Working Through Respectability

I have difficulty with the “politics of respectability” because I grew up in a conservative country where similar philosophies are the norm. I’ve had to unlearn many of these philosophies in order to be more open, compassionate, and to have greater integrity in my social justice advocacy. All my life I’ve had it drilled into me to show some class, to always dress appropriately, to speak “properly.” I was taught to not appear ghetto/ratchet, and that how you present yourself to the world is directly tied to how successful you become. Effective and useful in some ways, respectability politics can also be harmful.

The politics of respectability in the US started as a philosophy in the post reconstruction era at the turn of the 20th century. Middle class Black folks spent their middle-class time discussing how to “uplift” the masses of Black people who were uneducated and poor and did not fare well during this transition period. Those who were educated, had money, and were well adapted to the social standards held by society, promoted education, economic empowerment and assimilation into acceptable social standards to be the best ways to lift the wider Black population out of its post-slavery struggles. Although there were disagreements as to how this should be achieved, most famously between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois the whole idea of “uplifting” centered around making Black people more “civilized” or “respectable” to white society so they can be treated with humanity.

Respectability politics became a way to survive and even achieve some success in a white supremacist, Eurocentric world where humanity and worth are defined by white standards and Black people, Blackness, are defined as inferior. Respectability politics is the response by Black people to prove they are not inferior by subscribing to these Eurocentric standards, presenting themselves as “respectable” to white people by upholding these standards fervently in their own lives, encouraging other Black people to follow, and disavowing anyone who didn’t do so.

Respectability politics fail to address:

  1. The “standards” required of Black people in order to become “respectable” are centered in white supremacy and whiteness as the norm into which all other groups are required to assimilate in order to be treated with respect and humanized;
  2. In addition to the inherent concepts of white supremacy, these standards are also embedded with patriarchal and religious (white, cis-gendered male, Protestant) mainstream norms;
  3. Respectability politics seeks to overcome without directly addressing the structural and social obstacles built into the fabric of a society in which institutionalized racism still has tangible effects on the progress and achievement of Black people and people of color.

That success and empowerment elude many Black people is related to historical and structural barriers which, in order to overcome, individuals have to be perfect, quiet, make no mistakes, refuse to question or step “out of line” and even then are subject to stresses and injustices that can destroy them. Sure, individuals who are so inclined and privileged may find great success within the system as it is, but there will be no improvement for the Black population as a whole unless we break down these barriers. This may entail action that subverts the system, may require us expressing and acting upon our legitimate grievances and thus stepping out of line or not acting “respectably” according to the standards of the system we seek to change.

Respectability politics people encourage education, but then narrow this to mainstream, Eurocentric, often unaffordable alternatives. They say to carry yourself with dignity, but then define that as puritan Christian modesty dipped in patriarchal ideas of submission. They say family is important, yet fail to acknowledge the continuing structurally disruptive systems such as mass incarceration and exclusive housing policies that jeopardize family life. They speak of economic empowerment without acknowledging the stunting effects of redlining, gentrification, hiring discrimination, mortgage fraud and straight up terrorism (Black Wall Street) on the Black population’s financial progress. They speak about individual achievement without acknowledgement that often successful individuals had their foundational needs covered and various privileges that gave them the buoyancy for their rise; resources and privileges that many others lack.

Respectability will not save us. The system that treats your Brown or Black skin as less-than remains in place no matter what education is in your head, what clothes you’re wearing, how well you speak, or how much you love the Lord. You are just as Black as the youth in sagging pants and a hoodie. The 60’s civil rights movement should have taught you that. Charleston and Sandra Bland should have taught you that.

The true tragedy of respectability politics is that it conditions Black people with more privilege,  money and power to treat Black folks with less as inferior. Modern respectability politics has veered away from its “lifting as we climb” philosophy and into the territory of mental slavery. The ones who can push to remove barriers and advocate for those who have whole systems and histories to overcome instead pander to forces that contribute to inequality in the first place.

Seeking education, economic empowerment, having standards of behavior and spirituality are all positive. You can have standards for yourself without imposing them on others. You can have self-worth and recognize the worth of others who do not subscribe to your standards. If your success does nothing to improve lives of the next generation starting off at a disadvantage, then maybe you and your achievements are not as important as you think they are. Recognize your privileges. Recognize that you did not get where you are on your own, that your particular skills, talents, resources and support systems are not standard issue. Then perhaps you can replace “Respectability” with compassion and be the one who gives others a leg up rather than joining in the constant beat down.

© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved