Demara's View: Respectability Politics

I’ve heard of respectability politics in various contexts over the past year or two and always thought I entirely understood what it meant until last month. I was at a panel and after hearing various views from people in the audience, one of the panelists (Insert her name here) said “I want everyone to pull out their phones and google respectability politics.” While I had talked about it as a concept with several people, I had never actually looked up the meaning. So I did:

*Respectability politics or the politics of respectability refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.

In other words, respectability politics is saying “If you can say nigga, then you can’t be mad at non-blacks saying nigga.” Respectability politics is saying “Well maybe if you just pulled up your pants, maybe if you just spoke a little more quietly, maybe if you weren’t so aggressive, etc.” I used to be here for respectability politics (read: an ignorant coon) and I understand why respectability politics appeals to so many people. It MAKES FUCKING SENSE. If you hate me for my differences, if I can decrease the differences between us, it should make you like me, right? Well, the problem is that on the other side of that coin, nobody gives a damn about your respectability, they usually hate you for something that you can’t/aren’t going to change like skin color, religious views, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, race, political views, etc. And also, their reason for their hate DOESN’T MAKE SENSE in the first place. Well, it makes sense to them, it just doesn’t make “common sense” whatever the hell that is.

It’s well known that respectability politics doesn’t work on a large scale, but we keep trying to pass this on to our children and peers because we assume that when the day comes that the world makes sense, your loved one clinging to these mainstream values will climb rapidly to the top. Maybe your loved one will… but what are you doing to them? You’re teaching them that their social values are less than mainstream social values. You’re teaching them that success looks a certain way and if you don’t fit, you can’t be successful.

Those messages are inherently wrong. This is where we get marginalized peoples that hate everyone else in their group for “making me look bad” because suddenly they’re now separate. This is where we get low self-esteem because no matter how hard marginalized persons try, we will never truly fit in. This is where we get extremists who’ve tried and failed to fit in, so they turned their hate towards those they were trying to fit in with, those who told them they had to fit in, and those who didn’t tell them that there was another way (read: everyone else in the world). This is why we have seen so many people from marginalized groups climb to the top, but they don’t bring some of that money back down to the bottom. This is why there are so many friends and/or haters of marginalized peoples left in limbo when “________ forgot where she came from.”

We shouldn’t be teaching marginalized peoples to conform to mainstream values. We should teach them how to use their unique experiences within a mainstream society to rise to the top. We should teach them how to love themselves wholeheartedly. We should teach them how to teach others to love their culture. We should teach them how to challenge those who degrade their culture/view/lifestyle.

Respectability politics is bullshit because the “others” don’t see “you” as an individual anyways. You can have a million “other” friends and still be discriminated against by one of their peers. You can do all you want to do to be like “them” but you will never truly be one of “them” so be yourself unapologetically and make “them” love (or at least respect) you anyways.

Peace (of mind), love (for yourself), and (be sure to spread) happiness

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