So many of us believed the lie that respectability politics presents us.
As an African American, it was implied to me that because I “spoke so well” and “behaved myself”, I wouldn’t have it as bad as those of my people who “didn’t”. And despite all of that, I face constant microaggressions daily and even had the word “nigger” graffitied on my college bulletin board. As a woman, I was told to not wear certain things because those things would imply some form of consent, only to find that anything I wear has that same implication and that most men simply don’t possess the self-control to restrain themselves.
Respectability politics is a term coined by author and professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. While the term is relatively new, the concept is as old as the racist rhetoric it comes from. It basically is an oppressive group telling an oppressed group that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.
I am here to tell you, from research, and from experience, respectability politics are BS. There exists no amount of achievement or accolades that can prevent the hatred and bigotry certain groups feel toward Black and Brown people, women, members of the LGBTQI+ community. Ask Oprah, yes, queen Oprah who when she walked into an Hermés store was turned away from purchasing a bag because the staff there assumed she “could not afford it.” Or Serena Williams, arguably one of the greatest athletes of our time, who gets drug tested more than any other tennis player, male or female.
Respectability Politics is total BS because:
Respectability Politics simply do not work. If respectability politics could have saved Trayvon or Antwan, every single Black person would inundate ourselves in it. Every single person of color in the country has or will have a racist experience in this country. Every. Single. Damn. One. It doesn’t matter if you have a degree from every ivy league or big 10 schools, which is respectable at the very least. To be brown in this country is to be disrespected by those who are not, no matter who you are or what you have done.
Respectability Politics is an assimilation tactic. Pure and simple. It says “if you dress like us, walk like us, talk like us, we will treat you with respect.” We all know this is not true because racism, whether in microaggressive form or full out KKK in robes burning crosses and churches have been faced by Black people who “spoke well” and those who use slang and accents. At the same time, this popular culture who demands our assimilation and punishes us for the ways in which we express our culture (like being kicked out of class for wearing braids) takes elements from our culture to use for its own benefit and are met with praise (here’s looking at you Iggy Azelia and the Kardashian Jenner klan).
Respectability Politics imply that the racism I am met with is my own fault. There is an assumption implied in respectability politics that if I speak with slang or an accent, wear my hair or clothes a certain way, or let any of my cultural experience out, then I deserve to be treated poorly. That is simply untrue. Every human, despite fashion, expression, or diction, deserves respect simply because they are another human being. Period. There is the shifting of blame from the perpetrators to the victims, and instead of mandating that the people and institutions committing and continuing racist acts to change their ways, it mandates that the people who are the most affected by that racism to change in order to stop being harmed by the racism.
Respectability Politics provide a sense of false security for those who believe in them. A segment of Black people has so ingrained in their children that respectability politics will protect them, that there are a segment of the Blackerati walking around right now who believe that their country club membership, khaki pants and Sperry Top Sliders, pearls and high powered affiliations will gain them respect. Black economic mobility and the like only furthered this lie, being the “only Black” in our jobs became some sort of sick badge of honor on us rather than the shame it should be that the company doesn’t have more diversity. Believing that “acting a certain way can and will prevent bigotry” as if respectability were a pest spray you cover your body to keep bigoted cops, micro-aggressive coworkers, and otherwise hateful people, is not only not true, it is downright dangerous.
Respectability Politics doesn’t matter to systematic racism. Seriously. The systems of oppression don’t give a damn how you behave. They. Want. To. Take. You. Out. Period. Ask Philando Castille. Ask the victims of those targeted Austin Bombings. Ask the people of Black Wall Street or Rosewood. You can be the most well-meaning person on your street or in your division or in your classroom. If you’re Black, you will get it, regardless if you sag or belt up to your nipples.
Respectability Politics affects more than just culture, but gender as well. I would dare say that respectability politics even affects the way people view gender as well. Remember, respectability politics is based on assimilation. That transfers with how gender is viewed as well. Women, for example, are expected to be “nice” in the office, often apologizing or tempering moments when they speak with softer language that their male counterparts do not have to use in order to be respected. And what about those in the LGBTQI+ community, who face these forced assimilation tactics by popular culture demanding that they be “less flamboyant” and less expressive in their gender and sexual identities. Meanwhile, heterosexual, cisgendered men are free to fully express their own identity without the constraints of respectability politics, even to dangerous points of toxic masculinity.
Respectability Politics doesn’t prevent rape culture. Oh, you thought I was only going to have something to say to dominate culture, huh Black man? Well, bruh, you certainly are not off the hook. Rape culture is alive and well in the Black community and respectability politics only enforces it further.
The idea that “if I dress a certain way” or show up to a particular event, or hell just walk down the street as a curvy woman somehow means that my body is up for discussion and my breathing and living is consent to be treated like a sex toy. God forbid that I call out bruh on his animalistic behavior. Then I am all kind of expletives, am subject to even more harassment, even violence, or called a traitor to my race despite the fact that the real betrayal lies in the fact that a man within my own culture treated me so poorly and I am supposed to just take it in order to protect him. Well, Black man, when are you going to protect us? Black women are your biggest advocates and allies and yet, Black women are daily met with poor treatment harassment, even brutality at the hands and from the mouths of you.
Let’s just face it, it doesn’t matter what I wear, because rape culture doesn’t affect clothes. It affects the soul wearing them. If it really were that more women get harassed, brutalized and raped because they wore a mini skirt then don’t you think no woman would ever wear one? But it’s never been about the clothes, but the lack of control by the men who observe them.
Facts are respectability politics are complete and total BS. If we are going to progress as a people, we as a culture need to release them, and free each other to be the people that we truly are, to express our culture, our gender, and our various identities without fear of reprisal or rejection from those around us.
This post was originally shared on The Reclaimed Blog.