Last week, I was a guest on NPR’s News and Notes, where the topic of conversation was how to address the President. A few days before that, a guest had repeatedly referred to him as “Barack,” and the show got a bunch of angry e-mails complaining that the guest in question—black, male, about the same age with children the same age as the President’s—was being disrespectful.

And News and Notes listeners weren’t the only ones. I’ve actually gotten requests to blog about it. So here we are.

Okay, I’m old-fashioned, saditty, hincty, over the top—whatever, but when it comes to addressing the President of the United States, especially this one, it’s my firm belief that we do better when we err on the side of formality.

So once, and I hope, for all: He’s not your homie. He’s not brothaman. He’s not Prez and he shouldn’t be hailed with ‘Hey, O, wassup?”

Uh-uh. By virtue of his election, he’s been transformed from, as he so memorably put it in his first huge speech in 2004 “the skinny kid with the big ears and the funny name” into the Commander in Chief.

If you’re fortunate enough to meet him, give him his props: “Hello Mr. President” or
“hello, Mr. Obama” or “Hello President Obama” all work just fine. His intimates—long-time friends, relatives, neighbors—might call him other things in private, but we ain’t them. (I suppose I should be consistent: we are not they. Better?)

This is a habit we all have to grow into, and face it, we’re only four weeks into the first year of his first term. You can see that he’s gradually shifting from “how are you guys?” when he walks into the room to a (very) slightly more formal “how’s everybody?” At a visit to the Dept of Agriculture last week, Michelle Obama referred to her husband as “Barack” initially, but then segued into “the President and I.” So it’s a learning curve all around.

And it won’t take very long. As many pundits have noted, the man is looking more Presidential with each passing day. When you refer to yourself with respect, others tend to, too.

Remember this? Rod Steiger rearing up at Sidney Poitier in a memorable scene in In The Heat of the Night: (Steiger) Don’t you push me, boy! (Poitier) They call me MR. Tibbs.

So remember: if we don’t want other folks to call the President out of his name, we shouldn’t, either.

Karen Grigsby Bates is a LA-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
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