Respectability Politics relies on the idea that behavior deemed “appropriate” by white people is the key to Black success. This type of behaviorist rhetoric harps on the notion that Black Americans can use respectable behavior as a mandate and political tool in upward mobility and the achievement of greater equality within this country. Respectability Politics specifically teaches Black women to be modest, refined, and not overtly sexual. The ideas represented about Black femininity within Respectability Politics are harmful because they preserve the idea that the challenges faced by Black Americans, particularly Black women, are a result of their own behavior and culture. The “culturalist” perspective that Respectability Politics fits into completely ignores the legacy of slavery and how that legacy has created systemic racism within American institutions of power. Furthermore, this narrative lacks state demand and agency, resulting in an absence of action towards addressing the higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration amongst Black Americans. Because Black people have been controlled by Respectability Politics for so long, avenues of rejection and defiance, such as Black popular culture, have served as outlets for Black artists and people in general to reclaim their freedom of expression and personhood. In particular, the rejection of Respectability Politics by Black women is often seen in modern pop culture through Black female icons. Unfortunately, the rejection of Respectability Politics by Black women in the mainstream media comes with an intense pressure to exist as an uber-confident and hyper-sexualized being–the antithesis of the unassertive Black woman created by Respectability Politics. Although the rejection of Respectability Politics is justified and necessary, it is not always sexually liberating for Black women, especially those in the public eye.
Most women who exist within the public eye are constantly ridiculed and scrutinized for their physical appearances. The pressure to appear sexually appealing is only heightened for Black women in the spotlight. Black women carry the weight of what it means to be Black within a world dominated by white people while also carrying the weight of what it means to be a woman in a world dominated by men. Unfairly, the efforts a Black woman makes to assert her power as a Black American can undermine parts of her power as a woman. This dilemma is apparent in the rejection of Respectability Politics by Black women in mass media. Dr. Tricia Rose in her lecture Feminism, Popular Culture, and Respectability Politics brings up this exact point as she discusses how Black women, like Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, and Amber Rose, must be capable of performing, acting, and dressing in hyper-sexualized ways to not only find success within the industry but also adequately reject Respectability Politics. Seeing this phenomenon as problematic, Dr. Rose asks her audience if Black women are truly free when they are coerced into presenting themselves as sexually desirable. Even though the representation of Black women in the media as sexually attractive rejects the idea that Black women must be modest and covered up to earn societal respect, this representation is still in its own way an effort to control Black women’s sexual expression. Wearing as little as possible is understood to be a prerequisite for success in the industry for Black women. When Black women are taught that in order to be successful and relevant they must appeal to the heteronormative desires of men, they lose freedom over their expression, sexually or otherwise, because they themselves are not in complete control over how they appear. The heart of this issue stems from the lack of personal choice Black women in the public eye have over their outward appearances. In Black Feminist Interventions, E. Frances White discusses this idea in her assessment of sexuality and representation of Black women. White details how “the image of Black women in public culture, Black female audience response, and Black women as image producers” are factors in the greater exploitation of Black women and their sexuality by the mass media (White, 73). The rightful rejection of the evils of Respectability Politics by Black women inadvertently upholds the idea that a Black woman’s worth, significance, and overall success are directly correlated to her physical attributes and ability to appear sexually desirable.
This issue illuminates the intrinsic difficulties and roadblocks Black women face in their efforts to achieve greater racial and gender equality. Ultimately, Black women deserve to have the personal sovereignty to decide for themselves what actions are both racially and sexually liberating instead of being pressured into complying with predetermined standards.