“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. So as a prelude whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior.”
Today at the supermarket a woman came up to me and noticed my Marcus Garvey pin. One of my favorite pins. This sparked a conversation about black nationalism and police repression. The woman who appeared to be in her mid 30’s, began to tell me that she is so fearful of the cops. A mother of two, she tells her sons to call the police “MASSA”, that education is the only thing that will prevent them from being killed by law enforcement, and oh, always wear a belt. Always. I was stunned. I, who so happens to wear my feelings on my sleeve could not mask the fact that what she said was not only mirroring over 400 years of oppression, but in 2015 she was teaching her children how to be willing participants in their own subjugation. That being respectable would somehow grant them immunity from state violence and other systematic oppressors. A narrative that is completely false, dangerous and yet still goes unabated.
Respectability politics is attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members to show their values are aligned with mainstreams standards, rather than challenging mainstream for its failure to accept cultural differences. Like the lady in the supermarket, this idea that sagging pants, hip hop culture alongside AAVE (African American vernacular) aides in the extrajudicial killings by law enforcement instead of the innumerable discriminatory factors already set in place. Members of marginalized groups become the root cause of governmental failures, thus making the need to address and ultimately dismantle socioeconomic inequalities inessential.
The politics of respectability implies that our humanity is to be earned. That in order to lessen the grip of structural racism and police brutality, we have to follow a certain set of guidelines. Rules like not blasting our music in traffic to avoid being killed like Jordan Davis, or wearing “suspicious” attire like the infamous hoodie that caused Trayvon Martin’s body to be riddled with bullets. “Rules” that white people do not have to adhere to because their humanity is already defined do to their privilege. Privilege that considers them human by default. These guidelines cause us to blame and shame victims for their untimely fate instead of their abusers.
Noticeably, respectability is used by most black people as a means to overturn decades of dehumanization from slavery and Jim Crow status. Respectability is used as a source of power to combat white supremacy portrayals of black inferiority and criminality. Portrayals that are propelled through Mass Media and other instruments that help fuel racial propaganda. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, black educators and scholars alike promoted a narrative of “uplifting the race” and correcting the traits of the black poor. This fallacious strategy was a means to help disadvantaged portions of black society gain upward mobility. A strategy latent with “ bootstrapism”. That with hard work and undoing of bad habits and customs you too can be apart of the upper echelon. That the dozens of unassimilated black folks, forgotten post civil rights movement are to blame for their own misfortunes. This not only perpetuates a hierarchy in blackness but it ignores colonial, imperial, and hegemonic masculine systems already governing society. Respectability becomes the scapegoat for stalled economic progress. That even if someone is seemingly “respectable” it still does not grant them immunity from having their civil liberties violated like Martese Johnson a black UVA student who was beaten by ABC control agents on March 18. It’s important that we understand that no matter where a black person is placed on the socioeconomic totem pole he or she is not immune to some form of discrimination.
Respectability Politics all in all is dangerous. This idea that becoming more “like-able” will allow us to be treated like first class citizens and hopefully grant us the ability to exercise autonomy over our bodies is ludicrous. This necessity of white approval that keeps us asking what did the person do or say that caused them to be killed extrajudicially by the state instead of faulting the very foundation of the state itself. We have found ways to flatten our nuances and partially separate ourselves from the very things that shape us as a people. We even ridicule and ostracize those for simply engaging in the visceral aspects of blackness, whether it be speech or style. We use coded language like “ghetto” or “ratchet” to define the “unacceptable” behaviors of black people from the poor to the middle class. Behaviors that aren’t necessarily wrong but rather deviate from societal norms. The black poor who have found alternative ways to survive in this racial caste system, whether it be drug dealing or sex work, become hogtied to respectability politics and the economical barriers they face go lost in the american lexicon. Respectability is a way to gloss over America’s inability to address racial inequalities. Guidelines of respectability is used to justify oppression and sadly enough, no matter what education level, neighborhood lived in, or how well we speak, none of this matters in a black body. Respectability is merely a coping mechanism.
During the height of the Trayvon Martin murder trial, CNN anchor Don Lemon infamously offered Black people 5 ridiculous tips on how to be better. One of those tips included pulling our pants up. He also stated that FOX New’s Bill O’reily (known for spreading false propaganda about black people) didn’t go far enough.
Black people are human. We want to live, go to school, maintain households, enter into domestic partnerships, and tend to our children. It is not up to white people to affirm our humanity. We get to define it ourselves. I encourage you not to dilute your blackness for an ounce of white approval. There’s no right or wrong way of being black. Whether its the brotha who graduated from Yale hailing a cab in the heart of NYC, to the sista doing her hair in the kitchen while talking loud on the house phone. To the boys beat boxing and banging on cafeteria tables at the first lunch bell, to young girls reciting old Lauryn Hill songs at the back of the bus, the church goers, the freedom singers, the drug dealers, the junkies. Blackness is, it just is.
With all that is happening on social networks, and the camera phone shedding light on decades of abuse by law enforcement on black residents, I think it’s important we appreciate our blackness. That we hold it tight to our bosom. That our nuances and attributes are to be celebrated. There is a quote that I love and I think it’s perfect for the times we are in:
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it with our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”- Arundhati Roy
Yes. I hear another world breathing and it’s certainly on its way. I love my blackness as well as yours. Be proud.