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September 2013

wetmattos asked/commented:

Dear, can you help me a bit? I'm trying to find your posts on respectability politics to send to a friend with whom I'm arguing about the measure of offensiveness in power dynamics, with no avail... Which tag do you use to mark them? Thanks in advance for the help!

The politics of respectability originated as cultural, sexual, domestic, employment and artistic “guidelines” or “rules” for racially marginalized groups to follow in the effort to be viewed as “human” in a White supremacist society and by individual Whites. Some of the most noticeable manifestations of the politics of respectability occurs among Black people because of the history dehumanization because of slavery. 

The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation. (There are arguments to be made that this helped the women’s club movement among Black women’s anti-racism, womanist work in the early 20th century). However, what it ended up doing in many cases was fragmenting the Black working class/poor from the Black middle class, who despite performing respectability to spec, were often still alienated from the Whites they sought approval from. (Where do you think “uppity Negro” comes from? This.) And Black people regardless of class were (and still are) targets of racism.

Today, the politics of respectability is forcefully injected into any conversation about race by both Black and White people. Bill Cosby and Don Lemon are examples. And anytime they shame and scold fellow Black people (as the President has done sometimes too) Whites applaud because once again, they have ZERO accountability for racism.

This myth that White-approved performance (versus actually living) will eradicate racism because Whites will finally “like” Black people is ludicrous and is pushed by those who engage in victim blaming, since it’s easier than admitting the truth about racism.

Black people are human and shouldn’t have to “audition” for humanity based on clothing, speech style, neighborhood lived in, educational level etc. These rules are meant to dehumanize and justify oppression. And if the President of the United States was asked “papers please?" then obviously resume, grooming, education, and even power is irrelevant in a Black body; obviously the politics of respectability won’t save.

Here’s some of my posts that address the politics of respectability:

Quotes on Gradient Lair from others and includes some notes by me:

  • @FeministGriote on the politics of respectability and Rachel Jeantel [X]
  • Angela Davis on early 20th century Black women, working class and middle class [X]
  • Alice Walker; describing the White Gaze [X]

External links from one of my favorite blogs, Still Furious and Still Brave:

Other good external posts:

And since this post will inevitably be derailed (*sigh*) let’s clarify one thing. The way that sexism impacts White women’s lives differs from the politics of respectability. While sexism and misogyny in general includes domination and objectification for gender, it is not the same thing as the politics of respectability. Further, Black women also have to deal with sexism and misogyny, in addition to racism, misogynoir and the politics of respectability, which is one of the offspring of White supremacy just as colourism is. In fact, all of the “respectable” standards that Black women are supposed to adhere to come from White supremacist notions of womanhood where White women are placed as the ideal. This is why there is specific anti-Black misogyny, or misogynoir that Black women deal with. 

Hope this helps! Take care. 

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