Sexuality in Color: Respectability Politics

Let Rosa be the one; white people aren’t going to bother Rosa, they like her.

In my last Sexuality in Color post, I took some time to acknowledge some of the activists badasses that are left out of common retellings of civil rights movement. Today I’d like to elaborate on exactly why they were left out, how this happens time and time again in a modern context, and why it can be so harmful to people from marginalized communities.

Respectability politics refers to the phenomenon in which members of a marginalized community “police” their own peers, asserting that they should look, dress, act, or speak in a certain way to gain or maintain the respect of the mainstream community. (If you have a second to check out a longer definition, explanation, and contexualization, one of my favorite talks on the subject is called Black Feminism, Popular Culture, and Respectability Politics, given by Trisha Rose, a Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University.)

The term was coined in 2000 by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. She wrote about the women who would gather in church in order to strategize ways to combat racism and discrimination in their communities. One particular tactic, which Higginbotham termed “politics of respectability,” involved the school teachers encouraging their young black students to “integrate into middle class, white communities” so they would fit in and be distanced from negative stereotypes.

This was by far not the first time this idea of “fitting in to survive” had been put into practice — oppressed peoples have been forced to make a choice to either a) go along with the status quo, try to make the best of it, and try to “prove” their lower status assignment wrong, or b) stand up for what is right, regardless of the risk of losing respect/acknowledgement/power from those in the mainstream who might disagree.

Flash back to what Mrs. Colvin told her daughter after the incident on the bus: Let someone else do it. Rosa Parks has a higher social status and they’ll listen to her. Even the high-profile members of the NAACP said Claudette wasn’t a good candidate to be a representative in this litigation, and it’s precisely because of respectability politics that they made this decision. They were thinking about how this story would sound to the powerful majority of white folks who would read about it in the newspaper and see it on TV. They wanted the most “relatable” and “non-threatening” black person that they could find, in order to appeal to the white public and hopefully influence their litigation for the better.

Claudette was too young, too loud, too feisty, and rumored to be pregnant. (Again, she was not actually pregnant at the time, and after weeks of research I still cannot find anything about the identity of the “married man” who had sex with and impregnated a minor, which speaks volumes about how society back then viewed young women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy — and how society now views black women's bodies.) In an interview with The Guardian in 2000, Colvin talked about how her lower class status and darker skin color than Parks were a part of the decision to exclude her from the movement. In this way, her part in history and the bravery that she displayed were downplayed in favor of creating a narrative that was more palatable to the public, even for purely superficial reasons.

This concept of respectability politics, although deeply rooted in black culture and activism dating back to precolonial times, can also be applied to folks with other marginalized identities who are encouraged to exist in a certain way in order to gain basic respect or common courtesy:

  • Folks with disabilities or chronic illnesses who are told to “keep a positive attitude,” willingly participate in inspiration porn, or deal with rude or invasive questions and behavior in public.
  • Black folks who wear their hair un-altered/natural being written up at work for being “unprofessional” or sent home from school for “violating dress code.”
  • People with mental or psychiatric illnesses who receive support and encouragement only if they choose to do things like go to therapy consistently, take or not take medication, or limit discussing the more upsetting or disturbing aspects of their illness publicly.
  • Folks who are bisexual or pansexual who are made to feel that they can only be accepted if they are the “good kind” (which translates to being committed and monogamous).
  • Anyone whose opinion is considered to be less valid or credible because they dress, look, or talk a certain way, especially if these are indicators of lower socioeconomic status or privilege.
  • The public insisting that young black men like Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown would not have been profiled or killed by police if they had not been wearing hoodies or had things in their pockets (as if those are justifiable reasons to shoot a person).
  • Transgender folks who feel pressure to identify themselves within the binary, and to medically and/or bureaucratically transition in order to fit in with the mainstream trans narrative; and similarly, gay and queer people across the spectrum feeling like they must “assimilate” into mainstream heterosexual culture and adopt the same values in order to be considered equal citizens.
  • Women being treated like better or worse by other women depending on their aesthetic choices about their hair, body, clothing, etc.
  • Folks who practice visible religious rituals or traditions (daily prayer, wearing a hijab, turban, or payot) who are mistreated or harassed.

All of these different experiences and identities combine in a way that puts a lot of pressure on people from marginalized groups to act a certain way to feel like they’re good enough. The reality is, there is no singular, appropriate Way to be Black™ (or Disabled, or Queer, or Bipolar, etc.), because each individual’s reality and life circumstances are different.

I’m personally of the mindset that respect is something that everyone should be given freely — without first being subjected to a test to determine whether they’re rich, clean, educated, happy, or easy enough to fit into a box.

As for those of us within marginalized communities who watch and judge each other’s behaviors, these politics of respectability can only damage the relationships and bridges that we could be building. Whenever someone says “I’d never be like [insert peer’s name], I’m one of the good [insert ethnicity, gender identity, class status, etc]s,” they enact what’s essentially bully behavior. They throw other people like them under the bus to make themselves seem better. All this really does is perpetuate harmful stereotypes and further divide groups of people across lines of inequality.

Combatting this kind of elitism within ourselves isn’t an easy thing to do, either; we’re constantly facing all sorts of subtle and explicit messages about “acceptable” ways of existing in the public sphere. In moments of panic or stress we might be tempted to call out or make fun of someone because the way that they present themselves in the world isn’t traditional or picture perfect, especially when there are more privileged folks around.

In those moments, I try to practice a little bit of what I call “doing-my-best” empathy: as someone who is fat, brown, queer, hairy, chronically ill, and neuroatypical, I may not be what comes to mind when people read my work or look at my business card. And I’m probably not going to be called to model for the #pride section of a JC Penney catalog anytime soon, but I’m doing my best. I am surviving and creating positive change in a world that is complex and difficult to live in, and I deserve respect and recognition for that. Just like everyone else.


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