Respectability Politics: The Overseers Speak

9 tenets of Respectability Politics

1. We are Black. We probably know white supremacy is a force pushing against us and our success in this world. We are in a system that is not made for us. We will work the system to achieve our success even as it leaves millions of our less fortunate brethren struggling. Our intentions are to work our way out of the cornered and limiting conditions that our people have been subjected to throughout history and use our modern day freedom to achieve all that was previously closed to us; all the wealth and power that was once the realm of the white person, the colonizers, the slave owners, are now attainable and if I play the game just right I can have it all. I can be like them.

2. Education is everything. We need to do well in their schools and learn the history and values they teach us. If we do well in school we can qualify for the jobs this system previously locked us out of and can reap the financial rewards. It does not matter if these schools teach a Eurocentric curriculum which reduces people of color’s place in history to slaves and subjects of white powers. It does not matter that our local and international Black heroes, empires and civilizations are erased from the discussions of human achievement. It does not matter that the school system demands obedience and following rules and often punishes and discourages critical thinking and the questioning of authority or status quo. Just stay out of trouble, study, do well and you can earn your way into a more “dignified” existence than the one you were forced into by historical racism and oppression.

3. Pull your pants up. Don’t dress “like a slut”. Dressing in ways that are immodest or unacceptable by western standards means you do not respect yourself or have class or dignity. It is an embarrassment to those of us who wear suits, scarves and ties – beautiful nooses – who invest in the trappings of what fits the standards of white/colonial authority and wealth. How you dress determines your dignity and worth. We are afraid our worth can be stripped away from us as easily as our clothes and when you dress in ways that embarrass us you remind us that we are one wardrobe change away from being perceived as worthless.

4. We will hold everyone to our strict standards and religious values whether or not the people we are judging subscribe to those standards or religions. Our piousness, if it does not save you, will show us to be good and human and bigger than those who try to oppress us, even though the only reason we try to prove ourselves bigger is we are still afraid to be perceived as inferior.

5. Speak English! African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or patois or “broken” English is a less valuable and acceptable form of communication. It does not matter that Black communities have consistently developed colorful and coded ways to use the language forced upon us through slavery and colonialism. Only “proper” English is acceptable and using AAVE or any other non-“proper” version of English is embarrassing and makes you sound stupid. Our whole purpose is to sound smart and make white people accept us.

6. Be non-threatening, invisible, make white people/colonizers feel comfortable around you. Don’t be loud or noticeable. Never show anger. Follow every single law, the most minor ones, the ones that are outdated and ridiculous, the catch-22 ones that are impossible to follow. Forgive the people who are killing you. You are not allowed to show legitimate human emotions like anger or frustration or excitement. Your Blackness is enough to make you frightening and showing too much of such emotions, or even showing too much of your Blackness, can scare white people or their agents into killing you. By not being happy or peaceful or invisible; by not immediately forgiving and placating the white/colonizers’ fear of you and all your Blackness, you will attract their hate and fear and it will therefore be your fault if anything bad happens to you as a result.

7. Be twice as good at everything you do (compared to a white person doing the same thing) in order to get half the acceptance or recognition. That’s just the way it is so live up to standards that are impossible for most. It doesn’t matter that this is unfair and it feels demeaning to be required to do so much in order to convince people you are worthy. The only acceptable way to stand out is to excel. The only way to prove you are human is to be super human.

8. It is right to judge those who are not doing things the “right” way. This is tough love. Those who are unruly, lack class, dress “unprofessionally,” have nappy hair, have relationships or family structures, habits or ideas we do not approve of need to hear our version of truth despite the lack of compassion with which it is shared. They have not yet earned our respect the way we try to earn white people’s/colonizers’ respect so we do not give it to them.

9. White people/colonizers do not actually have to be around for us to police other Black people. We have now taken the jobs of the overseers, we will work for free in the policing, the judging and criticizing. We will be the gatekeepers now, keeping the ones we deem unworthy out because we do not want to be associated with them in any way. Our Blackness is not to be mistaken for their Blackness. Our Blackness is better than their Blackness.

© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved