How Respectability Politics Stifle Black Self Expression

In order to explore this topic in full depth, we have to go over what respectability politics are.

According to Wikipedia: Politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference.

I believe respectability politics can be traced back to slavery, as with most problems in the African American community. Enslaved Blacks had to be sure to fall as far in line with being “good negroes” as possible so as to avoid punishments such as beatings, sexual assaults, or being separated and sold.

They were under the false belief that so long as they were compliant and did what was expected of them, punishment would not be dealt or would be less harsh.

To make a more current connection, we can look at African American’s behavior in the work place, schools, or any public spaces that are also occupied by white people.

This not-so-secret code of silence even plays out on a national media platform. From Geraldo Rivera’s comments that Trayvon Martin’s hoodie was to blame for his tragic death, to a little girl, Tiana Parker, being told that her locks were inappropriate to wear to school, the message is clear — if you’re a “respectable Negro” and play by the rules, you’re granted a certain immunity from racism and welcomed with open arms by the mainstream.
The problem with the politics of respectability is that it’s tainted with the belief to be born with brown skin you are inherently inferior and must work your way up to the goodness of Whiteness.
This whole idea of respectability politics began to solidify at the end of the 19th century, when a bold group of Black women from the Baptist Convention — a well-intentioned, important, pro-Black, yet chauvinist, and patriarchal organization — broke off to form their own group: the Women’s Convention. On the positive side, an essential part of their focus was to uplift the Black community, while perpetuating a sense of solidarity and philanthropy. Unfortunately, in practice it involved a lot of patronizing behaviors towards “lower-class” Black people. For instance, one of their major campaigns was to go into impoverished Black communities and hand out pamphlets that “taught” these po’ folks how to “behave” in public places, the value of chastity, and even how to properly bathe themselves.

Respectability politics are a defense mechanism. In order to protect ourselves, we in the Black community descend upon each other by quickly discouraging anything seen as deviant behavior. Often those who fall outside the spectrum of “normality” are chastised harsher by their own community than by main stream society.

African American’s want to be seen as being so far above inferiority that we hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards.

According to (some) hoteps (a group of toxic Black men and women who literally believe straight, Black men are Gods) Homosexuality was not a genetic trait found in Africa, but something brought over by the Europeans and spread/forced upon Blacks.

Here is the modern list of “friendly” reminders for Black people:

Black men can’t be gay

Black women aren’t really gay, only bisexual and always femme (lesbianism is often dismissed unless it’s in regards to studs/masculine lesbian women)

Black people can’t be trans, especially not trans women (because they directly go against the “Black men are the manliest of men” diatribe)

Black people can’t be atheists (i.e.; worship satan, even though that’s the EXACT opposite of the definition of atheism)

Black people can’t listen to rock/metal (the devil’s music)

Black people can’t dress in punk/goth/skater/or other alternative fashions (also signs of devil worship)

Black men can’t be feminists (that makes them SIMPS)

Black women can’t be masculine (that means they want to be men)

Oh yes, the list of foolishness goes on and on.

If you are not a straight, cis-gendered, Christian, able bodiedmale, in the Black community, you are unworthy of even claiming Blackness. Deviation from these norms determine your worth in the community. The further away you get from those attributes the more deserving you are of the abuse you may be subjected to as a result. Because you are what’s wrong with our community. You have the nerve to be a hated minority in a hated minority and you dress weird and listen to devil music. The Black community has to preserve the fragile perception of Black people, and if you’re walking around going against the status quo while being Black, you’re a hinderance.

What we in the Black community fail realize is that we’re so comfortable with living in the most narrow parameters of what it means to be Black, that we are missing out on experiencing life in the fullest sense. We are denying ourselves and each other the opportunity to be our truest selves. For all our talk of White people don’t want us to succeed and White people view us this way and that way, we still allow White people’s perception of us to rule how we conduct ourselves.

Black people don’t want our identity hijacked and warped any more than it already has been so we try to preserve it by keeping it on a short leash. Black men must not cry, hug, be gay or bisexual. Black women must not dress or behave in masculine ways, be lesbians/bi, be trans. etc. But what gains are we making by living this way Black community?

We are still being jailed and killed at higher rates than any other race in the country. Our community suffers from higher rates of domestic violence, unemployment, sexual assault, poverty etc. at disproportionately higher rates than other races.

According to the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, attributing success to personal characteristics instead of biased structural systems may negatively impact black Americans’ health. The psychologists found that participants who both strongly believed that the world was a just place and reported experiencing high levels of discrimination were more likely than other blacks to suffer from chronic illnesses and increased blood pressure. Why? Because respectability politics tells black Americans that what is happening to them in this country is our fault. In other words, we’re to blame for the 9.5% unemployment rate among black Americans, the police who fatally shoot unarmed black men, and the teachers who expect less academic success from black students. If we just pulled our pants up a little higher and turned our music down, the systematic discrimination that informs nearly every sector of American life would disappear. If the world is just, then the injustice we experience in it is on us.

Wake up Black folks, respectability politics are not helping us. They are destroying us from the inside out.

There is more than one Black experience. Laquanda, the trans girl from Bedstuy may not have the same experience as Rodney from Georgia who grew up in the church, and that’s OK. Because what we do share, is a culture and our humanity.

MY list:

  1. Respectability politics won’t help you. Standing up straight, talking proper, being straight, being christian, being hyper masculine, and so on are not impressive to White people. If any of those things impressed anybody, Obama would not have received the wicked backlash and blatant disrespect that he did.
  2. There is more than one way to be Black and they are all valid. Every black man is not masculine or straight. Every Black woman is not feminine or straight. Every Black person is not Christian, Muslim, Hebrew Israelite, 1% or some other approved religion.
  3. We need to talk to one another and attempt to understand each other.
  4. We need to continue to hold White people accountable.
  5. Systematic racism is not our faults.
  6. We can define Black identity. It is ours, we can do with it whatever we want.