and how it informs sociopolitical change
Written By: Jenny Dorsey, Emily Chen
Edited By: Edric Huang, Karen Kumaki, Zandie Brockett, Kimberly Yang
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Table of Contents
Understanding the difference between respectability politics, respectability narratives, and how they intersect at the sociopolitical level
How respectability narratives limit the freedom and participation of marginalized individuals and groups
How respectability politics allow for cursory change without uproot deeper issues of unequal power
Ways to reject respectability politics in our own thought processes
More resources to read and learn about respectability politics
Respectability narratives are representations of marginalized individuals meant to depict them as sharing similar traits, values, and morals that align with the dominant group’s definition of “respectability.”
For example, the use of caps and gowns to portray DREAMers as well-educated, fluent in English, and law-abiding has “become ubiquitous at rallies and demonstrations in support of immigration reform [for DREAMers]. The attire signals DREAMers’ commitment to education and the American Dream.” This is used to counteract negative stereotypes, or “problem narratives” of undocumented immigrants as a financial strain on the government. (Angela Banks, Respectability & the Quest for Citizenship)
Respectability politics is a school of thought that utilizes respectability narratives as the basis for enacting social, political, and legal change. Throughout U.S. history, activists, and legislators have pointed to the similarities between the dominant and marginalized group to provide legal rationale for giving the marginalized group equal rights like citizenship or pay.
For example, when lawyer Raymond Alexander was a student at Harvard Law School in 1921, the president of the university had decided to “bar Black students from residence in the freshman dormitories.” Alexander argued against this in the journal Opportunity by explaining how the Black students being excluded were similar to their white counterparts and “exemplified the most traditional of Harvard’s values…[with] fathers [who] were lawyers and doctors.” Because of these parallels in respectability, Black students should also have the right to be housed in the dorms. (Banks, Respectability & the Quest for Citizenship)
The major difference between respectability politics and respectability narratives is that respectability narratives are an accumulation of individual ideas about a group or identity, while respectability politics is the strategic use of these narratives to advocate for specific political outcomes. Even when respectability narratives are created without a political intent in mind, they can still grow to have sociocultural and political consequences on the perceptions of the group being described by these narratives.
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 appeals for both societal acceptance and equal legal protection.
Even when the word “respectability” is not referred to directly by name, Professor Angela Banks points out in Respectability & the Quest for Citizenship that respectability politics has consistently been used in areas such as immigration law, in hopes of creating more access for excluded immigrants. In particular, she studies the reversal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act through the use of respectability narratives that “described Chinese immigrants as sharing a belief in and experience with democracy, having a strong work ethic, having high moral standards, Christian or believing in a higher power, a commitment to the rule of law, self-sufficiency, and individualism.” Politically, these strategic narratives and the growing need for U.S.-China allyship during WWII led to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. However, the respectability narratives told of Chinese immigrants also paved the way for the model minority myth.
Historian Kenneth Mack explored respectability politics from a legal perspective, coining the term “legalist strand” to describe the intentional use of respectability — or the "similarity of the values, norms, and practices” between dominant and marginalized groups — as the rationale for policy changes that offered more rights to marginalized groups. In short, respectability politics in action.
Respectability narratives are generally used in attempts to create a connection between the dominant group and marginalized ones. As Higginbotham writes, Civil Rights marchers “wanted to look clean cut because they wanted people to see them and say, ‘These are the respectable people. Look at these people. They're not even different from us. Their cause is something that we can identify with.’” However, even when they succeed in building a sense of shared values, these narratives do little to address systemic issues: “The problem is...how [the marchers are] dressed should not interfere with their right to vote. The truth of the matter is white people can dress any kind of way and have a right to vote.”
While respectability politics has been used for certain positive outcomes, it has fundamental flaws. Respectability politics upholds the idea that the supposed worthiness of a marginalized group should be evaluated — that is, by comparing the traits and actions of the marginalized group to the values of respectability set solely by the dominant group.
As a result, respectability politics can also be deployed by the dominant class to control the actions of, and rationalize the harm done to, marginalized groups. Because the rules of respectability are constantly subject to change, the dominant group can consistently ensure marginalized groups never meet every facet of these rules. Correspondingly, a lack of respectability is then used as a justification for harm.
The Problems with Respectability Narratives
Simply put, respectability narratives do not fundamentally challenge the status quo of what is respectable or worthy in the eyes of the dominant group. Instead, it further entrenches individual perceptions that there is an objectively correct way to act and live. As Banks describes,
“Respectability narratives do not suggest that the conception of worthiness and eligibility criteria are inappropriate or illegitimate.”
In some cases (like DREAMers), respectability narratives are created by the marginalized group in an effort to corral support for their group; in others (like the model minority myth), they are crafted by politicians with ulterior motives. Even if intentions were to help marginalized groups, these narratives implicitly create an “eligibility criteria” for equitable treatment that is rooted in the dominant group’s pre-existing prejudices and cultural interpretations. In order to achieve the goal of social, economic, or legal acceptance by the dominant group, respectability narratives are then amplified by the marginalized groups themselves as ways to distance themselves from specific problem narratives instead of renouncing the racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. that underscore these stereotypes to begin with.
As Nafisa Eltahir explains in The Atlantic, respectability narratives for Muslim Americans were constructed following the heightened Islamophobia after 9/11 to “normalize” them as “still Americans.” Videos from Buzzfeed and Refinery29 included statements such as “I’m a Muslim, but I’m not angry” and “[I’m a Muslim and] I actually, like, really love Christmas movies.” However, Eltahir 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 also drive in-group ostracization. In order to showcase similarities with the dominant group, certain segments of marginalized groups that hold more privileges — socioeconomic status, white adjacency, etc. — often distance themselves from people they perceive as “less respectable” within their own group in order to deflect negative stereotypes.
For example, women regularly slut-shame other women as much as men do, and the feminist movement has consistently been divided in its stance on sex work. Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack called this a practice where “each woman tries to secure justice by making the dominant claim that she is not like other women.” While this may come from a place of desiring protection, this action inadvertently reinforces the validity of those negative stereotypes, while furthering the harm done to those who are already structurally vulnerable. (For example, sex workers are often depicted as amoral people instead of intersectionally marginalized folks working survival jobs. These negative stigmas make it even more difficult for sex workers to come forward when they are victims of violence, and force them to endure multiplicative layers of emotional abuse).
Professor Hakeem Jerome Jefferson further explains that in-group policing, in the case of Black communities he interviewed, resulted from an “ideological positioning…[that] the problem of racial inequality [was] not simply in the hearts, minds, and systems of white America, but in the behaviors and predilections of Black [Americans].” If respectability politics is accepted as “a reliable opportunity to upend the racial order of the day,” and the marginalized group implicitly understands they will not be afforded the nuance of individual personalities in the same way those in the dominant group are (a phenomenon known as outgroup homogeneity), then marginalized individuals face pressures from fellow group members “to be a model representative of [their] group.”
However, instead of challenging the dominant group’s normative standards, in-group policing reinforces the idea that marginalized individuals must earn the right to be treated fairly. In fact, deviation from respectability narratives are regarded as an affront or betrayal to the group at large. For example, ostracization within the queer community still exists against those who do not follow a typical heteronormative relationship (e.g., a monogamous marriage), or those who are judged as too promiscuous, because they are seen as endangering hard-earned marriage equality laws that “everyone else” in the community has fought for. As sexuality scholar and historian Scott de Orio writes, by focusing on issues like marriage equality and access to the military, LGBTQ respectability strategies have benefitted “those whose sexual lives have fit comfortably within widely accepted canons of propriety, privacy, domesticity, and coupledom.”
In effect, respectability narratives ask marginalized individuals to consistently perform worthiness for the dominant group. As writer Kit Williamson puts it,
“Who are we to govern the sexual practices of others? Who are we performing for?”
For marginalized individuals, it is also understood that opposing these existing prejudices will endanger their own delicate ties to respectability and the opportunities it provides. Researchers found that those with marginalized identities (and thus “tenuous social positions”) were wary of their online presence, taking care not to “offend any particular demographic” or “take a stand on anything that might jeopardize [their] job prospects.” (Professor Kenji Yoshino calls this “covering.”) A consistent theme researchers noticed was the act of curating or removing contacts as a form of “impression management” given the visibility of social media connections. In particular, these removed contacts tended to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
As a result of these these actions, lawyer and activist Yuvraj Joshi pointed out that “equality politics have eclipsed liberation politics.” That is, the fight for equality is bottlenecked by respectability as defined by a discriminatory society instead of what is actually needed: working to overhaul the system altogether. As an example, he points to advocacy groups like the “traditionally under-resourced” gay lobby, who must “negotiate the privileges of corporate funding and media exposure [as gay rights have become more acccepted in recent years] with more mainstream agendas” and thus, “less acceptable issues [within the LGBTQ community] might never be addressed.” An example Joshi poses is of fighting for the right for gay couples to marry and adopt based on respectability versus the right to public sex — the latter being a “less acceptable” and mainstream issue.
As he writes:
The performance [of respectability] does not end, and nor does its social- and self-evaluation. This means that a person neither is nor can become respectable...rather, [they are] only ever in the process of being and becoming respectable by doing respectability.
By demanding that marginalized individuals visibly demonstrate alignment to respectability narratives (often through code-switching) in order to receive fair and equal treatment, the dominant group is able to excuse instances of harm and overlook systemic problems when a marginalized individual’s respectability is not immediately apparent or demonstrated. For example, rationalizing that a Black senator being pepper sprayed at a peaceful protest is the result of him not properly distinguishing himself from “less” respectable counterparts, without addressing the problem of police using excessive force against protestors.
Researchers have noted that generational divides (and historical experience) affect how much respectability is seen as a personal responsibility. In one study of Black Americans in Baltimore, the authors find “the majority of older respondents emphasized the importance of public presentation and warned Black citizens ‘not to give them [police officers] a reason’ to cast suspicion. [Whereas] younger respondents were more concerned with the existence of [police] and the impunity with which they watch, stop, and frisk.”
This victim-blaming narrative can also be upheld by those in the marginalized group. In Bill Cosby’s now-infamous “Pound Cake” speech, he blamed various behaviors in the Black community — like wearing pants too low, or naming children Shaniqua — as the root cause of continual Black subordination in American society, before giving a hypothetical example of a Black youth being “shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake.” He then poses the question: “What was he doing with pound cake in his hand?”
While Cosby’s speech was widely criticized for focusing on “individual-level failings, rather than systemic or structural inequality,” Stanford Assistant Professor of Political Science, Hakeem Jerome Jefferson points out that Obama adopted a similar tone “in a commencement address to the graduating class of Morehouse College, a historically Black institution in Atlanta, Georgia...remarking, ‘We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.’”
With this interpretation, the lack of respectability grants license to the dominant group to harm, and justifies any harm done. In the 2021 case of Daunte Wright, certain media outlets were quick to blame him for resisting arrest and driving away from the police — despite the fact that death is in no way a reasonable 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.” In the same vein, Quin Hillyer of the conservative Washington Examiner wrote that if undocumented immigrants did not appear for their assigned court hearings (often due to fear of deportation), “such poor guests deserve no sympathy, no matter what circumstances they came from.” And when then-U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was asked if she regretted signing the cruel family separation policy into law in 2018, resulting in numerous deaths of children at detention centers, she responded, “I don’t regret enforcing the law.”
The toxic ideology of respectability extends beyond the U.S. A U.K. study found that 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, their assault.
In India, recent sentencings of men accused of rape have been overturned as the behaviors of the women assaulted are described as “unbecoming of an Indian woman” or “promiscuous”. As Chanel Miller recounts in her victim impact statement, the attorney of her attacker Brock Turner 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.
A Moral Binary and Moving Target
For individuals in marginalized groups, just one action or characteristic that falls outside of the established respectability narratives is enough to deem their overall character as immoral or “bad”. For example, after Philando Castile was killed by the police in 2016, both media and authorities used his possession of marijuana to typecast him as criminal and a bad father, and justify his murder. The burden of proof then lay on Castile’s lawyers and supporters to convince both the public and the jury that he was a “good person,” deserving of appropriate police treatment, because his marijuana use had placed him outside acceptable respectability norms.
On the other hand, individuals in the dominant group are often afforded nuance in light of harmful actions, where these actions that fall outside of established narratives are able to be isolated and rationalized away. For example, Sarah Silverman defended Louis C.K.'s sexually perverse behavior as sometimes situationally appropriate; even white shooters who perpetrate mass murders are often framed sympathetically as mentally ill people with hosts of other positive traits (like “quiet” or “gentle”). As the police spokesperson explained of the Atlanta shooting mass murderer, “Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.”
With this moral binary in place, marginalized groups often adopt respectability narratives as a metric for judging each other. For example, as Asian Americans assimilated to the ideals of white Americans by embracing the model minority myth that specifically pitted them against Black Americans, many of them adopted the problem narratives around Black Americans and began to perpetuate anti-Black racism.
Only the dominant group wins when respectability narratives are used to surveil, quantify, and dictate the actions of marginalized groups. When necessary, the dominant group can, and will, maneuver and change respectability to suit their agenda. For example, one of the problem narratives around Chinese immigrants pre-Chinese Exclusion Act was their self-sufficiency on low wages, which was depicted as a threat to American workers. Decades later, this same narrative was reframed as positive because it meant Chinese immigrants would not require government assistance. In contrast, Central American immigrants were portrayed as necessitating excessive welfare to spur support for building a wall at our southern border and increase ICE presence across the country — even though this narrative has been proven untrue time and time again.
This makes respectability a moving target that can be routinely 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 “unpatriotic” and “disrespectful to the flag.” Although his actions aligned with the oft-cited American ideals of respect and nonviolence in protesting (typically attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., despite being a misrepresentation of King’s actual views), when Kaepernick was seen as threatening to those in power, respectability narratives were quickly changed to cast him in the wrong, and thereby deserving of punishment.
All together, respectability narratives reduce a marginalized group’s identity and stories into ones they no longer can control. Whether that is Dr. King’s radical viewpoints or the extenuating circumstances of crossing the border undocumented, the lure of simply aligning with respectability quickly surpasses the work to dismantle problematic norms deeply embedded in our society.
Systemic Failings of Respectability Politics
Even when respectability politics can be successfully wielded to enact policy changes, it does not fundamentally address the deeply-held prejudices of the dominant group, such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia. It ignores how, and why, the problem narratives surrounding that marginalized group came to be — which was often as a political tool to deny rights to marginalized groups. As a result, it is entirely possible for individuals of the dominant group to concurrently believe respectability narratives and problem narratives of marginalized groups.
For example, the American public recognizes that agricultural workers, which are primarily made up of undocumented workers, are essential for our food ecosystem. At the same time, many Americans still hold negative opinions of undocumented immigrants, argue for mass deportation, and block pathways to citizenship because they “didn't follow the rules” or commit crimes at higher rates (which has been repeatedly disproven). These competing beliefs then play out through issues like labor shortages and lack of protection for structurally vulnerable workers.
Even when individuals of a marginalized group follow the rules of respectability, the problem narratives told and believed of them can still lead to violence and harm. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the long-held and politically encouraged respectability narrative of Asian Americans as academically successful and upwardly mobile has not changed — but it has also been wholly ineffective in halting the surge of anti-Asian violence by those who blame them for carrying the virus.
Most people are also likely to 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” when compared with working moms. These perceived societal disparities, combined with similar views like women having less “leadership ability” and quantitative skills, continue to contribute to distorted statistics such as a 7.4% rate of female Fortune 500 CEOs.
Ignoring Foundational Problems
Respectability politics does not unravel the systemic issues that created problem narratives. For example, poverty and being unhoused is often treated as a crime or a result of poor individual decisions. This makes it simpler to judge the actions of low income and unhoused folks as a representation of their moral character instead of acknowledging the suboptimal situations they are forced to work within due to a lack of social safety nets. As novelist Herman Melville famously said, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”
These incorrect assumptions have long-lasting consequences. Opponents of government welfare like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or universal basic income (UBI) perpetuate the problem narratives around those who use these programs (e.g., the classic “welfare queen” trope, which was coined by President Reagan) and encourage mainstream acceptance of these stereotypes. Whether consciously or not, these ideas then influence how mainstream media addresses and proliferates these topics. Take SNAP as an example: discussions around the restrictions on SNAP funds often focus on incidences of fraud. While it is true that fraud occurs, it makes up less than 1% of all SNAP use and is no reason to punish other SNAP users; even so, SNAP recipients are severely limited as punishment. (In comparison, white-collar crime costs the U.S. far more every year.) The stigma around using SNAP, food banks, and other means of fighting food insecurity can also lead to other issues, from mental health problems to opting into more dangerous (or illegal) work in order to survive.
Similarly, opponents of UBI say its creation would mean “the state is encouraging idleness” and that it discourages people from working hard because of “free money,” but this avoids reckoning with the impact of the decades-long stagnation and decline of wages that has pushed working individuals and families into poverty and financial insecurity at alarming rates.
Emphasizing Form Over Change
Respectability narratives that correlate success, respect, and equality with “good” behavior also allow those in the dominant group to cite “inappropriate” tone, language, or behavior as acceptable reasons to reject necessary change. For example, during the 2020’s swell of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, large segments of media coverage shifted its focus from the underlying issue — police violence against Black people — to instances of looting and vandalism. As Robin D. G. Kelley writes:
The hackneyed emphasis on ‘why loot?’ obscures the critical question Black people have been asking for centuries: What kind of society values property over Black life?
It’s important to note that even when BLM protests were peaceful, footage still showed police using excessive force against unarmed civilians. Compare this to the lack of police force at the Capitol insurrection despite advance warnings of violence as well as looting and vandalism. It is clear that respectability politics rejecting the BLM movement was never about looting or vandalism, but a refusal to accept the reality of systemic racism.
(Similarly, as Tania Ralli writes in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, when photos surfaced of a Black man versus a white couple wading through water with food they found, only one was deemed a looter while the other was “finding” food.)
Tone policing is defined as a “tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, or otherwise emotionally charged manner.” (Dictionary) In these instances, marginalized individuals or groups are asked to communicate the harm done to them in a way that the dominant group finds acceptable in order for the problems to be addressed. The underlying message is that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to discuss structural issues like racism, and an improper tone is enough to negate the legitimacy of the harm that’s been done.
Ultimately, respectability politics only serves those already in power. By offering small wins to those who fall within a predetermined definition of respectability, those in power can slow or halt movements subverting the systems in their favor. Emphasizing respectability over systemic change invites marginalized groups to chase a moving target of respectability, absolves dominant identities of accountability, and ultimately halts forward progress.
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, and contributions from marginalized individuals. Uncenter the ideals of “respectability” in what you are working towards in your own life or in your community. Question respectability narratives not just when they arise in the media, but also in everyday conversations with friends and family. Instead, advocate for nuanced representations of people at all times to destroy any binary that respectability narratives promote.
Recognize that current acceptance by the dominant group does not guarantee safety, and that adhering to respectability narratives only perpetuates this falsehood. As such, while in-group or out-group policing is sometimes a result of systemic forces at play, it is not your place to police how others (within or outside of your community) act in line with the rules of “respectability” — nor is it your place to rationalize any harm that befalls them because of their actions. For many, this is particularly apparent when donations are involved: ask yourself if you are giving money to support someone (or something), or to have control over the situation.
Accept that all individuals are worthy of basic rights such as shelter, food, and safety, whether or not they fall in line with society’s current interpretations of respectability.
Educate yourself on the history of prejudices such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and classism to build deeper context on how respectability narratives and problem narratives developed for marginalized groups in the first place. Learn about how intersectionality works to create new forms of oppression for those with multiple marginalized identities.
Scrutinize what traits you find respectable and ask yourself why you believe them to be important. What does it mean to you if someone does not exhibit that trait? How does your perception differ upon their intersectional identity? Could you be missing certain lenses in viewing this particular trait? For example, our definition of productive output under capitalism is often ableist and normalizes burnout culture.
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 are attempting to address. Is it lack of housing? 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 relying on respectability politics and respectability narratives that put the onus on individual actions, analyze what foundational changes — especially political — can be made to lift everyone in that marginalized group to safety and prosperity. Can you become more involved in these sorts of efforts?
Actively engage when others use respectability politics as an excuse for harm or inaction by challenging and revealing their baseline prejudices. Explain 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 causing the least harm to the marginalized groups in question? How can all parties get involved in helping this change come about?
“The Politics of Respectability in African American Women's History and Black Feminism” (2003) by Paisley Jane Harris – Journal of Women’s History
““Your Pants Won't Save You”: Why Black Youth Challenge Race-Based Police Surveillance and the Demands of Black Respectability Politics” (2018) by Erin M. Kerrison, Jennifer Cobbina, Kimberly Bender - Race and Justice