you don’t need or want it.
Although I was born in Cleveland, my mother passed this particularly Southern quality down to me anyway. There aren’t many Black Cleveland boys who aren’t Black Southern boys by birthright, the great migration having brought much of my generation’s parents to the northern Ohio city through most of the 20th century (my father is from Tennessee). And though there is certainly a particularly Southern fighting spirit as well, for me its her hospitality, her marvelous civility, that forces its way to the forefront of my interactions with the least prompting. And even if there is nothing wrong with being pleasant on its own, when it is unquestionably consistent it can be very easily exploited—especially by white folk who have come to expect it from us even in the most fatal situations.
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Rules around whom we show deference and respect to and why have always been used to fortify the supremacy of whiteness, and to justify Black death.
This is what critiques of “respectability politics” work to address (or should be working to address). It’s why there was so much pressure for us to forgive the white supremacist Dylann Roof for murdering nine Black congregants in the midst of worship, but Mike Brown deserved to be murdered by a cop for supposedly stealing a cigar wrap and being a large and “hulk-like” Black child. If American civilization is a white supremacist one, it follows that our ideas around civility emboldens white supremacy as well. And though I have understood this on some level at least since I wrote the below status critiquing how we socially enforce “niceness,” I still struggle with putting this idea into practice in my life today.
I’m at dinner with friends at Buffalo Wild Wings in Harlem. In Cleveland we call the restaurant chain BW3s, and I can’t explain why. My boyfriend laughs at our nonsensical language. “There are only two ‘W’s!” he says, and I have no retort. But unlike “pop” which became “soda” after a few years of living in New York, the name is one habit I just can’t seem to shake.
Somehow, the conversation winds up on the topic of professionalism. “I realize I have these expectations for what people should do in professional settings that are rooted in white supremacy,” my friend Zhailon says. I tell him I was just thinking through the same thing, specifically the expectations I have around timeliness and deadlines, when I know these are pressures that should not inflexibly take priority over other people’s needs. “How are you challenging that?” I ask. “Well, one thing I have stopped doing is laughing at white peoples’ jokes if they aren’t funny just because they expect me to be polite,” Zhailon says. “That’s so real,” I tell him, relaying a story about how a white boy came up to me at a bar just a few days ago and told me I look like Senator Cory Booker. Except for being bald and Black, I look nothing like Cory Booker, but still I just laughed and walked away. It wasn’t until later that my fighting spirit came out at the offensive suggestion, and by then it was too late.
I think about all of the other things I do on cue just because they are polite and expected. How I always apologize when I collide with another person, even if they are the one who bumped into me. How I humor white people who demand my time and energy just because “they are being nice.”
I think about all that these patterns take out of me. How this labor is always unidirectional with Black folks. How it’s so much rarer for white people to apologize when bumping into me. How, as a Black person, I rarely get the time and energy I pay for, what to speak of any time I might demand just because I feel like it. And how all of this is highlighted most in my overuse of “thank you” toward white people who do things I do not ask for or need, or might even be harmful to me. Thank you for holding the door, even though now I have to run and catch it because I wasn’t even close. Thank you for fixing the mistake you made on my order. Thank you for allowing me into this space that you violently restricted from other people who look like me.
A few months ago, I was at my regular happy hour spot with my best friend. The bartender, a white woman, was late with our drinks on every round because she was too busy talking to other customers. White customers. Still I said “thank you” for every Malbec she placed in front of us. “No worries” when she spilled my drink. Another “thank you” when she offered to replace the drink she spilled, as if it was an act of generosity.
When all of her white customers finally left, she decided to butt into the conversation with my friend without our consent. We smiled and laughed with her, even though we wanted to continue our private discussion in peace. It was the polite thing to do. As she handed us the bill, somehow she made it to the subject of her support of Donald Trump, her distaste for “illegal” immigrants (she had recently immigrated the “right way,” she made sure to let us know), and how Black neighborhoods are more dangerous because we don’t know how to take responsibility for our crimes. Gratuity was included. Our gratitude always is. But this time, I refused. I told her that her comments were unacceptable, and we walked out without paying.
I look it up, and the original BW3s was built in Columbus, OH. It was called Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck back then, “Weck” referring to a beef sandwich made with a kummelweck roll. At some point over time the name changed, but we Ohioans stayed the same. We held onto traditions because they once worked for us, without reassessing if they were still working for us now.
We pass down spells and language and food and hospitality as the magic we have always needed to deal with anti-Black traumas, but sometimes we forget their original purpose. Sometimes we forget how to apply them in our situations today, or how to give them up when they don’t apply. If hospitality is showing care to strangers, we can and should always give that to those in need, and my Southern ancestors have taught us how to do so beautifully. We can and should go out of our way for Black elders and children. Go out of the way to provide food and shelter to those who don’t have it. But most white folks have never needed our hospitality. And most of them have always taken it all the same.
My mother became a vegetarian when she converted to the Hare Krsna religion, and was forced to leave some of her meat-based recipes behind. After she was diagnosed with cancer, she had to eliminate even more of the soul food that been such a part of her life out of necessity. But she still used that magic where it fit. She still taught us how to bake the macaroni and cheese. The cornbread. Cook the greens and the potato salad. She still magically kept us fed when there was nothing in the fridge, and for that I will never be able to adequately express my gratitude.
But it’s time for me to leave behind the gratitude and civility for the white people who don’t deserve it. It’s time to leave any niceness, which is centered on how I am presented, for the sake of kindness, which is centered on the recipient’s needs. And so, on this Thanksgiving, a holiday rooted in the history of white people taking bounty from a land they did not merit, I am committing to no longer giving them thanks they do not merit either.