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“I Hate Myself!”: What are Respectability Politics, and Why do Black People Subscribe to Them?

Sgt Waters
Adolph Caesar as Master Seargant Vernon Waters in the movie A Soldier’s Story

You may not be familiar with the term “respectability politics”, but you’ve heard them before.  Maybe you’ve even engaged in them.  Whether it’s Don Lemon’s recent rant, actor Romany Malco’s open letter to Trayvon Martin sympathizers following the George Zimmerman trial, Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake speech” and even The Talk co-host Sheryl Underwood’s remarks about nappy hair, respectability politics remain an enormous part of our conversations about Black American culture.

So what exactly are respectability politics?  In short, they are an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and how we should define Black American culture.  Ironically, they’re usually a huge hindrance to both.

A Brief History Lesson

This whole idea of respectability politics began to solidify at the end of the 19th century, when a bold group of Black women from the Baptist Convention – a well-intentioned, church womenimportant, pro-Black, yet chauvinist, and patriarchal organization – broke off to form their own group: the Women’s Convention.  On the positive side, an essential part of their focus was to uplift the Black community, while perpetuating a sense of solidarity and philanthropy.  Unfortunately, in practice it involved a lot of patronizing behaviors towards “lower-class” Black people.  For instance, one of their major campaigns was to go into impoverished Black communities and hand out pamphlets that “taught” these po’ folks how to “behave” in public places, the value of chastity, and even how to properly bathe themselves.  Side note: if you’ve read that and don’t have a problem with those three things as important values, that’s understandable. Now, imagine someone comes to your front door regularly to remind you to do them…

These respectability politics gained popularity and organization nationwide, and solidified into a regular part of Black life.  For example, the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most important Black media outlets, published the following list weekly as a reminder to its newly arrived Southern readers who came to Chicago during the Great Migration:


Behold the Underlying Truth

Don’t the above admonishments sound familiar?  And note how every statement begins in the negative.  That’s because the primary premise in which respectability politics are grounded is that Black American culture – and Black Americans themselves – are broken and need to be fixed.  And “fixing” means improving the “Black underclass” that holds us back.  It reminds me of the movie A Soldier’s Story, and in particular, the character Sgt. Waters.  The scene below epitomizes what respectability politics cause the Black bourgeoisie to do to the Black “underclass”.

Super ObamaWaters has made it his personal mission to rid the army – and maybe the world (?) – of ignorant negritude, starting with CJ.  Apparently he thinks the work he’s doing will leave us with Negrus superioris, purifying the race and eliminating all traces of inferior Black folks.  Sergeant Waters, and those who think like him, are actually suffering though.  This later clip reveals that anguish and the secondary premise of respectability politics:


Wanna hear it again?  Go to 1:04 on the video.  The secondary, sinister premise of respectability politics is the belief that teaching Black people to meet White cultural standards is the way to improve Black culture.  From talking “proper”, to hair straightening, to skin bleaching, to more coded ideas like “acting White”, respectability politics teach us that the White man’s ice really is colder.  In a country that operates on the premise that Black people are inferior, respectability politics cause the sort of sentiment the utterly defeated Waters whimpers at the 1:04 mark.  He’s realized that after years of trying to get White people to see Black people as equals by teaching them “White culture”, he’s actually the broken one who needs to be fixed.

What’s an Alternative, Then?

In my critiques of the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve said that the focus on changing laws and changing peoples’ hearts overshadowed efforts to define and build Black American culture.  While all three are important, the lack of emphasis on that third aspect has left us today with respectability politics as a giant cultural hurdle.  Black American culture, like all cultures, is continuously being defined and redefined.  The next step then, is to Kwanzaa cardreplace striving to emulate a White American cultural construct (the concept of “White culture” as everything positive, wonderful, and goal-worthy) with striving toward a Black one.  Love it, hate it, or leave it, the Kwanzaa holiday is an excellent example of Black Americans deciding for themselves what Black American culture will be.  While it incorporates ideas from other cultures (as all cultural traditions do), it isn’t based upon turning Black American culture into someone else’s “superior” one.  And to be clear, whether or not we choose to identify with our African roots as we define Black American culture – though I’ve chosen an example that does – is nowhere near as important as the overall act of simply continuing to define Black American culture in general.  As long as we move purposefully away from respectability politics, we’ll continue to eliminate the self-hatred that hinders us from continuing to positively do so.

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry has taught grades 6 through 20, and has worked at both public and independent schools from Minnesota to Florida to Washington and other places in between. He is currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington.  Maurice believes that the “geechie” is actually more important to Black American culture then Sgt. Waters.

(The original article appears on

Maurice “Mo the Educator” Dolberry ©2013


You Can be “Like Mike.” I’d Rather be Like Jason.

Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, announces in a Sports Illustrated that he is gay
Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, announces in a Sports Illustrated that he is gay

Before yesterday, the reality was that there had never been a person in major American professional sports to discuss their being gay.  With the online release of Jason Collins’ forthcoming Sports Illustrated article, that shameful reality met its overdue demise.  At 34, Collins is at the sunset of a largely unremarkable 12-year NBA career during which he’s never averaged more than 7 points per game, never been to an NBA final, and never been an all-star.  He’s considered (and generously so) a defensive specialist who makes the most of being tall and having six times to hack an opponent before he fouls out of a game.

By contrast, at 34 years of age, Michael Jordan was winning his 6th NBA Championship, averaged more than 30 points per game for his career, was a perennial all-star, and was widely considered the greatest basketball player to have ever played.  That’s debatable, but certainly possible.

By the time I turned 34, my athletic “career” consisted of being a three-sport athlete in high school, having lasted in college wrestling just long enough for Coach Cotton to tell me that practices began at 5:00 “am, not pm”.  I was a small but very athletic kid who was never was more than just “pretty good” at any particular sport.    And at 5’ 6”, I would have been lucky to score seven points in an NBA season, much less per game.  (I was, however, voted county Coach of the Year, placing me firmly in the Pantheon of great wrestling coaches, according to my mother.)

According to the numbers, the three of us ain’t on the same page athletically.  Not even in the same book.  In fact, you’d need three separate books, and mine doesn’t even belong in the same library.

That said, I’d rather be more like Jason than like Mike.

I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be an athlete the likes of Jordan or even Collins.  I do, however, have an excellent idea of what “the guys’ locker room” is like; its codes of conduct, the sanctity of what’s said there, the hypermasculine posturing…  I could at least, after a particularly putrid performance on the wrestling mat, come back into the locker room and talk bullshit about what I wanted to do with some girl who of course would have been oh-so-impressed to see me flailing around out there in my singlet.  I could pretend to be better than I was at wrestling, but I didn’t have to pretend to like girls.


The Blame: The Part of the Trayvon Martin Story You Don’t Want to Hear… But Need To

The Blame and the Questions

On February 26th, 2012, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Florida.  And despite wearing your hoodie, your participation in the protest, and your indignation on behalf of injustice, if you’re reading this article, you probably helped that tragedy occur.

George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, that part is not in question.  He told the police as much when they arrived.  The questions are 1) Why did George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin?  2) Why did the police consider the killing justifiable under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground law?  And 3) what do you, the reader, have to do with any of this?


The New Black Panther Party Offers a Bounty for George Zimmerman

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” New Black Panther leader Mikhail Muhammad said Saturday when he announced the reward at a protest in Sanford, the Orlando suburb where the killing took place.

Can the people of Sanford, FL take justice into their own hands or is this just promoting more violence and the Federal offense of kidnapping?

The bounty has been set for $10,000 but as mentioned, their goal is $1M.


Trayvon Martin and the Continued Plight of the Young Black Male

Editorial by: Lavell Flamon

First off, I would like for anyone who is reading this to take a moment of silence in respect for the family of Treyvon Martin. Pray for them in this exceptionally difficult time as they continue to seek justice for the murder of their son.

The murder of Treyvon Martin has struck a particularly deep cord within my being. With all of the violence in today’s world, being desensitized is quite common place. To that point, the death of a black male in the Unites States is even more so numbing, as for most of us, it is the wallpaper in our daily lives. The death of the young black male isn’t even fodder for the news, yet, it is the stuff of entertainment, be that movies or rap music. For some, it is the holy grail of their existence, as we honor and venerate Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace. However, for me and many of my friends who grew up in Chicago, it was an eerie fact of life that could be our epitaph. Growing up in Chicago, especially under the umbrella of gang violence and racial segregation, dying a violent death was par for the course. During high school, many a school mate met with that fate as did many of my friends I grew up with off of 79th and Jeffery on the South Side. Even I, for however good I was, was still pulled into violent altercations on several occasions. I feared dying before the age of 21.


Kony 2012 Campaign: Social Media Experiment or Social Justice?



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The Thanksgiving Top 10: What I Am and Am Not Thankful For

Thanksgiving is such a special day, such a special time. For me, it’s that one time of the year where I truly take a break to reflect upon the many blessings bestowed upon me by The Creator during the year…because, let’s face it, when it comes to efficiency and productivity the year is pretty much over!

As I was making a list of ten things that I am grateful for on this Thanksgiving, I kept coming up with an equal amount of things that also annoyed the heck out of me in 2011 (I won’t curse today).

So I made two lists – like to read ’em? Here it goes!

I Am Thankful For…

10. Astro – If you’re a fan of hip hop then you HAVE to be a fan of this 15-year-old from Brooklyn who is breathing life back into the genre on FOX’s X Factor; dude is the truth. He had a bratty moment a couple of weeks ago when he landed in the bottom two, but he’s a 15-year-old from Brooklyn…shouldn’t that be expected?

9. The 2011 NBA Playoffs – It was awesome. A great game every single night that culminated with the “do it the right way” Dallas Mavericks taking home the title.

8. Technology – Instagram, Siri, Spotify, Tumblr, etc. Technology and means to access and share information continue to get better and become more accessible to laymen. Steve Jobs would be so proud.

7. Freedom – As much as we complain about the good ol’ U.S. of A., there are a number of freedoms that I am glad to enjoy. Access to information (see previous listing) so I can learn whatever I want; the freedom to decide, “You know what…I want to take photos and create videos…” Thank you, America!

6. Waka Flocka Flame – You need a dose of ignorance. Much like penicillin has a small amount of the very elements it is trying to fight off, WAKA! Is my ignorance infection of choice (pause, if necessary). I am thankful for his songs getting stuck in my hand, giving me an excuse to walk around mumbling, “Bust it/Bust it/B-b-bust it…”

5. Barack Obama – Barack Obama is this era’s one person worthy of being hung on the wall of Black American’s all over the country, a la that MLK/JFK/RFK photo that I know you’ve seen hung in that older relative’s home (no lie, my aunt has hand a version of it hung in her house easily since before I was born. He probably will be remembered for what his election meant to us more than what he actually accomplished (not all his fault; politics get tricky), but that’s cool, because now there is no reason that my future son – or daughter – can’t grow up truly believing her or she can also become President of the United States of America

4. My Career – I am able to wake up and do work that, in turn, someone believes is worthy of me to be paid for. Who couldn’t be grateful for that!?

3. Friends and Family – My family and friends are one in the same. If we’re really friends then you’re family and vice versa. In talking about my career. I have literally made thousands of dollars this year thanks to the people close to me hiring me or because of their referrals. I love the people around me like you couldn’t imagine.

2. Marriage – It is work. I tell people often that marriage is not for everyone…it can be painful at times (trust me…), but forgiveness is the key and something I am grateful for because a lesser woman would have long dropped me like a bad habit. I’m just being honest. I am super thankful for my marriage and my lovely wife.

1. Life – Because with life comes ample opportunities to be and do better. So I am most thankful for that on this day of reflection and promise to never take it for granted…you know, besides during the time I will be stuffing my face with mounds of dressing later on this day of feasting.

I am NOT Thankful For…

10. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries Marriage/Divorce – Sure, we all knew they were going to divorce eventually. Even soon…but but 72 days soon!? I’ve been constipated longer than that! TMI? Eh.

9. Herman Cain – Where’d this negro Bizarro come from!? Why is he being taken seriously!?

8. The NBA Lockout – I would lie and say I enjoy college basketball like the next man, but frankly, I don’t. I want to see Lebron, Wade, Kobe, and Dirk back on the court ASAP. I grew up a die hard NBA fan (“NBA Action is FANTASTIC!”) and I can’t change it now. It’s too late. While I do want the players to get compensated what they deserve (they shouldn’t have come down off of the 57% split, in my opinion), ultimately, I just want to see the pros get back on the court…and charge me too damn much to see them play.

7. The Basic Chick – Don’t get it twisted. The one pointing out “the basic chick” is nine times out of ten…the basic chick herself. You know her. Same black weave, same form-fitting skirt, same mirror pose – lips puckered, of course (who finds that sh*t attractive!?) – on Facebook…and has the nerve to call other females basic. She’s from the same place as Cain, for sure.

6. Social Media Prophets – You know too many of them. The one’s that are always sharing their “knowledge” with us lowly souls. You can tell they’re copy and pasting their “thoughts” because it’s the only time there are no grammatical errors in their status updates or tweets. Here’s a thought: SHUT THE HELL UP!

5. Black People vs. Statistics – Oh boy. See my full-fledge rant on this one here.

4. Terrible DJs – I’m out a lot because I photograph a number of nightlife events, and I will tell you this…we’re letting too many terrible DJs “get on”. For real. What kind of friend are we by not telling these DJs that they suck. Horribly. Just last Thursday I was one Corona away (because whose machismo doesn’t escalate upon the consumption of Coronas) from boo’ing a DJ. Apollo-style. Arms flailing and all. He was woefully bad. Probably the worst I have ever heard. I know it’s a lot of promoters. I know it’s a lot of parties. However, that is NO excuse to let a terrible DJ control the sounds. Hell…just put Pandora on.

3. Reality TV – How much more can we consume!? I don’t blame the creators. I blame the consumers *shakes angry fists at folks who watch Basketball Wives, Love and Hip Hop and Bad Girls Club* …truth be told, I f**ks with NeNe on Real Housewives of Atlanta though *shakes head in palm of own hands in shame*

2. Twitter’s Trending Topic Trickery – the misses @Angieluvboo refuses to believe that @Twitter would prevent #TroyDavis and/or #OccupyWallStreet from trending. C’mon, ma’am *looks at current trends*, you don’t think enough people were bought into those causes to have either appear in the top-10 of trending topics!? *looks at current trends* #Whatmoneycantbuy is at the top right now! Give me a break! Twitter was up to some trickery and if I didn’t want to be left out of the social loop I would quit Twitter right now! Ha ha ha…but serious, though.

1. Jerry Sandusky – I don’t think I need to say anything about that guy. I’m just mad no one has created some type of correlation between him and Herbert from “Family Guy”. Too soon, maybe?

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Johnny J. Jones is a sometimes jerk, but overall good guy. A digital media specialist, connect with Johnny at