Your Respectability Politics Aren't Very Respectable
By Jaylin Paschal
1. regarded by society to be good, proper, or correct
2. of some merit or importance
Respectable behavior changes each time you ask for its definition. What's respectable to me may be unacceptable to you, and vice versa. It is rare when society as a collective whole agrees on what and who deserves respect--this is true even in terms of leader of the free world, President Obama. While many believe he deserves the utmost respect, some would spit on him if given the chance.
In short, "respectability" is in the eye of the beholder.
Therefore, it is unreasonable to assume that something as wavering and uncertain as a person's respectability may be the reason they were subjected to unfair treatment. This assertion suggests that something as subjective as respectability is solid enough to be the basis upon which we determine value. And this suggestion falls short, as it has proven time and time again to be irrelevant. If it did hold true, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Clementa Pinckney, etc. would not have been murdered in cold blood. The black professors of Harvard University would not have had their pictures vandalized. Melissa Harris Perry wouldn't have endured the continuous online stream of racist slurs. Being educated, well-dressed, mild-mannered, articulate, church-going, etc. would have saved them. Yet, here they are on this list.
It seems obvious that respectability or the lack thereof does not matter to a bigot, so why does it matter so much to the victim? How do respectability politics still drive many of the narratives in the black community? "Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference." In the social arena of racism, the theory implies that racism will end where pants stop sagging and when we remove the apostrophes from our dialect. It implies that if we trade in our Eazy E for Beethoven and conform to what is "respectable," which tends to mean what is white, we'll be alright. As I've said before, it's a flawed theory. Offering respectability in an exchange for black life is an attempt to reason with the unreasonable. A bigot is a bigot whether you're in Coogi or Calvin Klein. Dressing our sons in suits, forbidding them from using slang, cutting off their afros, and sending them off to school won't protect them. It's their blackness that's hated, and that can't be folded away, tucked in, picked out, or diluted by education. "Respectable" or not, they will still be black.
Elitism within the black community, met with a determination to "uplift the race," ignores this fact though. This philosophy instead macro-manages black behavior in a way that is far more detrimental than helpful. The black community agrees to shaving our dreadlocks with promises of change, just to mourn the unjust deaths of our children. Our self-correction serves us no purpose, as new skin is the only true alteration that would make a difference. The klan killed black men in shirts and ties--stripped them down to their stark, black nakedness. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether those men were articulate when they begged for their lives.
The theory of respectability politics has failed will always fail. It's not trading in our culture and customs, because we're getting no respect in return. It's not sacrificial because there is no benefit. It's not adaptive, because you will never "fit in" where you are simply unwelcome. It's not dignified conformity, but done in vain. And that's not very respectable at all.