Ever since I was young, I’ve feared being negatively perceived because of my race. I felt like my existence represented the entire Black community, and if I messed up, the repercussions would be felt by other Black people. I tried my best not to act “ghetto” and took on many projects to show my intelligence and ambition. Each of these things was a mechanism to help me combat stereotypes about my race. The last thing I wanted was to prove the racists right.
Respectability politics is a strategy in which people of marginalized groups aim to dispel the negative beliefs the dominant group holds about them and thus improve how the dominant group treats them. The goal is to make the dominant group view the marginalized group as respectable, which will make the dominant group treat them better. For example, if I told another Black woman to “do something” to her afro before going out, that would be respectability politics. In this instance, I would be communicating that her hair is not presentable as is, and she should change it to appease non-Black people and values.
As I got older, I realized that trying to jump through all these hoops made me feel empty despite their possible utility. It was like putting on a show with no one in the audience. Buying into respectability politics became draining, and I could feel myself projecting my internalized beliefs about Blackness onto others in my community, often without meaning to. I’ve realized that utilizing respectability politics hasn’t done me any favors, and I will share why in this article. Of course, I am only one Black woman and do not speak for others in my community.
This dynamic stems from survival. In racialized societies where one race is seen as superior, the dominant race holds beliefs about the marginalized ones. Black elites came up with the politics of respectability to uplift the community. In the case of the Black community, racist ideas like “Black people are lazy” or “Black people are messy” can threaten prosperity. If your whole group is viewed through a stereotypical lens, it becomes hard for anyone within it to move up in the world.
So, in response, Black people try to, and often must, combat these myths written by oppressors by behaving the opposite, like being extreme overachievers or never leaving the house without looking put together. These things aren’t always independently bad, but the beliefs minorities aim to dispel about themselves are rooted in white supremacist and racist ideals, which makes defying stereotypes tricky to navigate. This is why oppressed peoples, in this case, the Black community, sometimes hold on to this strategy of becoming more than what others expect of them. Generations of trauma and denial will do that to people.
However, as a Black woman, I don’t think the use of respectability politics is having the intended effect. We’re unwittingly vying for the approval of the masses. Understandably, I’ve played into respectability politics often, even if I did so internally. Recently, I’ve tried to stop as I realized that it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. It’s like we’re being victim-blamed, like telling a woman she deserved to be treated a certain way based on what she wore. Respect should be earned from being human and respecting the existence of others, not some superficial details about how we look or speak.
Playing into respectability politics, at least in my experience, has caused more problems than provided solutions. I have been judgmental toward others in my community and toward myself. I never allow myself to just exist, and I feel like screaming when a Black person does something that may be seen as “ghetto” or “loud” by the public. It felt like a threat to my standing, like a friend embarrassing you in a room full of people just waiting for a chance to talk badly about you.
If I play into respectability politics, I run the risk of further uplifting white supremacist ideals and risking my mental health. But if I don’t, I risk losing the respect of the dominant culture.
This isn’t to say that respectability politics is completely bad and should be thrown out. I understand its utility and why people in my community try to break the stereotypes of being Black — how you are perceived is important. However, the Black community seems to turn on each other rather than use respectability politics for our benefit. We seem to treat ourselves as a monolith, just as our oppressors want us to. Using respectability politics on each other, in my opinion, further perpetuates that idea. Just because a few Black people wear bonnets outside and sag their pants doesn’t mean the whole race will be viewed that way. Most have seen enough Black people in person to know we aren’t all the same, just as people of other races aren’t all the same.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, I made up my mind. No matter how hard I try, my race could implicate me in any circumstance. To some, there will always be something “wrong” about the way my hair and body look, how I speak, what I wear, and what I value — people who hold opinions like that are victims of white supremacy and all it carries. So why should I care about how respectable I look or act to people who don’t even know my name? Who doesn’t know me or what I’ve endured to get where I am today? Many people will always see me at the surface level; frankly, it shouldn’t be on the Black community to ensure our respect. We should be respected by virtue of being human and how we treat others. I ask that we look deeper and ask who we’re really doing this for.
My advice is this: wear what you want, speak how you want, do your hair how you want, and pursue what you want to. No amount of accolades, proper speech, or “acceptable” hairstyles will save you from the hateful eye of the oppressor.
Here are my favorite videos on respectability politics if you want to learn more: