Respectability politics believes that conformity to established mainstream standards of appearance and behaviour can protect people who belong to marginalised groups if they conform to prescribed mainstream standards.
Where does the term respectability politics come from?
Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term politics of respectability in her 1993 book, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. In this book, she describes the use of respectability narratives by Black Baptist women to “counter the images of black Americans as lazy, shiftless, stupid, and immoral in popular culture. She accounts how early 20th-century Black women presented themselves as polite, sexually pure, and thrifty to reject stereotypes of them as immoral, childlike, and unworthy of respect and protection.
Black people are primarily targeted, and the politics of respectability believe that they will be safe from prejudices and systemic injustices by conforming. Black respectability politics embraces the illusion of a level economic playing field.
Respectability politics is used to police Black people
Under the guise of respectability politics, people attempt to police the behaviour of others to maintain a particular image or status and place blame on groups already hindered by discrimination. This can involve shaming people for being too sexual or acting too “ghetto” or “unprofessional”. Respectability politics often disproportionately affects marginalised groups, who are already struggling to be seen as equal.
It’s a common belief that if people of colour would only behave better, they’ll be treated better. This misguided idea is respectability politics at its most damaging. Respectability politics encourage minority communities to conform to white/Eurocentric culture in a misguided effort to appease those who oppress them. In reality, this strategy does more harm than good, as it ultimately reinforces the very systems of oppression that it purports to combat.
How does it hurt minority communities?
Respectability politics can be harmful because it perpetuates the idea that there are “good” and “bad” people based on arbitrary standards. It also reinforces oppressive systems by asking people to conform to a particular set of norms.
Respectability politics often silences marginalised voices since those who don’t conform to the Respectability politics standard are often seen as not worth listening to. This attitude is painful and harmful because it impedes the ability of people to speak up. With so many ways people intend to silence Black voices, a respectability standard is too much to expect from minority communities of people who have been oppressed for centuries. The lack of clarity on what is and isn’t respectable also allows people in power to gaslight and dismiss any criticism.
Don’t allow respectability politics to suppress your identity
Respectability politics often asks people to be the “bigger person” and put others first. While this may seem like the right thing to do, it can be damaging because it reinforces oppressive systems. It also keeps people from asserting their own identities. In other words, it asks people to give up parts of themselves in order to be seen as “respectable”. This can be damaging to someone’s mental health and sense of self.
It’s best to avoid being the respectability politics and instead focus on asserting your own identity.