The Politics of Respectability is not Revolutionary
(Hi, everyone! Happy New Year! We return to our regularly scheduled programming with another guest post, this time from Loryn C. Wilson, a womanist and digital media professional living in Washington, DC. You can follow her on Twitter at @elledub_1920.)
TW: Violence, Misogyny, Fatphobia, Racism
Recently, I participated on a panel about leadership, movement building, and using social media to create change. I spoke to about 200 African-American student leaders; I was only one of two women on a panel of about 8 people, and the youngest speaker. One of the male panelists asserted that the politics of respectability was an act of resistance in a time when Black people were treated as less than human. He gave the example of a woman being able to keep a clean house.
Silly example aside, I was most concerned that a group of young people were once again being told that if they just act respectable enough, they will defy white people and somehow rise above oppression. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Respectability politics, simply put, is a dangerous attack on Black people in general and Black women in particular. It is a way to make white people feel more comfortable with us, and not to make us feel more comfortable about ourselves. It is selfish, not selfless. And it is not something to aspire to.
Respectability politics is divisive. Point blank.
Everyone remembers that classic scene in School Daze where the Jiggaboos faced off against the Wannabes. That scene demonstrates one of the biggest problems with respectability politics – it’s divisive nature. It further divides Black people into the Bourgeoise versus “them n*ggas over there,” setting a stage where middle and upper class Black people can look at their low-income brethren–and somehow think they are better than them. If a way of thinking makes me treat one of my own with anything less than love and compassion, then I don’t want to subscribe to it. We need approaches that bring us closer together, that can lift us up as we climb. If it doesn’t unify us, we don’t need it.
Respectability politics dehumanizes Black people, especially women.
As it’s been noted before, if a white woman proudly and publicly embraces her sexuality, white people praise her as an example of sexual empowerment and body positivity. However, when a Black woman does the same, those people treat her as though she is less of a woman. People are quick to police our bodies and tell us that we are ugly, fat, unlovable bitches.
Saartjie Baartman is an early example of this. She was an African woman held in captivity like a circus animal, made to perform for white people on account of her voluptuous body. For a small fee, whites could watch her perform and even touch the “Hottentot Venus.” And this was simply because of the way her body is shaped – a characteristic that she had no control over. There are countless modern-day examples of this – from Beyonce getting her ass smacked by a fan during a performance to Nicki Minaj having the same thing done to her by Regis Philbin on national TV.
Respectability politics suggests that only certain Black people are even worthy of respect to begin with.
Implicit in telling black men to “pull up their pants” or a black women to “keep their legs closed” is the idea that if they do not do these things, then they can’t or shouldn’t be respected. Oftentimes on Facebook, I see the meme of young black men with sagging pants alongside a picture of young black men dressed in suits from the 1960s with the caption “Back then men were real men.” But here’s the problem with that: During the Civil Rights Movement (and even before), Black people wore suits, pressed their hair, and were still beaten and killed – so why even compare? The way one wears their hair or clothes, the way they express themselves, the choices they make—none of these things should be used as a litmus test for respect given or denied.
Respectability politics ignores the fact that Black people are not a monolith.
Blackness is so amazing because it is so varied. There are so many different ways to be black—and no way is more correct or acceptable than another. A black woman will quote bell hooks and dance to Beyonce and y’all will deal. Blackness is not a morality play. It is above the law. It is not meant to be contained or put in a box by anyone or anything—including respectability touting know-nothings.