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.
The Politics of Disrespectability
Yesterday columnist and cultural critic, Ferrari Sheppard posted the words ‘You are loved. You are enough’ as a caption to a picture posted by Amber Rose. It features her topless and facing down in a pool of water. Some of Sheppard’s followers responded in spat of anger/protest at what they felt was an expression of respectability politics.
Sheppard’s words were perhaps patronising, as I’m sure Rose was not actually asking him. This however is a common response from Black men. In fact, this weekend I had been contemplating the paternalism and condescension in Black men’s R&B female empowerment songs. Case in point one of my favourites from the early noughties, Eric Benet’s Pretty Baby:
Baby what you searching for
I’m pretty sure that you just don’t know ‘cause
You’re looking with your body, not your head
You’re brilliant and beautiful
But they don’t see when they take you home ‘cause
You’re just another notch that’s in their bed
Don’t lie to yourself
Don’t let them inside while your heart keeps crying
Show love for yourself
Discover your light where you’ll find me
(In the light)
Benet’s adlib ‘show a little self-esteem’ certainly doesn’t help things, and in the process of transcribing the lyrics for this article it has become apparent to me that he makes himself central to the protagonist’s well-being; ‘You’ll find me’ is quite a patriarchal conflation. But, Ferarri says ‘You are loved. You are enough.’ You are loved. You are enough. Which in my opinion has the potential to be a radical form of engagement between Black men and women. The disavowals following his words are curious:
Violent, misogynistic and abusive? I’m going to go with no. I’m not able to speak about Sheppard’s words in the context of his more recent general discourse. But I can say this is not respectability politics, which is: 1. focused on the white gaze; 2. premised as a prerequisite for full citizenship and 3. rooted in class distinction.
Bourgeois Respectability and anti-respect
We cannot ignore the predominant class analysis of respectability politics. Victoria Wolcott (2001) distinguishes between “bourgeois respectability” (which is my application in this piece of writing), and the ‘politics of self-respect’ that was a Black working class remaking of respectability in the context of an economic crisis. Working class Black women transgressed bourgeois respectability whilst forging cultures of respect grounded in racial pride. Rather than public restraint and decorum these Black women cultivated codes of self-respect through participation in religious communities; even whilst ‘breaking rules’ through gambling or prostitution etc. These women ‘were most concerned with the opinions of members of their own African-American community’. (Harris, 2003, p215) That is to say that participating in cultures of Blackness was a practice of respect and status.
There are things we can learn from the Black (feminist) women who chose to remain in the religious community whilst transgressing the rules: how to abide with discord and disagreement; Black (feminist) community cohesion does not have to mean consensus; that in accordance with the legacy of womanism, Black men (our fathers, brothers, uncles), and our children, can belong to the Black feminist community; cultures of self-respect allow us to be in conversation, to listen well, and to expect and require respect from one another.
Undoubtedly we are still reckoning with the politics of self-respect in Black communities. As part of the legacy of respectability, notions of self-respect continue to be used to curtail Black women’s sexuality. But, respect is part of the social contract. Esteem, regard for, and admiration are valid and valued expressions in our social relationships.
The rejection of respectability has – in some activist/intellectual communities, particularly so in the digital space – developed into a politics of disrespect. In their article ‘Disrespectability Politics: On Jay-Z’s Bitch, Beyonce’s ‘Fly’ Ass, and Black Girl Blue’ The Crunk Feminist Collective write:
‘And herein lies the conundrum. Black feminists have long pointed to the limitations of respectability politics, steeped as they are in elitist, heteronormative, and sexually repressive ideas about proper Black womanhood. When disrespect becomes where we enter, we confront a reality that is pretty dismal for Black womanhood. But when we enter at respectability, there we confront limitations, too
If you’ll permit me to put on my professor kangol and theorize for a moment, I think we must consider the potential in the space between the diss and the respect—the potential (and the danger) of what it means to dis(card) respectability altogether. This space between the disses we get and the respect we seek is the space in which Black women live our lives. (CrunkFeminists, 2012) Emphasis is my own.
Disrespect is the entry point for Black women inthis historical moment. A disrespectful image and projection of self – that is without regard to social norm, convention, or for others – is a widely used tool of liberation. Without the need for respect we can be as bad as we want. And by bad I don’t mean good. I mean that we can inhabit museums of our trauma. That we can engage in a stream of triggering online conversations readily. That if a man says – and his maleness is significant –she is (we are) loved and enough, we tell him we don’t need to hear that. If the implication is that perhaps she does not feel loved or enough, then despite our critiques of capitalist patriarchy as an environment that demands she feel that deficit, we say he has no right to suggest that. Because, we don’t need respect. Respect is an affront.
You are Loved. You are Enough.
One of the primary areas through which we have been recovering the deficit of respect is by eliciting desire. By all means I want us to cultivate a progressive sexual politics, but I’m not convinced that ‘Bad bitching’ and ‘thotfulness’ alone are realisations of our collective Black feminist vision(s). Disrespectability is a race to the bottom. Ultimately we are still reckoning with the ascribed Madonna or self-titled whore. We are working on being the best antithesis of a respected woman, but if that version of ourselves is predominantly expressed through our projected availability for sex, then we remain within the consumptive demands of capitalist patriarchy. However we choose to flavour it, we are still ‘selling hot pussy’. (bell hooks, 1992)
If Sheppard had talked about how hard his dick got looking at that picture of Amber Rose, there would have been no outrage. Nil. Perhaps there would be no cause. Rose knew the material economy she was operating in; arousal and erection are part of the transaction of that photograph. That’s her prerogative. But Sheppard wasn’t wrong. Rose’s individual agency does not nullify the impact of being reduced to parts only, for those of us feeling our way through this culture – for those of us who have hazardous interactions with others, with men in particular, because their whole diet is pussy and they’re clueless about what to do with thoughts, ideas and emotions, with eyes and ears.
In Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace bell hooks writes:
When Black women relate to our bodies, our sexuality, in ways that place erotic recognition, desire, pleasure, and fulfilment at the centre of our efforts to create radical Black female subjectivity, we can make new and different representations of ourselves as sexual subjects. To do so we must transgress traditional boundaries. We must no longer shy away from the critical project of openly interrogating and exploring representations of black female sexuality as they appear everywhere, especially in popular culture.’ (Hooks, 1992, p131-132).
As a young Black woman one of the places I saw non-traditional centring of the erotic in Black female subjectivity was in Toni Morrison’s early novel Sula. I recall being entirely mesmerised by how the protagonist would hold back her orgasms in sex with men, and save her pleasure for her own masturbation after. Likewise, I imagine Mara Brock Akil was hoping for a radical portrayal of Black female sexuality on screen when she filmed numerous scenes of Mary Jane in the throes of masturbation. The privacy of masturbation can be a site of knowledge. Of the kind of knowledge that we are loved and we are enough – a self-generated reality beyond the reach of not just the white gaze, but the greedy stare of maleness.
Rather than disrespectability, when married with our intellectual capabilities and our spiritual proclivities, the erotic (over the pornographic), can be a space of deep self-worth, of personal excellence and ecstasy for Black women.
Leona Nichole Black
Paisley Jane Harris. “Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women’s History and Black Feminism.” Journal of Women’s History 15.1 (2003): 212-220.
Victoria W. Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Bell Hooks, “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace” In Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992), pp. 61-77