Understanding Respectability Politics
What Is Respectability Politics?
Respectability politics is a school of thought that utilizes respectability narratives as the basis for enacting social, political, and legal change.
Respectability narratives are representations of marginalized individuals meant to construct an image of the marginalized group as people sharing similar traits, values, morals with the dominant group.
The term ‘politics of respectability’ was coined by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. She examines 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”, and appeal for both societal acceptance and equal legal protection.
Negative stereotypes - or “problem narratives”, as Professor Angela Banks describes in Respectability & the Quest for Citizenship - exist for every marginalized group. She gives the example of the narrative of undocumented immigrants being a financial strain on the government; activists supporting DREAMers combat this with respectability narratives of DREAMers as academically successful, self-sufficient young people who also believe in the “American Dream”. Acceptance of these respectability narratives then serves to corral both public and legislative support for desired initiatives, such as immigration reform.
While respectability politics has been wielded for positive outcomes (e.g. the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act), it also upholds problematic ideas about how the “worthiness” of a marginalized group should be evaluated -- that is, by the values of “respectability” set by the dominant class. It also equates achieving this specific definition of “worthiness” as both the reason for deserving equality and an effective countermeasure to underlying prejudices.
As a result, respectability politics can also be wielded by the dominant class to control the actions of, and justify the harm of, marginalized groups. Because the rules of “respectability” -- encompassing everything from speech patterns, dress code, and food choices to protesting “etiquette” and media persona -- are constantly subject to change, the dominant group can consistently ensure marginalized groups never meet every facet of the rules. Correspondingly, a lack of “respectability” is then used as a justification for harm.
The Problems with Respectability Narratives
Respectability narratives do not challenge the definition of what is “respectable” or “worthy”. As Banks describes, “Respectability narratives do not suggest that the conception of worthiness and eligibility criteria are inappropriate or illegitimate.” Rather, marginalized groups are required to prove that their values align with ideals already held by the dominant group, which are built from pre-existing prejudices and cultural interpretations of that group.
As Nafisa Eltahir explains in The Atlantic, respectability narratives were constructed of Muslim Americans following heightened Islamophobia after 9/11 to “normalize” them as “still Americans”. Videos from Buzzfeed and Refinery29 included statements like “I’m a Muslim, but I’m not angry” and “[I’m a Muslim and] I actually, like, really love Christmas movies”. However, she argues these presentations are ineffective and counterproductive because they do not serve to “expand the American norm to include Muslims of all stripes, [instead] the narrow standard for American normalcy is maintained.”
Respectability narratives drive in-group ostracization. In order to showcase similarities with the dominant group, segments of marginalized groups -- typically the more affluent & better educated -- will distance themselves from “less respectable” people within their group to clearly differentiate themselves. Although this may absolve the now “respectable” group of negative stereotypes, the problem narratives of the overall marginalized group are inadvertently reinforced (e.g. poor Black people are lazy; scantily clad women are ‘sluts’).
This in-group policing only serves to entrench the idea that adherence to the dominant group’s normative standards is required for better treatment, even if the group is fighting for inclusivity and equality for all its members. For example, there still exists internal policing and ostracization within the queer community over those who do not follow a typical heteronormative relationship (a monogamous marriage), or those who are too “promiscuous”, because they may be seen as endangering the hard-earned marriage equality the community has fought for. But, as Kit Williamson puts it, “Who are we to govern the sexual practices of others? Who are we performing for?”
Respectability narratives create a moral binary for marginalized individuals who fall outside of it. Those who don't fit into the respectability narratives for their group can be easily flattened into a “bad person”, because it's assumed the other traits of marginalized groups are not respectable. For example, Philando Castile’s possession of marijuana (at a time where marijuana was predominantly criminalized) was repeatedly used to typecast him as criminal & a bad father, and justify his murder. (However, note individuals in the dominant group are afforded nuance in light of harmful actions, e.g. Sarah Silverman defending Louis C.K.'s sexually perverse behavior to be sometimes situationally appropriate.)
Underlying prejudices of the dominant group are adopted by other marginalized groups. In order to acquiesce to the dominant group’s notion of “respectable”, marginalized groups also absorb the worldview of the dominant group that construct what is fundamentally “respectable” (and what isn’t). For example, as Asian Americans assimilated to the ideals of white Americans, many also absorbed the problem narratives around Black Americans and began to also perpetuate anti-Black racism, (e.g. engaging in colorism, profiling Black people, appropriating AAVE, promoting skin whitening products).
The dominant group can, and do, maneuver and change “respectability” to suit their agenda. For respectability narratives to effectively appeal to the sensibilities of the dominant group, they must also change in sync with how “respectability” is continually revised by the dominant group. For example, Banks explains one of the problem narratives around Chinese immigrants pre-Exclusion Act was their self-sufficiency on low wages, which was seen as a threat to American workers. Decades later, this same narrative became “respectable” as it meant they would not require government assistance.
However, this also makes “respectability” a moving target that can be weaponized by the dominant class. For example: despite the rhetoric of support behind peaceful protest, NFL player Colin Kaepernick sustained intense criticism (and eventual dismissal) for kneeling during the national anthem because it was "disrespectful to the flag". Although his actions aligned with the purported ideals of respect & nonviolence in protesting, when it threatened those in power, the code of "respectability" was changed to cast Kaepernick in the "wrong" (and subject to punishment).
The Problems with Respectability Politics
Respectability politics does not fundamentally address the deeply-held prejudices of the dominant group, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. It is entirely possible for individuals of the dominant group to concurrently believe respectability and problem narratives of marginalized groups.
For example, Americans recognize that agricultural workers - of which the majority are undocumented - are "essential" for our food ecosystem, and still argue for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants because they "didn't follow the rules" and do not deserve sympathy for any specific circumstances.
Most people will likely also say they see men and women as equally competent professionals; yet in a study of working parents “77% of the respondents...believe[d] that dads are better able to manage their responsibilities without being stretched” over working moms. Societal disparities like this, alongside others like women having less "leadership ability" and quantitative skills, continue to contribute to distorted statistics such as only 7.4% of all F500 CEO’s being female.
Respectability politics does not prevent harm being done to the marginalized group. Without erasing prejudice, harm is inevitable. Despite political progress establishing equality for Black men and women, covert racism still finds its way into everything from law (e.g. stop and frisk) to pop culture (e.g. the trope of the “angry Black woman”). In light of COVID-19, the narrative of Asian Americans as academically successful and upwardly mobile has not changed; but it has also been wholly ineffective in halting the attacks by those who blame them for carrying the virus.
Respectability politics demands marginalized individuals to demonstrate tangible association with respectability narratives to receive fair and equal treatment. This not only creates an excuse for acting on baseline prejudices (e.g. a Black senator being pepper sprayed at a protest, because he wasn’t overtly distinguishable from “less respectable” peers), but is also easily weaponized into victim-blaming: “Why were you wearing such a revealing dress, or a “threatening” black hoodie? Why were you walking alone at night, or keeping your hands in your pockets?”
This intense policing and victim-blaming does not just occur from the dominant group; it is often upheld by those in the marginalized group. In Bill Cosby’s infamous “Pound Cake” speech, he attributed various behaviors in the Black community as the root cause of continual Black subordination in American society. Per the informal title of his speech, he gives a hypothetical example of a Black youth being “shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake” and poses the question: “What was he doing with pound cake in his hand?”
Respectability politics does not unravel the systemic issues that lead to problem narratives. Instead of examining the structural inequities that led to instances of theft or high incarceration rates among the Black youth (e.g. generational wealth gap, school-to-prison pipeline), or condemning the outsized consequence of death in response to stealing, proponents of respectability politics like Cosby deflect the debate to what is or is not “proper” conduct within a marginalized group, or “proper” protocol to enact change.
Poverty is often treated as a crime, with opponents of safety net programs and initiatives like the government-sponsored Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or universal basic income (UBI) placing the blame on those who live in poverty for “being lazy” or making “bad choices” rather than recognizing the myriad of broader systemic obstacles for success and stability. For example, discussions around the restrictions on SNAP funds often focus on incidences of fraud. While fraud does occur, it makes up less than 1% of all SNAP use and is no reason to punish other SNAP users - yet it has been very effective in severely limiting what SNAP recipients can buy.
Similarly, opponents of UBI say its creation would mean “the state is encouraging idleness” and discourage people from working hard because of “free money”, instead of unraveling how decades-long stagnation and decline of wages has pushed working individuals and families into poverty and financial insecurity at alarming rates.
Respectability narratives correlating success, respect, equality with “good” behavior allows those in the dominant group to continue to excuse and rationalize instances of oppression with the erroneous standard that better behavior begets better treatment, while also feeling vindicated in devaluing social change movements because of “inappropriate form” (e.g. “It’s not that I don’t support Black Lives Matter, I just don’t agree with how the protestors are going about it. Why can’t they just protest peacefully?”)
Respectability politics effectively puts the onus of avoiding harm onto those of the marginalized group. In this very dangerous, but very common, interpretation, lack of respectability on any of the axes constructed by the dominant group then grants a license to harm, and justifies any harm received. In the recent case of Rayshard Brooks, certain media outlets were quick to blame him for resisting arrest and running from the police - despite the fact that death is in no way the “proper” conclusion to his actions.
When a photo circulated of a father and daughter washed up ashore, dead, in an attempt to cross into the U.S. from Central America, swaths of Americans responded with sentiments that they “deserved it” for “not following the rules”. As Quin Hillyer of the Washington Examiner wrote of Trump’s deportation plans for undocumented immigrants who did not appear for their assigned court hearings (often due to fear), “Such poor guests deserve no sympathy, no matter what circumstances they came from.” When then-U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was asked if she regretted signing the cruel family separation policy into law that resulted in numerous deaths of children at detention centers, she responded, “I don’t regret enforcing the law.”
A U.K. study found 55% of men and 41% of women “subscrib[e] to the view that revealing clothing invites unwanted sexual advances”. The continued use of information about a rape victims’ clothing, actions, background, and perceived “promiscuity” to determine the central narrative of the case correlates aspects of “respectability” (or lack thereof) with victims having control over, and thereby also responsibility in, the rape. As Chanel Miller recounts in her victim impact statement, Turner’s attorney pried her with leading questions like, “Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him?” in an attempt to dissect any aspect of her life that would justify Turner’s assault.
Combating Respectability Politics
Reject acceptance by the dominant group as the end goal - or a goal at all - and instead work towards inclusion of different traits, ideals, contributions from marginalized individuals. Uncenter the hegemonic ideals of “respectability” in what you are working towards in your own life, or in your community.
Recognize that current acceptance by the dominant group does not guarantee safety, and adhering to these narratives only perpetuates them. As such, it is not your place to police how others (whether they are in your community or not) act in line with the rules of “respectability” and it definitely does not rationalize any harm that befalls them.
Accept that all individuals are worthy of basic rights, such as shelter, food, and safety, regardless of if they are or are not “worthy” given current interpretations of respectability.
Educate yourself on the history of prejudices such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia to build deeper context on how respectability norms and problem narratives developed for marginalized groups in the first place.
Scrutinize what traits you find respectable and “worthy” and ask yourself why you believe them to be important and when you began to believe them at all. What does it mean to you if someone does not carry that trait? Do they “deserve” less? Are they less “worthy”?
Examine what negative stereotypes you hold and why. Who taught them to you? Where did you learn them? Why do you believe them? Why are you convinced they are true?
Focus on the underlying issues respectability politics is attempting to address. Is it homelessness? Food insecurity? Police brutality? Drug use? Undocumented immigration? These issues are symptoms of larger problems where our governmental structures do not properly support the needs of individuals in our society. Instead of victim-blaming, analyze what foundational changes can be made to lift everyone in that marginalized group to safety and prosperity, and think about how you want to be involved in such efforts.
Actively engage when others use respectability politics as an excuse for harm or inaction by challenging and revealing their baseline prejudices. Explain to them why the fundamental rationale for using respectability to mitigate harm is false, and guide them to focus on the bigger systemic issues at play. What is the real problem they hope to address? How can we collectively tackle that problem while instigating the least harm to the marginalized groups in question? How can you and them get involved in helping this change come about?
Strivings of the Negro People - The Atlantic
Black Lives Protestors don't have to be 'lovable' - The Undefeated
Muslim Americans Should Reject the Politics of Normalcy - The Atlantic