4 Hints Your Approaches to Empowering Black Communities Are Actually Harmful

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There’s a running joke about whether or not black people should eat chicken in public.

When I’d bring a packed lunch with chicken wings to the office, I’d laugh at myself as I heated it up in the break room, thinking, “Am I really about to sit down with a plate of fried chicken in front of all these white folks?”

Of course I would. The chicken stereotype seemed silly to me, but there were other stereotypes I worked hard not to portray. 

I used to viciously side-eye anyone who argued that twerking was empowering. I’d quietly shame people who enjoyed reality TV shows like Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop. And I preferred artists like Janelle Monae over Nicki Minaj because I thought Nicki was a modern day example of the Jezebel stereotype.

I didn’t like anything that made black people look like we didn’t have home training. I wanted society to see positive images, like the high rates of black college graduates or the thriving black business owners.

To me, people who embodied stereotypes were enemies to black progress. These were my respectability politics.

Respectability politics are rules used by marginalized groups to help assimilate and survive in hostile environments that aren’t as accepting of other cultures. These rules define acceptable behavior based on mainstream values. They define how to act in front of (white) company.

These politics are frequently found in conversations about how to tackle racism and anti-blackness in America and how to uplift black communities.

For instance, some black parents will teach their children to dress and act a certain way around police officers, in hopes that their children will not suffer the fate of children like Mike Brown and Tamir Rice.

With the exceptions of a few “news” personalities whose intentions no one can be too sure of (ahem, Don Lemon and Stacey Dash), respectability politics typically comes from well-meaning people who love and support black people. Our mothers, teachers, friends, favorite musicians, and relatives use them to better our communities and protect loved-ones from oppressive situations. 

However, the intentions don’t always match the outcome, as respectability politics can be toxic.

Because respectability politics are strict rules based on seeking white approval, they feign empowerment by requiring us to embrace white supremacist ideas about ourselves. They divide our communities, teach us to judge ourselves and those around us based on how well they assimilate, and lead us to point fingers at ourselves rather than the systems that cause and benefit from our oppression. 

Respectability politics is a form of horizontal and internalized oppression. And when I realized that my own politics were actually tearing me down, I had to let them go. I had to free myself from and internalized white gaze in order to love myself more and learn to better serve my community.

So I encourage black activists, feminists, community leaders, and others to give up these pseudo-progressive politics in order to better address the needs of their own communities.   

To help, here are 4 common examples of dangerous arguments generated from respectability politics and more empowering approaches we can use to replace them. 

1. Your Approach Blames a Group for Their Own Oppression

Statements like “Young men need to pull up their pants and stop wearing hoodies” highlight respectability politics in conversations related to black safety in public places.   

Travyon Martin’s murder incited debates about safe clothing, as people across the nation donned hoodies in solidarity. Facebook users changed their profiles to hoods and used the hashtags #WeAreAllTrayvonMartin and #HoodiesUp.

Others questioned the hoodie-wearing solidarity. Many were concerned about how safe it is for black people to wear clothing like hoodies, large t-shirts, and sagging pants, as those clothing items have been perceived as “thuggish” and threatening by mainstream society.

They suggested we change our clothes in order to avoid run-ins with the police and trigger-happy vigilantes, like George Zimmerman.  Their hope is that altering our attire can protect us from anti-black violence.

But sometimes the most dangerous thing black people can wear is our own skin. 

Hoodies and sagging pants don’t cause injustice and belts and blouses certainly don’t solve it. Police brutality cases are not isolated incidents, but collective occurrences that point to the white fear of blackness in our justice system.

We’ve seen several cases where black people who would be deemed respectable, are harassed by police. One example is Arizona State University professor Dr. Ersula Ore, who was body slammed to the ground by an ASU officer for “jay walking.” She was wearing a dress and jacket, similar to what other professors might choose wear to teach a class.

Her clothing wasn’t the problem.

Suggestions about black people’s clothing being responsible for the police brutality skirt the heart of the issue: Our nation has, and has always had, a race problem.

We have to remember the history of racial tension that includes more than 200 years of slavery and more than 50 years of Jim Crow. The effects of these institutions seep into modern day views on race in America.

Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and the countless other black lives lost to police brutality are not to blame for their own deaths. When we point the fingers at victims, we cannot hold our justice system accountable. In doing this, we hinder avenues for change.

Instead, let’s exchange victim-blaming and excuses for why black people are disproportionately killed by the police for ideas on how to rid our law enforcement of its racist practices. Instead of asking why the victim sagged his pants, we can ask “How can we re-train our police force to treat us like human beings?” We can request that our lawmakers set up more stringent penalties for use of excessive force, as some activists have.

For real change to occur, it’s important for us to focus our energy and efforts on how to dismantle systems of oppression, rather than trying to change people that are subject to these oppressive systems.

2. Your Approach Treats all Black People As If We’re a Monolith

Comments like “They’re shaming the race,” “they’re making us look bad,” and “they’re ruining it for all of us” are also fueled by respectability politics.

I used to say these things about reality TV housewives and several mainstream rappers. I was bothered that these celebrities embodied some of the worst black stereotypes – the uneducated, lazy, violent and ill-behaved gold diggers, jezebels, drug dealers, etc.

I worried that they were hindering black progress by reinforcing the very ideas mainstream society believes about black people.

Similarly, those of us who believe that certain black people are “making us collectively look bad” want to uplift black communities by setting a standard for how we should publicly behave in order to gain white approval.

These standards are meant to show society that black people aren’t ill-behaved stereotypes, but are mannerly and worthy of respect. These standards may include expectations for black people to use their “inside voices,” dress formally, graduate from college, and use grammatically correct English.

However, we have to be careful about the ways we police ourselves. Our white friends don’t feel embarrassed about reality TV shows like Honey Boo Boo, because white people are not viewed as a monolith. Similarly, we should challenge any entities and people who do have a monolithic view of blackness.

We are a diverse group of people with various backgrounds, traditions, and values. And while many TV shows and mainstream rap songs do display a dangerously narrow image of blackness, they did not cause nor create these stereotypes. The negative images and views of black people from mainstream society have been around for centuries – a lot longer than reality TV.

We also have to recognize that there are real people who act like these celebrities — including some of my family members, whom I’ve had to learn not to side-eye — and these people also don’t cause nor progress racism.

Again, we have to be mindful about holding ourselves responsible for racist ideologies we did not create.

Also, targets of this criticism aren’t just reality TV stars, my family members who act like them, or even people who embody many black stereotypes. Because respectability politics borrows from white American patriarchal Christian principles, the standards for respectability are extremely narrow.

People who don’t uphold these standards sometimes include members of the working class, LGBTQIA+ people, people who don’t have college degrees, and any woman who doesn’t demonstrate traditional models of purity.

These dangerous concepts of respectability require us to self-censor based on white ideas of respectability. As feminist writer Audre Lorde wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We cannot fight oppression with internalized oppression.

Instead, we should critique our society’s use of stereotypes, not the people who embody them.

We have to ask why society often sees black people as stereotypes rather than full human beings. We also have to change our approach on how we view people who many may deem unrespectable.

Rather than trying to morph every black person into a respectable mold, we should celebrate the diversity in our communities.

Those of us who previously championed for this form of respectability politics may need to practice self-reflection. We may want to analyze the ways we’ve internalized the white gaze, and how that it has affected our views of ourselves and members of our own communities.

We may need to swap our self-censoring politics for self-care.

3. Your Approach Creates a Hierarchy Among Black People

Respectability politics creates an “us versus them” binary within our communities.

Oftentimes, respectability politics assumes that there are only two types of black people: “the talented tenth” versus “the shamers of the race.” We are either classy or ghetto, respectable or ratchet, and educated or ignorant.

This plays out in the recent and seemingly never-ending internet debates about Ayesha Curry, celebrity chef and wife of NBA player Steph Curry. A few months ago, Ayesha Curry tweeted, “Everyone’s into barely wearing clothes these days, huh? Not my style. I like to keep the good stuff covered up for the one who matters.”

Since then, people have created memes comparing Ayesha Curry to other celebrities including model and former stripper Blac Chyna, rapper Nicki Minaj, and reality TV star Cardi B. Meme creators preferred how “classy” and respectable Ayesha Curry appeared in comparison women who do not “cover up.”

These respectability politics compartmentalized women into what people believe are the shining examples of black womanhood versus the unrespectable “thots.”

Many people who create and praise memes likes these hope to show young women what good role models look like. They do this in the hopes that young women will become “one of the good ones,” and be worthy of respect.

They seek to protect black women from the dangers of being “unrespectable,” which include slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and, as Ebony writer Jose Pickens explains, being taken advantage of in cases like that of Daniel Holtzclaw, the police officer who preyed on and raped women who would be deemed unrespectable and therefore not as valuable.

Though people use them as means of protection, they place the responsibility on women to avoid being a victim of sexual assault — which does not affectively prevent sexual assault. Nor does it address that women who society might view as respectable can be victims as well.

In this case, our respectability politics should be replaced with a better understanding of rape culture and consent.

Additionally, people tend to exist between the binaries of respectable versus unrespectable. Take a trip to your local HBCU and you’ll find college-educated people who like to partake in activities that are deemed “unrespectable,” including twerking and wearing in bodycon outfits.

People typically don’t fit into the binary that respectability politics creates. We are multifaceted.

When shunning the people who don’t meet the standards of respectability, we create enemies out of people who should really be our allies. Our views about respectability can foster exclusivity. Instead, we must work to ensure that everyone is included in a movement for change, not just “the good ones.”

4. Your Approach Doesn’t Consider Socioeconomic Status

An unintentional product of respectability politics is its oversight of socioeconomic status. Because of its rigid standards on what is respectable, respectability politics fails to acknowledge that people come from various backgrounds, and that socioeconomic status greatly influences one’s access to education, employment opportunities, and other factors that influence one’s ability to assimilate.

Also, we have to consider how poverty has been villainized in our country. Many conservative groups suggest that people who live below the poverty line are lazy couch potatoes, or black single mothers, often called “Welfare Queens,” who live comfortably on government assistance. They are blamed for wasteful and excessive government spending.

Politicians use these narratives and images to try to defund programs that provide food, baby formula, and other forms of assistance to approximately 52.2 million people, 21.3% of Americans. We need not help push the agendas of these conservatives in their campaigns to take food from the poor, as government assistance supports some of the people in our own neighborhoods. 

And because some of us may not know what it’s like to live below the poverty line, we cannot pretend to know or subscribe to myths on what their lives are like.

We have to remember to check our privilege.

We may benefit from privilege based on class education, gender identity, and other types of privilege that give us an upper hand or a variety of options in our careers and educational opportunities. Others don’t have as much access to these same opportunities, and therefore may not be able to adhere to standards of respectability. 

When we demand that all black people look and act in certain ways, we exclude the people who don’t have the financial means to meet these standards.

***

Because we’re such a diverse group, any empowerment or social movements meant to uplift black communities should consider the needs of people of all backgrounds.

Otherwise, we risk excluding the very groups who may need the most support. Our movements should take all of our needs into consideration.

Further giving up respectability politics means taking your own needs into consideration.

Letting go of my relationship with these politics allowed me to focus on myself in place of being preoccupied with what white audiences thought of me.

This allowed me to reflect on the ways in which mainstream society’s perception of blackness influenced the way I thought about myself and my culture. Releasing the burden of trying to disprove and debunk the list of black stereotypes is very freeing.

Additionally, I was able to explore black sexuality and womanhood outside of mainstream white patriarchal paradigms, and define my sexuality on my own terms. I’ve been able to enjoy artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and have enjoyed analyzing the ways in which they utilize and challenge white perceptions of black womanhood in order to dominate in the music industry.

Most importantly, I’ve been able to love black people even more.

Friends, respectability politics will not get us very far. Let’s replace these politics with approaches that are inclusive, encourage self-love, celebrate black culture, hold our society’s views on blackness accountable, and call for real change.

And please, feel free to each chicken in public spaces – I won’t judge you.

Shae Collins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She enjoys educating and uplifting by aiming a black feminist lens at pop culture on her blog, awomynsworth.com. She’s been published in Ms. Magazine, For Harriet, and Blavity. Laugh with her on Twitter @awomynsworth.