In the wake of the protests against police brutality and the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis released a video meant to deter people who used the outcry as an opportunity to destroy property. The passion he brought to his Hall of Fame football career is there, but his rambling, out-of-touch commentary is missing almost every important historical aspect regarding why the protests and property destruction happened in the first place.
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, important, 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:
DON’T HANG OUT THE WINDOWS.
DON’T SIT AROUND IN THE YARD AND ON THE PORCH BAREFOOT AND UNKEMPT.
DON’T WEAR HANDKERCHIEFS ON YOUR HEAD.
DON’T USE VILE LANGUAGE IN PUBLIC PLACES.
DON’T ALLOW CHILDREN TO BEG ON THE STREETS.
DON’T APPEAR ON THE STREET WITH OLD DUST CAPS, DIRTY APRONS, AND RAGGED CLOTHES.
DON’T THROW GARBAGE IN THE BACKYARD OR ALLEY OR KEEP DIRTY FRONT YARDS.
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”.
Waters 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 replace 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.
I used to believe people were confused about the meaning of words involving social justice. I figured when someone referred to any discussions about race as “racist” he or she was simply misinformed.
Now, I know better.
Some people have redefined words like “racist” in order to avoid talking about race. Others do so purposefully in order to maintain the power and privilege that come with being in a racial majority. And you can actually find people who are members of racial minorities in both of these groups, even when it works against their own best interests.
Reading Piyush Jindal’s article on the end of race, I’m lead to believe the Governor’s over-simplified and out-of-date ideas about race and how it’s lived are simply a function of his naiveté, and not a conscious effort to maintain racial inequity. Case in point, this quote:
“Under what logic would any intelligent, logical, or decent person give any thought to the pigmentation of a person’s epidermis? It’s nothing short of immoral, not to mention stupid…”
What about someone like me? I like my skin color. Does that make me “immoral” or “stupid” for doing so? I like my brown skin, my thick lips, the texture of my hair (though it only grows on the bottom and front parts of my head at this point in my life), and the association of “being Black” that comes with those physical features. I don’t like them because they make me feel superior to anyone who doesn’t share them; I like those things about myself, quite frankly, just because I like myself.
At the same time, I’ll purposefully avoid engaging in the same type of naiveté of which I’ve accused Governor Jindal, and make clear that I’m not pretending as if “race” is simply a set of “paint jobs” people have, which carry no further meanings or implications. It’s why I mentioned the association of Blackness in the above list. There are exceptionally clear and often vicious power dynamics at play when it comes to how we view race, and Blackness in particular. Jindal’s view ignores both the idea of race as a lived circumstance with complex power relationships, and the idea that people can engage with race in ways that are positive. There are many other ways to “live race” as well, but it is telling that the only one he addresses is racism. That’s short-sighted. But Jindals’s name itself may give us some insight into more nuanced ideas about race that could be floating around in his subconscious.
What’s in a Name?
Though he goes by “Bobby”, I’ve referred to Governor Jindal by his given name of Piyush. Jindal got the name “Bobby” because of his identification with Bobby Brady from The Brady Bunch, and has apparently been known as “Bobby” since the mid to late 70s. I don’t have any reason to doubt the governor’s story. At the same time, I can’t ignore the very common practice of choosing an American-sounding nickname by people whose given names don’t fit Western traditions, and the idea that “Bobby” is more electable in Louisiana than “Piyush”. He sure didn’t choose “Devante” or “Jadeveon”, two names that are as American as you could possibly get (how many Devantes and Jadaveons on this planet do you think aren’t American?). All jokes aside, being nicknamed “Bobby” has helped Americanize Governor Jindal in ways that move his perceived ethnicity away from Indian and toward European, with the racial implications of the shift being undeniable. And while I do find Jindal’s views about race unsophisticated, I don’t believe for one minute that he doesn’t understand how “Bobby” trumps “Piyush” in our society’s racial hierarchy. He’s a Rhodes Scholar. He didn’t use it to his advantage by accident.
The Melting Pot: How You Too Can Become White
Where Jindal’s opinion piece takes a turn for the sinister is in his stated desire to return to the concept of American being a “melting pot”. As far as antiquated ideas go, I thought the notion that destroying each individual American’s culture in order to create one undifferentiated new one had officially been thrown out. For people like me who enjoy our cultural heritages, I have no desire to give it up, hide it, or watch it get erased. There’s also the reality that the “default settings” for culture in the United States are White, male, Christian, heterosexual, middle-class, and able-bodied and minded. That is, when we don’t specifically address people’s cultural aspects, those become the assumed and prevailing ones. So what happens to “race” in the melting pot analogy is, everyone gets to become “White”, and “non-White” becomes “the other”. It’s why “Bobby” can be assumed to be culturally White and more electable, while “Piyush” is “not-White” and must therefore be melted away.
The Colorblind Society
In the sci-fi book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the whimsical technological inventions is a pair of “peril resistant sunglasses” called the Joo Janta 200. At the first sign of danger, the sunglasses turn so dark, the wearer can no longer see through them. Completely blinded from danger, the wearer no longer has to worry about it. The social commentary of these glasses applies directly when it comes to Jindal’s desire to “end race in America”. By ending any discussion or even acknowledgement of race, Jindal implies, we can eliminate racism. What he and others who long for a “colorblind” society are really trying to end is the very real pain of honest and forthright discourse about race. I know just how difficult that process is, and I actually welcome it. I love race as a concept, I love my own racial characteristics, and I want a society in which those things can be embraced and celebrated, rather than erased and melted. I’m Black. And I like that about me.
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.Mauriceis currently an adjunct college instructor while working on his PhD in multicultural education at the University of Washington. He’s also a Black dude.
My African American-born and Howard University-bred skepticism of politicians who want to tell me what my best interests are causes the (admittedly sensitive) wand on my bullshit detector to redline. That part of me readily recognizes that Senator Paul’s visit to Howard conveniently works well as a way to soften his (Tea) party’s reputation as a political safe-space for White nationalists, White supremacists, and other bigots. Paul can safely assume those extremists will hold their nose and vote for him, despite the stench of Negro he now has on him. For those who don’t want to be grounded in that ideological wing of the Republican Party – and those who realize, quite frankly, that now you can’t get elected to the Presidency with just that vote – Paul can play this as a See?-I tried-but-they-just-won’t-listen token appeal to the Black vote. This plays well with White supremacists who don’t really wanna be so… White supremacist-y.
Florida A&M University (FAMU) graduates Virgil A. Miller and Tasha Cole are both serving as the chiefs-of-staff for two political figures in Congress.
Miller, a Palm Beach, Fla. native, works for Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-New Orleans). He says his daily routine consists of briefing the Member on administrative matters, interacting with constituents, meeting with stakeholders and overseeing the overall direction of the office.