“”Training as a historian teaches you quickly that to find the oppressor, just find who is most strenuously insisting everyone be POLITE
Respectability politics occurs when members of a minority group are told to assimilate and be more polite in order to receive respect. The reasoning is that if everyone just proves how "normal" they are, then the majority will stop mistreating them. It may be imposed by the group in power, imposed by fellow members of the minority group, or self-imposed.
Pressuring people to assimilate if they don't want to is obviously bad.
The word "respectability politics" was coined by Evelyn Brooks in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920.
“”Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack… With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail.
|—Bill Cosby, who is now in jail|
Respectability politics has long been invoked against black people in particular. In 1895, Booker T. Washington criticized African Americans for being "ignorant and inexperienced," and warned them not to complain too much. Respectability politics are the reason that Rosa Parks chose to mimic the actions of Claudette Colvin (a dark-skinned teen who soon became pregnant) on the segregated bus. While it remains an issue today, respectability politics is beginning to decline in the black community, with movements like Black Lives Matter rejecting it. Common examples include:
- People of color being told to straighten their hair or avoid ethnic hairstyles to look "professional."
- Parents feeling pressure to give their kids a "white name" to ensure a better future.
- Black people being careful not to seem "ghetto" on social media.
- Parents telling their children to behave in public because "white people are watching."
- Black women being told not to be angry.
- Victims of police brutality being scrutinized for "misbehavior" in order to explain why they were attacked.
- People starting a petition for Beyoncé to comb her toddler's hair (yes, this actually happened!).
- Women being taught to dress conservatively, avoid drinking, and follow extreme safety measures to avoid rape.
- Women being told that they need to act like men if they want to be respected in the workforce.
“”Now, "the community" — you know, GLAAD, all the people in the community — are like "Oh my god, you have to get the pronouns right; you have to do this, you have to do that." I'm much more tolerant than that. I mean, I understand that it's difficult for people to understand this.
|—Caitlyn Jenner proving she's not like those bad trans people|
Respectability politics have been used in the LGBT community for decades, if not longer. "You had to be what they called themselves the 'normal homosexuals.' They wore suits and ties. One of the first demonstrations that they had, lesbians who'd never even worn dresses were wearing dresses and high heels to show the world that they were normal," recalled Sylvia Rivera, who faced bullying and even physical assault when she and other trans people tried to show their faces in events.
- Gay people being told to stop being so flamboyant if they want to be taken seriously.
- Trans people being told to "pass" as cisgender.
- Transmedicalist gatekeeping and criticizing trans people who use neopronouns or are gender non-conforming.
- Asexual exclusionists arguing that asexual people are too "cringey" and "awkward" and don't belong in the community.
- People with fluid identities (e.g. interchangeably labeling oneself as bi/pan and a lesbian, or as nonbinary and a man/woman) being told that the seeming contradiction in the labels they use "makes the community look bad" or delegitimizes the labels for others.
- Pushing person-first language on disabled people to encourage them to downplay their disabilities.
- Autistics and people with ADHD being taught to stop fidgeting. and being "annoying" if they want to be respected and included.
- Autistic children being trained to act non-autistic so they can "succeed" in life.
Why it's bad
- It blames the victim while absolving the perpetrators of responsibility.
- It offers a false sense of security.
- It doesn't work.
- It offers no room for minority pride.
Blaming the victim
“”If [black people] just pulled our pants up a little higher and turned our music down, the systematic discrimination that informs nearly every sector of American life would disappear. If the world is just, then the injustice we experience in it is on us.
Respectability politics puts the responsibility for fixing things onto minority groups, instead of holding perpetrators accountable. Rather than discussing systematic barriers, it suggests that people can individually overcome discrimination if they just try hard enough. In addition, it insinuates that the blame for rape, homophobic violence and other hate crimes lies with the victims not having been "respectable" enough in appearance or behaviour.
If people reject respectability politics, they may be told they're "alienating allies." However, a decent ally supports minority rights unconditionally, even if a few people aren't "well-behaved."
Just world fallacy
Bad things can happen to good people. Respectability politics tends to ignore this, instead framing oppression as a consequence of "bad" behavior.
Blaming yourself for things outside of your control isn't exactly healthy. Belief in a just world has been linked to health problems in black people.
“”I do not believe in even attempting to appease the impossible, asymptoptic standards of respectability politics and (white, abled, cis, masculine-centric) professionalism simply because such attempts will always and inevitably be doomed to fail.
|—Lydia X. Z. Brown|
Constantly being vigilant about staying "respectable" isn't healthy behavior.
When respectability politics fail, higher standards may be imposed on the minority group. It's easy to just impose one more rule, like a game of "monkey in the middle" in which two players climb up on ladders as soon as the third player gets close to ever catching the ball.
Some people enjoy aspects of their minority identities. They may want to take pride in who they are, and they don't think that acting like the dominant group would be fun.
- Perhaps a black girl loves the look of her curly Afro.
- Maybe a gay man loves being effeminate.
- Perhaps an autistic person thinks that waving their hands repetitively is really fun.
Telling people to stop loving and expressing themselves is pretty darn terrible.
Kernel of truth
Having resources that say "We're a lot like you!" can be helpful for teaching members of the majority group the basics. Some members of minority groups may work very hard at teaching the dominant group, and they may be willing to dress or behave a certain way in order to be heard.
However, that's difficult and draining work. It's unfair to expect all oppressed people to focus their energy on educating the majority and appealing to their arbitrary standards.
- Tumblr discussion including a tweet by Anthony Oliveira
- The Definition, Danger and Disease of Respectability Politics, Explained - The Root
- Bill Cosby's Famous "Pound Cake" Speech, Annotated - Buzzfeed News
- The Rise of Respectability Politics - Dissent Magazine
- Respectability Politics Can Get in the Way of a Good Story - Sharonda Harris-Marshall
- Respectability Politics Is Losing Ground in Black Liberation Struggles - Truth Out
- Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World - Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
- 5 Ways 'Respectability Politics' Blame Black Women for Their Own Oppression - Everyday Feminism
- Respectability Politics Won't Get Us Half as Far - Everyday Feminism
- Everyday Respectability Politics - Big Think
- Caitlyn Jenner vs. "the Community" - Outward
- What's a transtrender? - VERED Counseling
- Binary Boys: Autism, Aspie Supremacy and Post/Humanist Normativity - Disability Studies Quarterly
- The neurodiversity movement needs its shoes off and fists up - Lydia X. Z. Brown
- Teachers 'forced special needs child to make a list of his faults' - The Guardian
- The problem with respectability politics - Pipe Dream
- How Respectability Politics Stifle Black Self Expression - Shannon Rodgers
- No, I don’t Worry about Alienating Allies - Crippled Scholar
- "We get what we deserve": the belief in a just world and its health consequences for Blacks - Journal of Behavioral Medicine
- Black and Brown Solidarity Post-9/11: Why I Refuse to Engage in Respectability Politics - The Body is Not An Apology