The Definition, Danger and Disease of Respectability Politics, Explained

The idea has resulted in some of the most forgettable parts of black history.

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So, I’m kinda new to all of this new age social-justice stuff. Of course, I’ve always been aware of what racism and sexism and bias meant, but some of the terminology used to describe specific examples of it—i.e., microaggressions, white privilege, street harassment, etc.—were also new to me and it took a while to understand what they meant. But I do now.

One term, however, that I don’t quite understand yet is the concept of respectability politics. Would you mind breaking it down for me?

Sure! Although the concept of respectability politics has existed for a very long time, the term itself is relatively new. Author and professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is credited with first articulating it; it appears in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. It’s generally defined as what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.

As alluded to earlier, it’s a concept that has existed within black America since black people have been in America—the idea that if we walk a little straighter and write a little neater and speak a little clearer, then white people will treat us better. This belief has resulted in some of the most forgettable parts of black history. The Black History Month lessons we really, really, really, really don’t want to be taught.

Like what?

The history of the conk, which happened to be the single worst hairstyle in the history of black male hair. (Yes, even worse than the Coolio and the shag Kanye had a few years ago.) The need to assimilate in order to possibly receive favor resulted in an entire generation of black men walking around with what looked like microwaved lettuce on their heads. Single-handedly, the conk probably did more damage to the black community than the Bush family.

Ah, I see. Do you have any recent examples of it?

Of the conk? Heavens no. We took the conk out back, shot it in the face and killed it with fire in the ’70s. If you see a black man walking around with a conk today, call up Rick and Michonne from The Walking Dead. Because that black man must be a zombie, and a shot to the gut won’t stop him.

No. I meant do you have any recent examples of respectability politics?

Oh, OK. Well, the best one I can cite is Bill Cosby’s infamous pound cake speech. It was given during an NAACP awards ceremony in 2004, and he spent much of his speech admonishing black people for everything from (lack of) parental skills to how giving a child a “black” name assured that he’d (or she’d) be in prison one day.

He actually said that?

Yes. He actually did.

An actual quote: “We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.”