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Waters Point

“I Hate Myself!”: What are Respectability Politics, and Why do Black People Subscribe to Them?

Sgt Waters

Adolph Caesar as Master Seargant Vernon Waters in the movie A Soldier’s Story

You may not be familiar with the term “respectability politics”, but you’ve heard them before.  Maybe you’ve even engaged in them.  Whether it’s Don Lemon’s recent rant, actor Romany Malco’s open letter to Trayvon Martin sympathizers following the George Zimmerman trial, Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake speech” and even The Talk co-host Sheryl Underwood’s remarks about nappy hair, respectability politics remain an enormous part of our conversations about Black American culture.

So what exactly are respectability politics?  In short, they are an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and how we should define Black American culture.  Ironically, they’re usually a huge hindrance to both.

A Brief History Lesson

This whole idea of respectability politics began to solidify at the end of the 19th century, when a bold group of Black women from the Baptist Convention – a well-intentioned, church womenimportant, pro-Black, yet chauvinist, and patriarchal organization – broke off to form their own group: the Women’s Convention.  On the positive side, an essential part of their focus was to uplift the Black community, while perpetuating a sense of solidarity and philanthropy.  Unfortunately, in practice it involved a lot of patronizing behaviors towards “lower-class” Black people.  For instance, one of their major campaigns was to go into impoverished Black communities and hand out pamphlets that “taught” these po’ folks how to “behave” in public places, the value of chastity, and even how to properly bathe themselves.  Side note: if you’ve read that and don’t have a problem with those three things as important values, that’s understandable. Now, imagine someone comes to your front door regularly to remind you to do them…

These respectability politics gained popularity and organization nationwide, and solidified into a regular part of Black life.  For example, the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most important Black media outlets, published the following list weekly as a reminder to its newly arrived Southern readers who came to Chicago during the Great Migration:

  • DON’T HANG OUT THE WINDOWS.
  • DON’T SIT AROUND IN THE YARD AND ON THE PORCH BAREFOOT AND UNKEMPT.
  • DON’T WEAR HANDKERCHIEFS ON YOUR HEAD.
  • DON’T USE VILE LANGUAGE IN PUBLIC PLACES.
  • DON’T ALLOW CHILDREN TO BEG ON THE STREETS.
  • DON’T APPEAR ON THE STREET WITH OLD DUST CAPS, DIRTY APRONS, AND RAGGED CLOTHES.
  • DON’T THROW GARBAGE IN THE BACKYARD OR ALLEY OR KEEP DIRTY FRONT YARDS.

Behold the Underlying Truth

Don’t the above admonishments sound familiar?  And note how every statement begins in the negative.  That’s because the primary premise in which respectability politics are grounded is that Black American culture – and Black Americans themselves – are broken and need to be fixed.  And “fixing” means improving the “Black underclass” that holds us back.  It reminds me of the movie A Soldier’s Story, and in particular, the character Sgt. Waters.  The scene below epitomizes what respectability politics cause the Black bourgeoisie to do to the Black “underclass”.


Super ObamaWaters has made it his personal mission to rid the army – and maybe the world (?) – of ignorant negritude, starting with CJ.  Apparently he thinks the work he’s doing will leave us with Negrus superioris, purifying the race and eliminating all traces of inferior Black folks.  Sergeant Waters, and those who think like him, are actually suffering though.  This later clip reveals that anguish and the secondary premise of respectability politics:

Wanna hear it again?  Go to 1:04 on the video.  The secondary, sinister premise of respectability politics is the belief that teaching Black people to meet White cultural standards is the way to improve Black culture.  From talking “proper”, to hair straightening, to skin bleaching, to more coded ideas like “acting White”, respectability politics teach us that the White man’s ice really is colder.  In a country that operates on the premise that Black people are inferior, respectability politics cause the sort of sentiment the utterly defeated Waters whimpers at the 1:04 mark.  He’s realized that after years of trying to get White people to see Black people as equals by teaching them “White culture”, he’s actually the broken one who needs to be fixed.

What’s an Alternative, Then?

In my critiques of the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve said that the focus on changing laws and changing peoples’ hearts overshadowed efforts to define and build Black American culture.  While all three are important, the lack of emphasis on that third aspect has left us today with respectability politics as a giant cultural hurdle.  Black American culture, like all cultures, is continuously being defined and redefined.  The next step then, is to Kwanzaa cardreplace striving to emulate a White American cultural construct (the concept of “White culture” as everything positive, wonderful, and goal-worthy) with striving toward a Black one.  Love it, hate it, or leave it, the Kwanzaa holiday is an excellent example of Black Americans deciding for themselves what Black American culture will be.  While it incorporates ideas from other cultures (as all cultural traditions do), it isn’t based upon turning Black American culture into someone else’s “superior” one.  And to be clear, whether or not we choose to identify with our African roots as we define Black American culture – though I’ve chosen an example that does – is nowhere near as important as the overall act of simply continuing to define Black American culture in general.  As long as we move purposefully away from respectability politics, we’ll continue to eliminate the self-hatred that hinders us from continuing to positively do so.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington.  Maurice believes that the “geechie” is actually more important to Black American culture then Sgt. Waters.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013

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7 comments

  1. I couldn’t watch the videos (they wouldn’t load for me), but I did find this one part particularly striking.

    “He’s realized that after years of trying to get White people to see Black people as equals by teaching them ‘White culture’, he’s actually the broken one who needs to be fixed.”

    One reason why it struck me (and if you want, we can discuss this more at a later date) is because it made me realize that I’ve at times engaged in respectability politics in denigrating po’ folk.

    It’s so damn hard not to though, especially when you’ve been raised to be what people view as “proper”, coming to realize that most of what “proper” is is “white”. One of the things that I’m thankful for is that I was raised with a strong sense of Black pride (I always hesitate to use “African American” because while I’m clearly of African descent, I’m so removed from anywhere in Africa that I’m a different breed of person altogether; same for my Bajan roots), but what other values should we as middle-class Black people have? The common one that I’ve seen is the religious part, but I’m an atheist so strike that one. What other values should we aspire to that are “ours” that won’t have us directly or indirectly aspiring to “whiteness” and at the same time won’t have us spitting on those “beneath” us?

  2. @ Nick:

    I know I’ve engaged in respectability politics as well throughout a significant part of my life. I *can*, however, say that I abandoned them years ago, right around the time of the whole Ebonics debate. I’m happy to have made that move, but old habits die hard.

    It’s hard to say what values we should have. I’ll give the cop out response first and say “that’s a great question”. I will offer this though: our cultural values should be centered around what is socially just, inclusive of numerous Black perspectives and lifestyles, and perpetuate a sense of Black American kinship. Details beyond that can be hashed out in further conversations in which I’d be more than willing to participate!

  3. Awesome perspective, and (of course) the one I hold. I’ve been searching for years to find the term that defines this constant need to gage our legitimacy and worthiness with the approval or recognition of white folks at the center of our gaze. It’s everywhere! Even in people who think they’re doing the opposite (I see Kanye and Spike). Thank you for this.

  4. A friend of mine posted this on FB today. So glad I read it. More importantly, that you wrote it. Respectability politics is so real…and a major contributor to the “crabs in barrel” phenomenon that often occurs within group. We see it everywhere from movie critiques (which are rooted in the lack of diversity and 3-dimensional characters, though this is changing), to astonishment of the hair on the young Olympian gymnast, Gabby and everything in between. Trust me, I could go on…and if you do engage in further conversations, I’m interested. Just wanted to leave you a note of appreciation for your perspective and thoughts on this. Like yourself, I’m completing a PhD and have found blogging to be another way to think through theories, methodologies and context. Good luck to you!

  5. Thanks for this article.

    I am not African, but I see the same type of internalized white supremacy in my own culture. In Afghanistan, for several decades now, and especially since the 2001 invasion by the US, It’s become fashionable to look, dress and think like our invading US masters. For example, if you wear a western suit and tie, you’re seen as more modern, more educated, and to use terminology used in this article, more “respectable, ” and your given opportunities and privileges out of reach to most Afghans. Afghans that want to maintain a sense of tradition and identity via things like wearing traditional clothes, abstaining from alcohol, practicing religion and critiquing the western model for education and the economy are seen as backwards and unintelligent by a misguided class of elitist capitalists. These are opportunists that are profiting from the occupation as they’ve chosen to be recruited by the US run system to serve in a position that is a few rungs above the base of the social pyramid, but nowhere nearly as high as our American masters.

    While there are differences in respectability politics across the globe, they are not entirely unique. One common theme tho is that whatever part of the globe that (white supremacist) colonialist decide to help themselves to, they create a self-maintaining hierarchy in which insiders, willing or unwillingly, forward their imperialist agendas. Furthermore, as the article points out, this type of shit still goes on today and is nothing new, neither for Africans nor for Afghans. When Britain (thrice) invaded Afghanistan in the 18th and 19th centuries, it created the same type of tensions between those who were mentally colonized and favoured British ways and those who were only geographically colonized and wanted the foreign invaders to get the fuck out.

  6. I really love that you have written about this topic. I talk about it all the time. I think we need to understand our values as a culture by exploring the positive aspects of our families and our history as Black people. The fact that we do have enduring strength despite what we have been through, across the diaspora, should be celebrated.

    I feel for black people who clearly subscribe to respectability politics, and those of us who like to distance ourselves not only from other black people, but anything African in order to cling to American and White ideals and culture. Because I know that it is out of a need to prove their human dignity and respect against a culture that demonizes Blackness.

  7. Pingback: A School is Always Teaching: What Deborah Brown Community School Taught One Little Black Girl | AlumniRoundup.com

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