The Scarlett Letter of Respectability, Womanhood and the Black Identity

Have you ever been in public questioning whether or not you should complete a task that would make you an elite member of the expansive universe of black stereotypes such as avoiding the pair of fried chicken and kool-aid for lunch?

The undefined yet widely known and understood set of rules that blacks must follow can be defined as respectability politics. Everything from your ‘mama ‘n ‘em’ telling you that you have to be especially well groomed at all times to many blacks seeing African American Vernacular English / Ebonics as an unacceptable form of speaking.

Respectability politics can be traced back to the reconstruction period. The main intent  was to assimilate blacks into the times while simultaneously working overtime to disassociate blacks with ‘blackness’ or ‘otherness’, and adopting mannerisms of the majority culture to be deemed as ‘respectable’.

Dr. Rayford Logan, a late Howard University professor famed for his study on post-reconstruction America, coined the term “nadir of American race relations.” Logan stated that the period between 1877 and the early twentieth century was the most highly-concentrated period for racism in history and this period specifically dismantled all progress blacks made until that point. But now, you may be wondering, how does respectability politics play into this?

Many pundits argue that though the birth of respectability politics did help ‘strengthen’ movements and black activism throughout history; it is often said that taking on the same ideology that oppresses blacks, can never truly advance blacks. What started as a way to “uplift” blacks by correcting traits deemed unfavorable for the overall survival of the race in Reconstruction and post-reconstruction America has now transformed into a mainstay of black identity and expression.

Howard University sophomore, Paige Reynolds, weighs in on this matter.

“Respectability politics, which once were means of survival for blacks, now seem to be crippling to our identity. Respectability is most often assessed using the standards of Eurocentric, patriarchal, heteronormative, middle-class society. Respectable behavior is limited to what has appeased whites the most or what mimics some of their behavior,” Reynolds said.

The “we are just like (majority culture)” and the “talented tenth” waves of activism speak highly to this ideology. But it isn’t just remnants of the past that have spoken highly to respectability politics, today’s common notion of “fixing/transforming the individual before fixing the community” also bridge past patterns to today.

A recent example of blacks cultivating on ‘respectability politics’ can be most highlighted in Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter’s 2011 speech at Mount Baptist Church.

“If you want all of us — black, white, or any other color — if you want us to respect you, if you want us to look at you in a different way, if you want us not to be afraid to walk down the same side of the street with you, if you want folks not to jump out of the elevator when you get on, if you want folks to stop following you around in stores when you’re out shopping, if you want somebody to offer you a job or an internship somewhere… Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt. Nobody. Buy a belt. Buy a belt. Nobody wants to see your underwear. Comb your hair. And get some grooming skills. Comb your hair. Running round here with your hair all over the place. Learn some manners. Keep your butt in school, graduate from high school, go on to college so you can go and make something of yourself and be a good citizen, here in this city,” Nutter stated in his 2011 speech.

The image of black women, for example, also has strong and seemingly unenforceable ties with respectability politics.

“Respectability politics are HUGE when it comes to women and femininity, especially when it comes to expressing feminine sexuality. Women have always been scorned for expressing their femininity too much in fear of making black women as a whole look bad, a fear coming from our history of being objectified since our colonization. We’re taught at young ages not to act “fast”. As we’ve grown older those same ideas have manifested in the terms hoe, slut, and most recently “thot” in a lot of contexts. We can only express our femininity in ways that are “respectable,” and then when we choose to ignore what’s respectable we get shamed or objectified. It’s very much a lose-lose situation,” Reynolds stated.

As Reynolds briefly explained, the old-hat ideas of femininity and black womanhood are often policed and brought back to life in new ways. Today’s “thot” or “hoe” is not far off from yesterday’s “jezebel”. These ideas of repressed black sexuality are often reinforced by television and film, which further allows both blacks and white to influence how black female sexuality is viewed and criticized.

The steady quest over ownership to black bodies does not stop with women, but also extends to manhood and is often reinforced with the common notion of viewing feminine traits as weakness and masculinity as strength.

These damaging views of black femininity and masculinity branch not only from ‘respectability politics’ but also racism, classism, and in the case of womanhood — sexism.

Black identity and black culture is constantly being redefined and reestablished. The complete removal of respectability politics, or the crippling of our identity, as Reynolds put it, can only happen when it stops becoming a commonplace to apologize for our ‘blackness’ and ‘otherness.’

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