Respectability Politics: yes or no?

On the dreary morning of January 19th, several hundred high school students crowded on the gym bleachers for a break from their hectic schedules–to listen to the annual assembly in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. At first, some students took care of their streaks, gossiped about who broke up and who got together, or complained about the upcoming finals week, blanketing the audience in a light hum of chatter.

However, as soon as the sound of the microphone turning out rang throughout the room, the voices lowered to a hush whisper, and then gradually disappeared altogether. Everyone’s ears were perked up, listening intently as the guest speaker made her statement. As almost everyone was nodding along to the speech about bringing change through forgiveness, peace, and respect, I shot a glance at my friend and raised my eyebrows. Yikes, our expressions practically screamed.

Our conversation afterword went something along the lines of this:
“How do you think the assembly was?”
“Um, it was alright. But I liked last years spoken poetry better. It was more radical, you know?”
“Yeah, I get what you’re saying. This year’s guest speaker was qualified and all that, but I didn’t really feel anything.”
“And she was lowkey promoting respectability politics.”
“Lowkey? More like highkey.”

If it was that highkey, why did such few students even recognize that the guest speaker was advocating for respectability politics? Or perhaps a more accurate question: did the audience even know what respectability politics is, and what it implies?

In simple terms, respectability politics is defined as “what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better” (Damon Young, The Root).

And this practice was the epitome of what I saw at the assembly that day. A wealthy, predominantly white-folk-controlled school district, hiring an African-American womxn who was an orphan, but adopted by white parents and rose to success. She challenged all societal norms and was the first Black womxn who ran for senator, only missing the margin by a mere 1%! Every year, she travels the state to speak to a plentiful number of schools for MLK assemblies. How admirable, right?

Sure…until one truly considers the microaggression that respectability politics put on marginalized groups.

Firstly, it is just another example of racism: that the white, educated elite is the best form of a human being. It’s almost comparable to the concept of the noble savage; “assimilate to a superior form of culture and you shall be treated equally!” For society to accept a movement, the marginalized group needs to shift its method to mainstream values (i.e. silent marches), which de-legitimizes other movements with a different mechanism (i.e. the Black Panther).
One whose life is already devalued must still respect the people who caused the social hierarchy…why should this be allowed? Why should the victim be the one to blame instead of the perpetrator? In this way, the racist institution never makes up for anything, never makes repercussions for its evil, never stops being racist.

Second, the meritocracy will never end. At first, it could just be speaking “standard English.” Next, dressing “appropriately.” Next, a white name. Next, it must be a high school diploma. Next, a college degree. Next, a college degree at an elite university. Next, undergrad at Columbia University, a law degree from Harvard, and the title “President of the United States.” The standard will never stop changing, the white moderate will listen less and less.
This also creates infighting–those who have “benefited” from respectability politics will spread the word to be educated and polite, but there are folks who cannot access these privileges or simply refuse to do so, which creates conflict among a group and makes movements fail.
And what about those who have followed every rule possible in the handbook of respectability politics, and still are discriminated against? That’s like giving hope and then tearing it away–more violent than not giving any hope at all.

But you know the saddest thing of all? In the status quo, the white moderate is nowhere near accepting anything but respectability politics, and acting against it could actually move farther from one’s goal. To quote a friend, “to actually be heard and considered by the white majority, social movements today have to be respectable which shows the racism in society [that still has not ended.]” Despite its violence, it is without a doubt effective.

But the first step is to recognize that respectability politics is oppressive, and increasingly people will diverge from it. A first step is a right step, but the rest of the journey is still long.

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