Respectability politics has been a part of our society in the United States since the founding of this country. It is discussed by sociologists and you may have heard about respectability politics from word-of-mouth, but what exactly is it? The Encyclopædia Britannica defines the term as “the set of beliefs holding that conformity to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a member of a marginalized or minority group from prejudices and systemic injustices.” This is problematic because of who dictates respectability politics and the sexist and racist double standards that stem from this. For minorities that feel underrepresented, being recognized as respectable is important. When the white and male majority get to dictate what is acceptable this becomes divisive and abusive. I will be examining the root of this phenomenon of respectability politics and how it becomes a platform to mask discrimination such as discrediting women’s work or deeming someone less of a man due to the color of their skin.
In order to present some historical background, we can refer to some of the comments the founding father Thomas Jefferson made regarding black people. Jefferson stated that black people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Sharpley-Whiting 2). In this way, Jefferson undermines the humanity of blacks by his description of their physical and mental integrity. Jefferson also described black women specifically as “more ‘ardent’ and preferred ‘uniformly’ by the male ‘Oranootan’ over females of ‘his own species’” (Sharpley-Whiting 2). Nevertheless, Jefferson was known to have had sexual relationships with black slave girls and some believe Jefferson had children from one of the slave girls named Sally Hemings. This hypocrisy between his speech and his actions was deemed “typical of exploitative white masters, [who] likes her wealth and her sexual possibilities but dislikes the tint of her skin” (Ogunyemi 66). These cases of the white male figure dictating what the value and humanity of black people is perceived as dates back to the forming of this country and even prior to that. We realize now that the perceived reality of these inferior people, as Jefferson describes, is dictated by the majority group.
Even today, majority groups such as those in the movie business are responsible for perceived realities of non-whites. For example, Hollywood “still filters…the lives and histories of minorities through the eyes of the majority” and is “more comfortable casting black women as maids than as prime ministers” (Winfrey-Harris). This is done due to the nature of owners being white and most actors with leading roles being white, i.e. the majority group. If movies tell stories only through the perspective of one demographic, it cannot be representative of the true variety of Hollywood’s audience. Clearly, the United States has been perpetuating and internalizing the dynamics of respectability politics for centuries.
So why is respectability in itself important? A sense of being recognized as respectable by others will grant a feeling of being human. If one feels empowered and valued as a respectable person this individual will likely feel that their voice matters. Therefore, “respectability has been important for marginalized people throughout history” (Winfrey-Harris); for marginalized people specifically because their “assimilation was an effective way to join the national conversation” (Winfrey-Harris). If marginalized people get recognized by the majority as respectable, they may feel equal due to the power disparity being hidden by fabricated politeness.
Respectability politics carry sexist and racial double standards due to the white male majority alienating anyone that does not fit their idea of what’s respectable. This alienating happens possibly in fear of being challenged on their social and structural superiority. Winfrey-Harris describes these politics as working to “counter negative views of blackness by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems ‘respectable’.” By putting down marginalized people, the majority is able to maintain their power and continues to establish what is deemed ‘respectable’ or the noble way of action. This can be seen in the social backlash Erykah Badu received during her last pregnancy. Badu has children from three different men outside of wedlock. Beyoncé, on the other hand, dated first, then married her husband Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, and then had her baby. Badu was shamed as being a “whore” and Beyoncé was praised as doing it “respectably.” Who determines what is pure or ethical? A pregnancy is not unacceptable just because the woman is single. That is exactly the issue with “white racism that label[s] blackness as ‘other’ — degenerate and substandard” (Winfrey-Harris). This is an abusive manner of treating minorities just because they don’t do exactly what the white majority deems proper even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with choosing a different manner of action.
We see this same racism in feminism. There is a difference between the struggles feminism denounces because the black woman experience has different racial struggles than the white woman does. Author Ogunyemi draws a distinction between feminism and womanism, where white women use ‘feminism’ and black women ‘womanism’ because of the broader span of problems a black woman faces. She explains that “while the white woman writer protests against sexism, the black woman writer must deal with it as one among many evils; she battles also with the dehumanization resulting from racism and poverty” (68). This showcases the disparity between both kinds of feminisms. The underlying claim of both feminisms was facilitated by black activists trying to bridge this gap. These activists brought to the attention of “the majority culture [that] ‘we are just like you’” (Winfrey-Harris). This brings the denouncing of abuse full circle by appealing to humanity. Why fight among each other while marginalized groups would just like to be recognized as one more like us.
Respectability politics dictate a sexist double standard that is biased against women. We have seen throughout the 1950s especially women’s work being devalued. Winfrey-Harris adds to this discussion by explaining that “the idea that domestic work is shameful is a product of …gender bias that devalues ‘women’s work’.” When white slave owners managed plantations and their spouses were housewives, it was dictated that a woman shouldn’t have to work. Now, this sexist double standard continues to be present today. For women “working alongside their male counterparts…prevented them from fitting the standard of femininity applied to upper-class white women” (Walley-Jean 70). How is a black woman now able to claim ‘respectability’ when any of her work will get her the label of being masculine or not enough of a woman. This ends up becoming a class bias as well for poorer marginalized families where everyone has to work. These families cannot live up to these respectability politics — even if they wanted to — because they cannot afford that luxury.
So there seems to be a “culture of disrespect” towards women aside from respectableness where they are being addressed regularly according to Sharpley-Whiting, as “hoes” and using slang expressions in rap culture such as “we don’t love them hos” (86). One can try to follow these politics and even accomplish some comfort or status; however, it is not truly your own personality and moral beliefs. The largest corporations and institutions that define these politics also perpetuate them, forcing the marginalized to adapt to a labor division where their employment is essential even over their beliefs. This extremism of having to leave your beliefs behind to be able to fit in the labor market is what makes respectability politics so divisive. This can become very problematic because it can lead to revolts as we continue to see in socialist countries more often where unions for immigrants, women, queer and other marginalized communities will not stand these pseudo-respectability politics.
Respectability politics affect women of color the most. Their suffering represents the cost of respectability politics. Winfrey-Harris considers that there is as much “potential to harm as much as to uplift.” Even if one may feel more empowered and in the conversation, if they adapt to these politics, it is a mask of the underlying sexism and racism. The most well-known stereotype that represents these issues is the term of Angry Black Woman. In simple terms, this generalizes the character of a black woman as loud, aggressive and reactive. Psychologist Dr. J. Celeste Walley-Jean described it best in her published article that investigated the nature of this very term:
Research findings have indicated that African American women were loud, talkative, aggressive, antagonistic, unmannerly, argumentative, and straightforward, and African American women were viewed as holding more negative traits than American women in general. (72)
Her research findings lead me to believe that we have primed ourselves in the way we look at African American women. Our prejudices get repeated and re-nourished by this stereotype of the Angry Black Woman. In practical terms, there has been an “internalization of the stereotype [that] can also affect how African American women perceive themselves (Walley-Jean 73). We should step back and ask ourselves if this is what we would like women to feel like.
The only solution for change is to stop blaming politics for our shortcomings. We need to embody what the country needs and change prejudice at its root and that is in ourselves. Healing can only happen if it does as a daily mandate in our lives. If we do not welcome our neighbor, why would we a politician? Conforming to the norm of respectability politics is taking the blame away from the individual. Racist and sexist prejudice is an interpersonal evil and for that, we only have ourselves to blame. To keep each other accountable today will reap its benefits tomorrow. Direct action should be our focus in a multitude of ways. Not only can we begin by keeping each other accountable to when we may notice respectability politics, but one powerful statement to make would be to not continue to support the businesses that are white demographically across the board. I personally will begin supporting when possible local businesses run by minorities instead of your regular large chains. Lastly, if we want to reduce responsibility politics in this nation we have to vote accordingly. Before voting inform yourself about your senators, and party; if they seem representative demographically of what this nation is like, chances are they are setting a better example than a party dominated by white men almost exclusively.
J. Celeste Walley-Jean. “Debunking the Myth of the ‘Angry Black Woman’: An Exploration of Anger in Young African American Women.” Black Women, Gender Families, vol. 3, no. 2, 2009, pp. 69–73.
Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.” Signs, vol. 11, no. 1, 1985, pp. 66–68.
Sharpley-Whiting, T.Denean. “The Irony of Achievement for Black WOMEN.” Ebony, vol. 62, no. 9, July 2007, pp. 86–87.
Winfrey-Harris, Tamara. “No Disrespect: Black Women and the Burden of Respectability.” Bitch Media, 26 Dec. 2016, www.bitchmedia.org/article/no-disrespect/black-women-and-burden-respectability.