Call me by my name.

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Tracie Spencer:
As I lay in bed caught in my usual world wind of thought, one particular thread stood out. I thought about the titles that we are all seemingly ‘naturally’ ascribed: Mr. And Mrs. Before now I, like many others have taken these socially constructed groupings for granted as normal and appropriate, but, how did they come to be normal? Why are they so readily ascribed to individuals on the mere fact of physical genitalia and what are some of the power structures contained within these ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘appropriate’ titles?

From a quick Google search I was able to glean a basic understanding of the historic emergence and use of these titles. Mr. and Mrs. as they are popularly known are actually abbreviated versions of the original terms ‘Master’, ‘Mister’, ‘Madam’ and ‘Mistress’. Historic etiquette required that Master/Mr. be attached to ‘gentlemen’ as a mark of respect relevant to their socioeconomic status gauged primarily of course by their skin colour and wealth. Madame/Mrs. on the other hand, was attached to women usually who were married to these high ranking gentlemen and also used as a marker of respect. We find then that these titles were used as mechanisms of social exclusion on the basis of class, wealth, status, prestige and skin colour. More often than not, those capable of these markers of socioeconomic status would be whites. Fast-forward to the more contemporary period and we still find these titles in use, however they are applied less exclusively to socioeconomic status but are retained as an honorific, that is, linguistic symbol that confers respect and professionalism and is also applied on the basis of sex and Mrs. is applied exclusively to married women. What are the implications of the retention of these titles?

Mr./Mrs/Ms./Sir/Madam as honorific titles all firmly retain and reinforce the gender binary. The application of these gendered titles to bodies on the fact of physical genitalia perpetuates sex and gender stereotyping. Mr. (attached to males) carries with it, as inherited from its historic usage, a set of ideal, masculine gender codes and behaviours that are opposite yet complementary to the set of ideal gender codes and behaviours expected of those who carry the title Mrs./Ms. (attached to females). Think of the school system, from kindergarten straight up to university, boys are addressed as Mr. and girls as Ms. They are scolded and commended for behaviours that strengthen and defy the gender binary through the gender coded language. E.g. “ Ms. Smith, ladies must be seen and not heard!” or “Mr. Beharry, carry that wild playing outside, no playing in the classroom!”. However indirectly and subtly the process may occur, boys and girls come to identify with these stereotypes and create and repeatedly act in accordance to the conditioned ideal images of how a Mr. and Ms. should behave.  

The use of Mr. and Mrs./Ms. as an honorific, that is, symbols of respect particularly for adults and persons in authority begs questioning of how are we conditioned to interpret authority. Popular interpretation of authority is usually through the lens of fear and respect for authority is usually confused with fear of authority. Children usually come to revere parents, teachers, policemen and other celebrated ‘authority figures’ through fear of transgression. It is held that those in authority are superior to those who are unable to command a similar quantum of power by some measure of age, achievement or qualification and are thus deserving of power and respect while others deserve less or even none. As such, the titles Mr./Ms./Sir/Madame and by extension all other titles are loaded with power that usually herald inflated esteems, arrogance, fear, molds destructive superiority complexes and that drain the intuitive, inquisitive and creative energies of children who are taught never to question authority. This does little to teach children about true discipline and respect but rather blinds persons to the truth that we are all equal peers and should be valued and respected on the basis of being human regardless of age, qualification, achievement, socioeconomic status or skin colour.

It is in this vein that I find it necessary to do away with these gendered power structures that have come to ‘naturally’ and ‘normally’ control and regulate behaviour, stifles creativity and damage esteem through instilling fear into the minds of our people.


"We find then that these titles were used as mechanisms of social exclusion on the basis of class, wealth, status, prestige and skin colour."  ...and the title 'boy' (niggerboy, houseboy) was what you'd called any black/colonised individual regardless of age, seniority or local position/prominence.

I think its not only that people take this kind of titling for granted, they want to grow up to be called by such titles. For instance to put a spin on your reference to the school system...I attended an all girl primary school, but went to an all boy primary school for extra lessons in preparation for secondary entrance exams. So, I was a bit of an odd one out in the environment being a girl and addressing a male teacher as was the case in this class. I once addressed the teacher as 'Mr' X and was told by a neighbouring student to say 'Sir' and then realised all the boys were addressing him by 'Sir'.

My distinct reaction then was what was the difference? I was not sure at 11 years old what 'Sir' meant. I was never taught by a male teacher for an entire academic year, only visiting, or for P.E. I think its an example of what you are presenting here, the boys really always said 'Sir' this 'Sir' that 'Sir'... And I personally at 11 yrs had never heard anyone call my father (also a teacher) or any male relative 'Sir'. I've not really thought about that incident so long ago, but in the context of the power teachers have, and control, this word was a very big word for at least a class full of eleven year old boys. No doubt the teachers must have said, 'call me Sir'...a word charged with a sense of authority, command and well a lot of other messy, dishonest things as evidenced by the british monarchy. People who still like to be called or call others 'Sir' dont realise or factor in this and its annoying to go to a bank, or to see one person try to get the attention of another person and call them 'Sir' (we need a few more Benjamin Zephraniah's).

I know people try to dupe the title structure with - I as well do - of unmarried and therefore a Miss, but I always put Ms. meaning I may or may not be married because eitherway its no business to anyone in a government organisation whether I am married or not. It is a protest, but its a weak one, because really all forms/documents etc which require identification or personal information require you to ascribe to Mr. Mrs. Ms. etc there certainly is no 'other' option as far as I recall. So it perpetuates the idea of categorising and all these stereotypical gender issues as well as what you have said that "titles are loaded with power that usually herald inflated esteems, arrogance, fear, molds destructive superiority complexes and that drain the intuitive, inquisitive and creative energies of children who are taught never to question authority." I think you should add here academic titles like professor and doctor because they too hold the same power, and they too are still strongly gender linked and bring into play not only children but adults in 'higher' levels of the education system and indeed in general society where these studied people are the authorities on various issues.

Iniko Ujaama:
I am an African male and a teacher at an all-boys school and am called Sir and Mr. X. I do identify with the points raised by Tracie above. It is interesting however in the school context how much its stability seems to depend and be structured on these kinds of exclusionary tools. The students too respond to it and interpret based on it. So for instance some may take it as permission to be "disrespectful" or "overly casual" (both of which I think are defined by the circumstance and the authority structure as well and are functional to the functioning of the school. I am currently reading a book called "Weapons of Mass Instruction" by John Taylor Gatto which compares schooling and education and how school inhibits true education. Admittedly, I think his free market and white American bias does colour some of his suggestions, arguments etc but he does expose much of what is structured into mass schooling.

In examining these titles too I think it can reveal a lot about the way woman are viewed as well. I remember reading an African female writer who pointed out that motherhood took pre-eminence to wifehood in terms of how a woman would be titled etc. Mrs suggest a different kind of valuation. I do agree that these and/or the relationships they represent need to be done away with., with particular emphasis on the latter by persons examining the origins of them as you(tracie) have done and by examining alternative approaches through other cultures.

The use of certain European phrases being implied as respectful within Western culture is pretty offensive. Unfortunately, whether earned or not, titles are common in many cultures.

Personally, I don't see much of a difference between the behavior of adults or children, at least not in the U.S. The luxury instead of necessity of having children, among other things, has contributed to that. Youths lacking basic social skills, such as boundaries and respect, are trying to maneuver through a maze of unnecessary and extreme rules. And who are the "authorities" enforcing those rules? Adult children. Adults who are as prone to tantrums and poor conduct as the kids they are overseeing. The lines between childhood and adulthood are very blurred in the U.S.

It recently came to my attention that growing up to some kids is looking forward to a time when they can break the rules and not get in trouble for it. This type of thinking indicates to me, no real values or better conduct are being instilled by adults to the younger ones. Just seems adults and youths alike are only about what they can get away with.

Tracie Spencer:
I agree with Iniko Ujaama that the stability of the school system depends heavily on the use of these exclusionary tools as well as with Makini that more than taking them for granted we want to grow up to be addressed by these titles that extend beyond Mr./Mrs. and into the professional realms of professors and doctors etc.

From my own experience I've found that self identification with the implications of these titles that is, the feeling of being respected and recognized as a site of power and superiority hinged upon my own feelings of self esteem and validation so heavily that I would feel offended after being addressed by my first name by persons who were younger than me or who I was unfamiliar with in a 'professional' setting. Titles such as Sir/Ms. employed in a teacher-student setting offers a flawed model of interaction between students and teachers and students and students. Sir/Ms. are better able to command the respect, rather the performance of respect, that is equally due from students toward their peers primarily on the basis of the power bound up within these titles. The result then is that students perform in the way they are expected to for fear of punishment and come away with little value of respect for persons in their own age group or for those who may not demand to be addressed in such ways. I am not suggesting that the consequence of conditioning into the use of these titles as markers of respect for authority is disrespect for peers but it significantly changes the tone of interaction.


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