“Why are you wearing a hat?”
“Because it’s cold and I’m going outside”
*he walks over from where he was standing to talk at me as I’ve moved into the elevator I was initially waiting on between the first exchange*
“You know we are role models for these students and we don’t wear hats!”
“I don’t see any students.”
*elevator door closes*
The follow up conversation to this exchange began with “I was disappointed in the exchange that we just had and how you responded” from him. I asked “What was your intention?” The response was “this is a sacred space….we don’t wear hats inside…it is part of the culture of this organization…”
I tuned out the rest of the conversation and went into preservation mode. It was the second day of “respectability politics” conversations. The prior day’s conversation was about my decision not to wear a tie (the dress code does not specify one must be worn and I had previously been given a greenlight).
“The respectability of politics,” now known as “respectability politics” was first introduced by Evelyn Higginbotham (current Harvard Professor) to describe the distancing of one’s self from the stereotypical and disrespected aspects of their community. In Higginbotham’s book, she looks at black women who used the church as a location of resistance against racism and built social welfare services to enhance their respectability. Respectability politics also defines respectable behavior for women (how they should dress, how they should conduct themselves in the presence of men, etc) and LGBT folks who adhere to heteronormative practices and institutions.
Respectability politics can be an outside force that confines groups to behave in a way that conforms to the mainstream (assimilation) that supposedly confers benefits. The idea that well dressed black men are less likely to be shot or the notion that women should be demure to gain affection from men. However, the more insidious form of respectability politics comes from within and takes the guise of internalized racism, sexism and/or homophobia. Given how we are socialized to adhere to the mainstream (to assimilate), it is not always easy to realize when you become a perpetuator of oppression within your own group.
Women should only wear pants suits (not pink or bright colors). Black people should not wear hoodies if they don’t want to be seen as a threat. Members of the same-sex shouldn’t hold hands in public.
The above statements are restrictive and can be heard from within and outside of the demographic it polices. In some instances there is a perceived or real benefit to adhering to these standards. Yet, the internal conflict (unless you become numb to it) can start to eat at you. There have been times where one’s chances of survival or acceptance have been buoyed by respectability politics, but that gain has to been seen contextually with the cost incurred. A defense of “respectability politics” can be found (here).
But here’s the thing. Some of us are tired of being respectful. It’s draining. Sometimes you want to let your guard down. You want to enjoy what you enjoy and not care about who is watching. And this is the place that I was in (mentally) in the exchange above.
I take my hat off as I enter the building (per the sign clearly says “Gentlemen, please remove your hats when you enter the building) and generally abide by the rules. That day, I had 20 minutes to grab food before 2 hours of meetings and it was cold outside (hence my wearing a coat). The reproach for “breaking the rules” felt disproportionate in this instance as it was not intended to be a “fuck you.” But I own the impact of what happened. It was a momentary slip up. The normal process in every other instance in my life is to put coat and hat on before I leave the building when it is cold.
But that’s not what matters when discussing respectability politics. For the enforcers, it feels like the culture and the community and the people’s respect and future are on the line. Every single break from respectability is the step back for the community “we don’t need right now.” I get it. But from hearing not to sag my pants, to wear a belt, to never leave the house with my hair unbrushed, to always dress nicely, to always be respectful in public, to always work twice as hard to get half as much, and so on, it all starts to turn into brewing point of resentment.
So when Bill Cosby (of all people) makes his famous poundcake speech about the need for stronger parenting in the black community, being told to stop blaming white people for all of your problems, to wear a belt, to stop protesting every shooting and to stop giving our children “black names” like Shaniqua, Shaligua, etc it hurts. Not only does it hurt, but it is the fine balance one must walk to be respectable so white people can be more favorable to black people in the future by wearing a belt, taking off your hat, wearing a suit and tie to work, etc.
I am also guilty of perpetuating a culture of respectability politics at times, though I try not to. I don’t want to impose on someone’s personhood and agency for the greater good. Instead, I try to acknowledge that there are a set of expected behaviors for which mainstream acceptance may come more easily but that it doesn’t have to be that way. I won’t force you to use your “white voice” on the phone, but I will say “in this company/situation, your white voice may serve you best. It is how it should be, but maybe we can progress towards something that’s a bit less restrictive.”
A perspective on why respectability will not save us: here.
Hearing that something is “so ghetto” frustrates me — no matter the race of the person saying it — because of the value it assigns to behaviors considered less respectful. In other cultures, they might say “so FOB” where FOB means “fresh off the boat.”
The word “ratchet” is the new “ghetto” and it is used to minimize tv shows, music, gatherings and PEOPLE. These words are reductive. I’m not saying you can’t say them, but just keep in mind that calling something “ratchet” or “ghetto” is as nuanced as something is “dumb” or “good.”
As always, feel free to ask questions or share what feels relevant here.
Part of a 28-day series of reflections, stories and feelings for Black History Month 2017. Read all parts (here).