“In the United States a black person is murdered every 28 hours by the police. No amount of being “good” will save you. These violences continue because the systems they have in place depend on them to thrive. **
People, mostly women are raped and assaulted every 2 minutes in US (RAINN). No amount of being “good” will save you. These violences continue because the systems they have need them to survive.
The more intersections you inhabit (I.e. non whiteness, female, trans, poor, indigenous or migrant, non Christian, etc.) the more likely these violences are to effect our bodies in space. No amount of being good or socially “respectable” will save you. It is these very forms of life that we inhabit that become socially “disrespectful” to power, that is why repression and violence are so prevalent.”
This article started with proposing a brief conversation about how respectability politics are a tool used against marginalized groups, specifically people of color. These politics tell people how they “should” or “ought to” act in order to avoid violence and repression. They supposedly dictate social norms and maintain safety in the public space, however more accurately they are the language, discourse and actions which allow power to enact violence on bodies in space. Social respectability and political correctness are mobilized as tools of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, etc. in order to maintain power and perceived social normalcy. The vocabulary of social respectability has historical origins in spaces like “post-slavery” US south, but these politics must be viewed within the larger context of the colonial encounter and present neo-imperialism. As a non-Black person of color, I have a responsibility to address that these politics are most often mobilized against black people, and are at times perpetuated by other persons of color.
I want to make sure that the readers of this article have a clear understanding of what I mean when I am discussing social respectability. Social respectability looks different in different contexts, and its effects are felt differently depending on the individual experience of social conditions. For example a white male cisgender person, is going to have very different experience in the public space, than a queer disabled person of color. The transgressions of political correctness, social respectability, or taboo, that the former could “get away with” without feeling violence are great. This is the essence of privilege which stems from power. That is why notions like “affluenza” have become legitimate legal excuses when the privileged class transgress laws that oppressed people would either be criminalized or extra judicially punished for. It is why no matter how much prestige a person of color receives, they can be silenced and diminished simply through the racist, sexist, classist, ableist, colonialist, remarks or actions of those in power. It is the understanding that social/public spaces are constructed based on these identities, and that violence and “social respectability” are intrinsically linked. This understanding of social respectability cannot be reduced to individual actions, we must understand systemic violence and organized domination/oppression.
When I proposed the idea of writing about respectability politics it seemed like a natural extension of the conversations I have everyday with the people in my life. More honestly, it came from a friend prodding me, by saying if I didn’t write the article he would just write it himself building on the ideas we often discuss. I had many hesitations about writing.
I didn’t want to be perceived as an authoritative knowledge, which is often what takes place when people begin to be paid for their knowledge by third parties instead of directly by other folk. This process creates asymmetries in knowledge, access and value. Most often these type of asymmetries fall along the same lines that create violence that regulate bodies in space.
Let me give you an example. People with privilege will often make a statement, such as “well my non-privilege friend, said x,y, and z weren’t racist, classist, cisist, sexist, ableist, etc”. This framing does two things. It uses a person from a non-privileged group as the representative for a whole, which is a dangerous fallacy. Identities and experiences are complex and fluid. It also allows those with power or privilege to dismiss any “other” forms of knowing and being as socially “unacceptable”.
We see examples of this in the everyday microaggressions that take place in spaces. A white person may start a phrase with “not to sound racist…” or “my black friend says….is ok” when clearly the statement that follows these words is racist. Power uses this idea of the “respectable” or “model” representation of marginalized groups as a way to criminalize and control any type of expression that deviates from this.
When proposing to write about respectability politics, I also entered into this discursive space knowing that if I had the “audacity” to asked to be paid for my writing, that it would be met with opposition. Contributoria is a crowd-funded online media platform, so essentially a “public” digital space. I am briefly going to deconstruct the comment thread from my proposal which I think gives a concrete example about these concepts of respectability politics as a violence to silence and dismiss marginal voices.
I spent some time looking through other proposals on Contributoria. Very few had as many comments as mine, and from that even fewer had the level of debate. This proposal challenged some people’s notions of social structures and interactions so deeply, commenters felt the need to not only tell me what the Contributoria platform “should and shouldn’t” be used for and one took it a step further and even told me how many words I should be using to discuss these topics. This commenter had no idea how well his response illustrated the exact type of (il)logic I am discussing. Other people in the thread took a line of discourse saying my language was inaccessible. This notion of accessibility is interesting, because it creates the false notion that there is one discourse that should be used on this type of social platform. The idea that I was using too scholarly of a voice, is a little ludicrous to me. I looked into the individuals who made this comments, many of them work in scholarly or academic pursuits, they have deep analysis and understanding of theoretical frameworks that help shape their worldview. Yet, talk of social respectability and an analysis of cultural and “activist” spaces left people feeling too challenged. If I had written the proposal or this article in the voice which I usually use to discuss these concepts with my friends and social circle, I wonder what kind of critique they would have?
Other comments saw people addressing perspectives from the margins and how these notions of social respectability effect people in space. In one comment, the person disclosed their own complicity in policing these politics among the youth that they worked with. She wrote, “it was painful for me to have to enforce a checklist code of professionalism with my students. Behind my words was often the message of the necessity of working within the system and under authority, with the goal of gaining skills and resources needed for future independence.”
The complexities of this statement need to be fleshed out a bit to understand how nuanced these politics are. This person was working within an non-profit, where she worked with young students in the area of academic success and youth development. One of the primary functions of her job was to explain to students why they needed to be submissive to power and how their skills and resources were connected to their ability to conform and maintain a level of invisibility. When students transgressed what was “social respectable”, they were told how this would effect their economic livelihood and how without it they would never fully be able to be independent. The comment thread is just a small example of how polarizing the notion of social respectability is.
In popular culture and recent event, we can see how this (il)logic plays out. In the United States there has been unrest since early August when an unarmed Black youth named Mike Brown was murdered in the streets by police. The discourse and conversations that have emerged from corporate media outlets has used framing to define the victim in terms of criminalization and thuggery. This mobilization of social respectability politics serves to strip Mike of his humanity even in death, and consequently sends a message to all other racially marginalized people that victimhood will not save you from this dehumanization. In a broader sense, when social and political unrest takes place the dominant narrative is of violence vs. nonviolence protest, and little is said about the state’s use of force against people. This narrative continues to allow the state and its mechanisms of control to dictate the way spaces are accessed and used.
Language begins to emerge in which people protests are framed as “rioting”, when the truth is much more complex. This over simplification allows power to simple cast anything that challenges it as “disrespectful” to social sensibilities. This framing can have lethal consequences for people and group whose existence goes against this (il)logic.
Flippin’ the script. We must ask ourselves, what is unacceptable? When we willfully go against the logic of social respectability we let go of fear, knowing as Audre Lorde once said, “we were never meant to survive”. Social movements, take place when people collectively engage challenging social conditions and power. When the violence of dehumanization is certain, when no amount of acting ”correct″ or being ”good″ will save you from this fate, then we must question the very nature of this (il)logic as it exists. As another freedom fighter, Assata Shakur reminds us, ”we have nothing to lose but our chains“. When our very existence goes against these politics of social respectability, and when we demand our humanity, this is when things shift.