“The Politics Of Respectability”

by Dish Staff

Coates is beyond tired of the continual “transmutation of black protest into moral hectoring of black people”:

Don Imus profanely insults a group of black women. But the real problem is gangsta rap. Trayvon Martin is killed. This becomes a conversation about how black men are bad fathers. Jonathan Martin is bullied mercilessly. This proves that black people have an unfortunate sense of irony.

The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.

Ioffe likewise addresses the “troubling self-flagellation in Ferguson’s black community”:

Respectability, in essence, is about policing the behavior in your community to make sure people are behaving “properly,” so as to not attract unwelcome attention from whites“with ‘properly’ being a normatively white middle class presentation,” says [political scientist Michael] Dawson. In feminist discourse, a similar phenomenon among women is described as internalizing the patriarchal gaze. That is, women see themselves as the men in charge want to see themfeminine, sexy, pliantand then behave and dress accordingly. Respectability is the same thing, but with blacks internalizing the white gaze. …

In some ways, this is an understandable response: If you are in the minority, and are disadvantaged and exposed to danger because of it, it is natural to try to minimize the downsides by trying to live according to the laws of the ruling majority and not call attention to one’s differences from them. It also provides a modicum of comfort, a sense that one can have control over the amount of discrimination one is exposed to even when in fact it is out of your control. “There’s good empowerment and false empowerment,” says [Jelani ] Cobb. “But if you think that the problem is within us, then at least it gives you the idea that you have the capacity to change it.” It also sidesteps the issue of institutionalized racism, the real reason for the fact that, in Chicago, blacks and Latinos were four times more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. “Really, what we’re dealing with is racism that is entrenched, and that we have limited capacity to determine how much of it we’re exposed to in our lives,” says Cobb.