The term “respectability politics” is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
The phrase “respectability politics”–the idea that racism can be defeated on the strength of good behavior by black people–is one of the most commonly used terms in discussions of race in America. We heard after Geraldo Rivera suggested Trayvon Martin would still be alive if not for his decision to wear a hoodie the night he was killed. We also read it in thinkpieces about structural inequality and institutional racism.
But the term is also frequently used to dismiss suggestions that African Americans should change any aspect of our behavior or culture in order to achieve social, economic, or political progress. It has been used to describe everything from President Obama’s beliefs about the importance of marriage to criticism of black artists who use the “n-word”. Any criticism of black culture, regardless of its intent, will almost certainly get you labeled as an endorser of respectability politics.
People who accuse blacks of playing respectability politics are basically saying that culture isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe. They believe policy is key to changing conditions in communities of color and, to a lesser extent, influencing individual behavior. They believe talking about culture is a distraction from more substantive conversations that ultimately puts too much attention on individuals and groups who have historically been disenfranchised. I disagree. Culture is very important. Just as important, in fact, as policy. And since culture is created, it is fair game to be criticized. And every criticism of culture isn’t necessarily an indication of prejudice. That’s why the ever-growing list of things that will get someone accused of playing respectability politics is very troubling. Here are five reasons using the term to describe any critique of black culture is a hindrance to progress for anyone concerned about the state of the black community.
1. It creates the illusion that the point of critiquing our culture is acceptance by whites
The most frustrating thing about how loosely many writers and thinkers talk about respectability politics is that it presumes that black folk who offer any type of cultural critique do so to please whites. I’m sure that is the case for some blacks, especially many of the contributors on Fox News, but I believe most black people want better for our community because we respect ourselves and want to see our collective condition improve. But over and over again, black social critics and pundits will imply or explicitly state that black writers, politicians, and others in the public sphere who question aspects of black culture do so to gain the acceptance, respect, or support of whites. This might sound like a deep sociopolitical analysis but it really isn’t. It’s a projection. When I’m at church or the barbershop or around the dinner table and people start talking about what our community needs to do to improve conditions I never assume the person speaking is trying to impress white folks. So I’m not sure how the respectability politics police draw this conclusion unless they are the ones overly concerned with how black folks look to whites.