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Handles For Our Elders

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to work a temp assignment for the County Registrar’s office. During training an outspoken, witty and well-meaning supervisor made the statement that a particular transgender employee did not like being called sir. She stated that he would even go so far as to reprimand you for your mistake. Therefore, she recommended not addressing citizens as sir or ma’am when taking calls, so as not to offend. Immediately, I felt that by not addressing them as such would be considered disrespectful, so I expressed my concern. She then said she knew how I felt but she too had to put aside her feelings. She said that because she’s in a leadership position, she had to learn to regard her co-workers as peers and address them without the handles our culture requires.

Handles in the Black Community

For those of you who don’t know, within the Black community, it is considered disrespectful for someone younger to address an elder without a handle. A handle can be likened to a Ms. or Mr. which means you were required to address your elder as Ms. Washington or Mr. Jones. Depending upon your upbringing, you could address them as Ms. Shirley or Mr. Willie, but you definitely didn’t get out of pocket and call them by first name only. If you did, you were checked on site; meaning, your parent or the person you were addressing would immediately correct, reprimand and/or pop you for your disrespect. We were taught that a child always had to put a handle on an elder’s name. That type of correction doesn’t fair well today because now everyone considers themselves as equals. And for the sake of argument we are, but if you understood the reason behind the handle, perhaps you’d think differently.

The History Behind the Handles


You see, back when my parents and grandparents were young, they experienced blatant discrimination and racism. The fact that they had to sit in the back of the bus and drink from separate fountains had to be dehumanizing. Therefore, one of the ways they could keep some semblance of dignity was how they addressed one another and how children addressed their elders. Inasmuch, when those who’ve lived through that type of disrespect come into establishments or call for services and are addressed by their first name - to them - it is a reminder of what they’ve experienced. And though I didn’t experience any of those social injustices, I too was raised to put a handle on it. And though my maternal grandparents didn’t require me to say ma’am or sir, I definitely could not say yeah and nah. My paternal side of the family was a whole different story because ma’am and sir were required at all times.

However, in a work environment I can understand my supervisor’s apprehension. But for me to not be who I was raised to be so as not to offend one, I cannot do. I understand that whoever this transgender person is may feel some type of way about being addressed as sir because I’m sure quite sure people address him as such out of hatred and spite. They use the term to make him feel less than or to remind him of who God created him to be. But that is not my intention. My only objective is to put some type of handle on who he is; to merely address him with the respect he desires. Whether he believes and accepts it or not, is between him and God but one thing’s for sure – my handles will never go away.

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