Disrespectability, Black Feminism, and a Race to the Bottom  

I do not endorse respectability politics in so far as it is an ineffectual strategy for countering white supremacy, or any other structural subordination (say rape culture), through sheer will and demonstration of moral uprightness, in accordance with the values of a dominant group in society. It does not work.

I do however understand its roots in ‘progressive-era activism’. Evelyn Higgingbotham has written at length on the promotion of temperance, polite manners and sexual purity in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1800-1920. Here she describes respectability politics as ‘reform of individual behaviour as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform.’ (Higgingbotham, 1993, p187). Paisley Jane Harris also writes a critical review of respectability politics in Black feminism through an engagement of three different sets of research on the lives of African-American women. Harris cites respectability as ‘standards of temperance, sexual restraint, and neat appearance in their attire and living space in order to ensure access to jobs, housing, and, eventually, equal rights.’ (Harris, 2003, p214)

Respectability politics has been a community wide rhetoric, but the particular burden of that performance has fallen especially on the shoulders of Black/African-American women. It therefore makes sense that critiques of respectability are a necessary defence of Black women who struggle to live in ways that feel individually liberating; more so when these choices do not conform to social convention.

But, I want to suggest that some of our intraracial conversations about the lives of Black women are not about respectability politics, even though this may be the language we are using, we are actually engaging in politics of disrespectability.


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