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.
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.”
And this is the same guy facing multiple allegations of sexual assault, right?
If you looked up “irony” in the dictionary, you’d find … the definition of irony. But if you looked up “ironic motherf—ker emeritus”—which, to be fair, isn’t in Webster’s—you’d find a picture of Bill Cosby.
So, I have to admit something: I actually don’t see the problem with respectability politics. More specifically, I don’t see the problem with telling black people that better behavior usually results in better treatment. Am I missing something here?
That’s a good question. And it’s one many people have. As you said, “better behavior equals better treatment” seems like a simple, common sense and intuitive solution to many of the problems facing black America. Some “Fisher Price: How I Solved Racism”-type s—t.
But it’s a fallacy—logically, emotionally and spiritually—for three reasons:
1. It shifts responsibility away from perpetrators (which in this context would be America) and places it on the victims (which in this context would be blacks in America). Instead of requiring the people and the institutions committing and propagating racist acts to change, it asks the people harmed by the racism to change in order to stop being harmed by the racism. Which is like getting shot and then getting blamed for standing in front of the bullet.
2. It provides a false sense of security for those who believe in it. As we’ve seen time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time again, nothing—not a master’s degree, not a Maserati, not a white wife named Molly—can prevent a black person from being treated like a black person when his or her number is called. But believing that acting a certain way can and will prevent it—as if respectability were an Off! spray you douse your body in so hungry cops won’t bite you—is dangerous. And could end your life.
Which brings us to the most important point …
3. It doesn’t work. If it did work—if it actually had a tangible effect on saving lives—I’d be all for respectability politics. I’d throw respectability politics potlucks and game nights, where we’d play games like “Pin the Belt on the Sagging Hoodrat” and “Unslurred ‘R’s’ Taboo.”
Really? You’d do all of that?
Actually, no, I wouldn’t. Which brings me to a fourth point. I love being black too much to be less me to gain some safety. If changing my name or my hair or the way I dress is what allows me to be more fully “American”—more fully a person in the eyes of people who doubt my citizenship and my humanity—then that is not something I aspire to be.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.