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Respectability Politics Can Get in the Way of a Good Story

The best black art shows our full humanity

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

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I got a yarn for you.

For three decades, a particular crime family has controlled most of the organized crime on the East Coast of the US. While they have had some scrapes with the law, they are largely untouched. One day, an attempt is made on the life of the patriarch of the family, who just wishes to retire in peace. As he recovers, he leaves his crime empire to his sons, who swear revenge. They systematically wipe out all the other crime families.

Now. Imagine the family being African American.

If you were paying attention, you’ll realize I just described The Godfather, one of the greatest American movies of all time. But how would you feel if, instead of an Italian-American family in the early 20th century, the Corleones were an African American family, living in New Orleans or Atlanta, in 2018? Would you watch a family of crack dealers and street hustlers running the Southern ghetto? How about if they murder cops? Intimidate witnesses? Abuse women? Stab an elderly man in his wheelchair? All of those things happened in the Godfather series. Most of us will agree that the Godfather series is one hell of a story (at least the first two).

If you are black, will you enjoy the blacker story at face value, or will you feel the need to cleanse your palate with some James Baldwin afterward? Are you even allowed to enjoy it? Of course you are. Do you enjoy Madea? If you don’t (and there’s a lot of you who don’t), you know a black person who does. “At least it’s a story about us,” Madea defenders say. I’m not arguing for stories that reinforce stereotypes, but I do want to recognize how much more enjoyable some black films and TV shows are when they dismiss respectability politics.

Respectability politics isn’t some new social justice warrior term. Just like many things started by black people, it’s been around for decades. Booker T. Washington’s philosophy is largely based on entrepreneurial and agricultural respectability politics, while W.E.B. DuBois’s Talented Tenth philosophy depends heavily on education-based respectability politics. In plain language, it’s an attempt to fight systematic racism by putting a best face forward for whites. Also known as the “pull your pants up, be a father to your kids, stop showin’ your ass, stop wearing fake hair, keep your legs closed” philosophy. It’s the reason school kids know who Rosa Parks is, but not Claudette Colvin. At one time, respectability politics was needed to dismantle institutionalized racism. But in a post-1960s, post-War-on-Drugs, post-Obama world, black people harshly learned that respectability politics won’t save us. Just as that old joke goes: “What do you call a black person with a Ph.D.? Nigger.”

When it comes to pop culture, we African Americans are very protective of our image. Our history includes blackface and minstrel shows, where we were depicted as shiftless, child-like, loud, boisterous, and lustful for white women — and in many ways, those images haven’t changed much. With most screenwriters being white, there are still negative and harmful stereotypes that reinforce racist beliefs about black people. Some popular shows, such as Sex and the City, continue to mystify a black male’s genitalia. The sassy black woman in the pink-collar or blue-collar service job is another popular trope white screenwriters rely on. Other shows and movies treat the blerd (black nerd) as an anomaly. If he exists at all, he’s either a character in an entirely black ensemble (like Family Matters, Undercover Brother, and Smart Guy) or he’s treated as odd as possible.


For example, in that very progressive (/sarcasm) 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds, the black “nerd” is just an effeminate black kid largely implied to be gay, in stark contrast to the Hollywood smart, heterosexual white nerds. While ROTN has enough problematic material to keep sociologists, film critics, feminists, and activists writing about it for decades, the film doesn’t treat its black characters as fully human, despite the fact that the nerds appropriated a black fraternity for their own privileged purposes.

“Just stare those whiteys down because even though ya’ll are educated, ya’ll still are scary in large numbers.”

As early as the 1920s, there were attempts by black Hollywood players to dispel stereotypes in order to fight racism. Within Our Gates is Oscar Micheaux’s most famous film. It’s about “talented tenth-er” (and tragic mulatto) Sylvia Landry, who is raising money for a school for black children in Mississippi. She falls in love with a black physician, Dr. Vivian. There are some other black characters as well, including two suitors for Sylvia. They don’t measure up to the good doctor, though, who remains selfless throughout the film and encourages Sylvia to channel the anger she has for her racial past into the Piney Woods school.

In another early example, Pinky is an Academy Award-nominated film in which another tragic mulatto character who passes for white ultimately decides to be the black nurse the other characters begged her to be. The film sees this as a noble sacrifice on the part of Pinky, since she chose being black over living as white with her white doctor fiancé. As legalized segregation is a thing of the past, there’s some value dissonance today, as that’s not a choice she would have to make in today’s society. But in 1949, Pinky’s role as a black nurse meant she was respectable and a credit to her race. She is even given a lecture by a white person to be thankful for her light skin privilege. Her role as a token was more important than her happiness as an individual.

In the 1960s, you had Sydney Poitier on the big screen and Bill Cosby’s character Scotty on I Spy, both of whom were implausibly accomplished black men who were non-threatening and respectable to the largely white audiences that watched them. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier’s character was written to be as close to perfect on purpose in order to emphasize his race as the problem. Again, there is a little value dissonance, as Poitier’s character was also previously married, over a decade older than his fiancée, and largely proposed to her after they met on vacation less than two weeks prior. Those are pretty good reasons to be against a marriage. But he was also an educated and wealthy doctor who helped children overseas. Who wouldn’t want their daughter married to that guy?

Cosby’s Alexander Scott was a polyglot Rhodes scholar who played tennis well enough to pose as a world-class tennis instructor. In the 1960s. Just to be clear: Arthur Ashe became the first black person ALLOWED TO PLAY for the Davis Cup team just two years prior to I Spy’s pilot. And just like every super-agent ever (okay, not the cast of Archer), he was fit, skilled in hand-to-hand combat, highly intelligent, and an expert marksman. The problem with these characters is that although they were created to ease white audiences into getting used to seeing people of color on-screen, they reinforced another set of beliefs largely championed by white conservatives today: that the problems black Americans and other minorities face are largely individualistic, not systematic. After all, if Oprah and Obama can make it, why not Tyrone on the corner? Cosby’s Scott even says as much in I Spy, explaining that his family “were a bunch of losers.” Scott is suggesting his family could have reached the same achievements he did. (Never mind that he’s talking about a black family in the Jim Crow-era and would have much more likely been the product of parents who supported him, or even pushed him to be twice as good.)

More modern examples of respectability politics can be found in the characters Jodie and Mac of Daria. The two black teens are just one of many creative changes that set Daria apart from its parent show, Beavis and Butthead. Jodie and Mac are implausibly perfect, especially Jodie. But in 90s angst fashion, Jodie’s facade as a credit to her race starts to crack once she receives some legitimate characterization. She’s over-committed to all her extracurricular activities. She has long soliloquies about “being perfect while black.” She starts to feel apathy and depression. She and Mac are considered popular, yet are more regarded as tokens. Often, they are seen apart from the other popular teens, assessing their status as tokens. Jodie ultimately decides to enroll at an HBCU instead of a private white institution so she can stop feeling pressured to put on a face for white people for once in her life. As a teenager during Daria’s run, I related more to her than any character I had seen prior. She was a respectable teen girl who started to see that respectability doesn’t protect you from microaggressions or emotionally exhausting conversations with white people.


While many African Americans praised these respectable characters, others regarded some of the above examples as unrealistic. Just as many people prefer the powerless and flawed Batman to the Jesus-metaphor Superman. There has always been a large black fanbase for crass “ghetto” entertainment, such as the works of Iceberg Silm, the Chitlin’ Circuit, Richard Pryor, and Blues. You may have enjoyed the Cosby Show as a kid (I and most of my middle-class family did not!), but knowing the characters from Good Times is as black as your Auntie NeNe’s potato salad.

Blaxploitation — and works that came before and after — was stereotyping in celluloid, but the average black person LOVED it. The cartoon series Black Dynamite had an entire episode dedicated to “the blackest film,” panning the respectability politics of Bill Cosby in the process. Throughout the episode, an animated Cosby tries to “correct” blaxploitation stars Pam Grier, Rudy Ray Moore, Antonio Fargas, and Jim Kelly into “respectable” roles for his “new” sitcom about the Huxables. By the end of the episode, Cosby gives into the crass comedy of Chitlin’ Circuit legend Moms Mabley, who paved the way for Cosby and other black comedians. The episode is also quick to point out the actual Cosby’s double life as a serial rapist under the guise of a “respectable” image.

Toeing the line between two-dimensional stereotypes and a three-dimensional flawed character can be difficult. But it can be done. We African Americans will not be equal in pop culture representation until we are allowed to be human on-screen. Not an uneducated criminal used as a red herring for a white cop show. Not a well-spoken genius millionaire who reads War and Peace every night after he volunteers at the soup kitchen. Human. Black audiences crave humanity. We want characters who are like us. And as expected, films and TV shows that throw respectability politics out the window tend to be embraced by black people in overwhelming numbers.

Case in point: Friday.

Friday is a standard stoner film, but set in the ‘hood, starring what USED to be one of the scariest rappers at the time — who, ironically, was never in any actual legal trouble (he was just Muslim). And both black people and white people love the film. It launched Ice Cube’s film career into mainstream status. The film is about two young, black men who slack around and smoke marijuana all day. That’s about it. But it’s a favorite of many, especially in the film industry. Aaron McGruder pays homage to Friday multiple times in the Boondocks series, including heavy lampshading from John Witherspoon, who played Craig’s dad in Friday.

Another good example is the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The gamer plays as Carl “CJ” Johnson, a 1990s-era street gang member. While many of the game’s critics claim it glorifies violent street crime, this particular installment of the series receives praise for having black characters as protagonists, as well as an engaging storyline, fun gameplay, and excellent dialogue. And while games are still finding a place as a legitimate artform and storytelling medium, San Andreas stands out as a pioneering game.

Samuel. L. Jackson.

Now that we have Tiffany Haddish, Cardi B, black women wearing pink yarn locs, Killmonger sympathizers, Black Twitter, and LeBron James calling out the President on social media, will black people finally put the racial mask to rest? No, habits are hard to break. Jay-Z may have started talking about race, but he still took the time to lecture black people on the merits of black capitalism. And then there are hoteps

But at least we are realizing that racists will always hate and we’re not letting them define who WE are. So the next time your white coworker suggests that the next police shooting happened because the victim didn’t lift his hands in the air fast enough, you can tell Debbie that the casserole she brought to the potluck deserved to be shot as well, for the crime of existing. Then get back to work before she reports you to HR for the “hostile work environment.”

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