The Limits of “Respectability Politics”

As a quick google search will tell you, there is more than a little pushback out there on the internet against “respectability politics.”  ”Respectability Politics” is the broad catch-all name given to the belief that if only a marginalized group (black men and boys, say) behaved better in public and presented a better image to the outside world, their lot in life would improve. The most high profile and controversial voicing of this viewpoint was probably Don Lemon’s list of five steps black men could take to be more respectable, a laundry list made out of the usual pull-up-your-pants type complaints that Jay Smooth responds to pretty deftly here

Recently, the issue has surfaced again on The Root in what is shaping up to be a pretty interesting debate. Earlier this week, in response to an e-mailer asking about an African American principal who spends a lot more time advising his black male students to dress well than he does encouraging them to get good grades, Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote:

[This] strikes me as a reflection of a limited and sad worldview. One that leaves room for white male success to come in the form of scruffy facial hair and jeans or shorts worn around the pingpong table at a start-up company’s headquarters, but includes a narrow mandate for their African-American counterparts: Look like you popped out of the Men’s Wearhouse circular or be a danger to society and a total failure. Choose either sagging pants and “the streets” or button-ups and conventional success. Decide between a hoodie and getting shot or a bow tie and a role as a “high-achiever.”

Self-expression? Freedom to experiment? Normal teenage rebellion? Creativity? Forget it. All of those are for other, more privileged people.

My belief is that good-hearted people buy into this thinking because it’s seductive to imagine that we can use clothing to control for individual racism against black men and boys, rather than addressing all of the complicated forces that lead to racial inequality.

Yesterday, David Swerdlick, also writing on The Root, responded with a different take on the issue:

[A]s Desmond-Harris notes, it’s a flagrant double standard that America somehow “leaves room for white male success to come in the form of scruffy facial hair and jeans or shorts worn around the pingpong table at a startup company’s headquarters,” while most young black men, by contrast, enter the job market under considerably stricter scrutiny.

Often, though, that’s how it is. And if I had to guess, the lesson that this principal wants young black men to absorb isn’t that they should aspire to be dandies but that even if many of them will go on to become coders, artists, entrepreneurs or professors—fields where there might be some flex in the dress code—most of them, like most working people, will wind up starting careers in places—white collar or blue collar—where the dress codes typically show them less latitude.

Respectability politics’ appeal is understandable. One way to disarm and counteract stereotypes is to expose people to counter-stereotypic examples, both in real life and in the culture they consume. Adjusting your behavior and dress can be a way of individuating yourself in the eyes of others and can help lower their anxiety. It’s a pragmatic choice, then, an adaptive strategy to help live in “the real world.” As Swerdlick writes, “that’s how it is.”

At the same time, the usefulness of this approach is limited and we need to recognize it for the coping mechanism that it is. It is also an approach that puts the full burden for change on the already-marginalized, and is thus understandably galling. Adjusting dress and behavior needs to be understood as one potential approach that may have its uses in some circumstances, but might not in others. It is also not a cure all. Every black man in America could wear a suit and tie for a year and negative stereotypes about black men and boys would still persist. Being a well dressed Harvard Professor did not stop Henry Louis Gates Jr. from being arrested for talking back to a police officer in his own homePutting too much emphasis on it can amount to blaming people for their own oppression or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, alleging that, had he not been wearing a hooded sweatshirt, he’d still be alive.  

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