The Mental Health Implications of Respectability Politics

Photo by  Anthony Notes  on  Unsplash

Photo by Anthony Notes on Unsplash


It is #minoritymentalhealthmonth! Last week, I wrote about the value that can be added to your life by minding your business. I know some people may have felt some type of way about that, but I invite you to examine why, before you slide into my DMs because you are upset. Anyway, this week, going on in that same vein, I want to speak more about respectability politics.

Politics of respectability is a phrase that was coined by Evelyn Higgenbotham in 1993. The idea here, is that one monitors and presents oneself in an acceptable, pure, chaste, respectable, albeit Eurocentric, way. The goal in presenting oneself in this way is to ensure that the discrimination that is otherwise received due to sex or skin color is mitigated by being the height of respectable, which is not only not expected from people of color, but also is in opposition to what is believed and taken as universal truths. My understanding, from Tracie Gilbert, is that politics of respectability was a strategy used during the civil rights era to ensure that white people could not denigrate Black people because of the way they dressed, the way they behave sexually, the way they behaved in public, etc. Basically, you act just like white folk, but have darker skin. You wanted to be so much at the tip top of your Eurocentric performing game, that any blowback you received as far as police brutality, discrimination, or racism was seen as a direct result of white people being racist and being discriminatory, and in no way being a reflection of you, your presentation, and/or your character.


Respectability politics are not currently being used as a political strategy today. They are mostly used to shame people for not behaving how dominant others want them to act. Bill Cosby’s whole Pound Cake Speech, for example, was to blame Black folk for racism because of how kids names are given, how we dress, etc...sounds like racism to me, but eh! However, there are lots of people, regardless of race, who believe that somehow people are less than because of how they dress, do their hair, how vocal and boistrus they may be in public spaces, etc. If they “look” or “act” Black (whatever that means) there is something wrong with them. Well, at least until someone in the dominant culture (i.e. white) says that something is okay or acceptable. Need I remind you of “boxer braids,” Kim K’s butt, Angelina’s lips, or the “discovery” of cocoa butter, shea butter, and coconut oil? But, I digress.  

Individual to Community Impact

Oftentimes, I would say that many of us don't even recognize that we adhere to any levels of respectability politics. Why? Because we often go through life on autopilot. We are not fully present or engaged in our multitasking lives. Though respectability politics may have once been a strategy to get by, it is now something that is talked about when we try to police someone for being who they are in all their glory. Last week, we spoke about the benefits of minding your business and how what we are truly doing is policing one another to be who we expect someone who is respectable to be.

On an individual level we police ourselves. We admonish ourselves for our behavior. Correcting ourselves for being too loud, changing our clothes because it’s too “urban,” or not “work appropriate.” Trying to tame our hair because it is too wild and not work appropriate. We tame our language, change our walks, switch up our vernacular, and otherwise make ourseles smaller to the point of disappearing. It is never something that can be kept up for long periods of time. That’s why so many researches have all kinds of names for it Jones and Shorter-Goodman called it “shifting,” others call it code switching. It’s how we learn to change ourselves to adhere to the dominant culture. It can make us not only feel smaller, but lead to a certain level of anxiety. You are literally (purposefully or not) changing up how you present in order to make others comfortable. In order to fit in and be seen as someone who is worthy and worthwhile. If constantly worrying about how you are being perceived isn’t anxiety and even panic attack provoking, then I don’t know what is. (I am a therapist, so I am gonna go out on a limb and say that I do.) The act of constantly taming and making yourself smaller can make going to work or even leaving your house feel daunting and even more exhausting that doing the work itself.

But we take that exhaustion and anxiety and get snippy and down right mean. We are now looking at others in all their glorious freedom and want to cage them the way we feel caged, not only the cages we give ourselves, but the ones that are foisted upon us because to survive and thrive, you often have to forget who you are and be who is acceptable. Sometimes we cage others out of love and want for them to do better than we have done. To be able to achieve more because they are better able to traverse white spaces. But really, we are giving people a life of being exhausted because they have to act in socially “acceptable” which basically mean diminishing ourselves in favor of whiteness. We long to be the melting pot, to erase all the things that make us individuals, and different, and interesting, and fun, in favor of being a monolith.

While writing this, I found this TedTalk on the very subject. Check it out here

Sexualized Respectability Politics

Now, you know that I am a sex and relationship therapist. As such, I also want to make sure that we talk about sexualized respectability politics. As has already been said, white people have been made the stick by which all others are measured. This is not just with how you behave in public, per se, but also how you behave behind closed doors. Though, maybe you have already noticed in your daily life or in other situations. One of the first things we want to do when a woman, especially a woman of color has hurt someone’s feelings is call her a “hoe,” or otherwise say something is wrong with her sexually. The respectability politics in sexuality are usually based in how someone looks-- including how attractive they are, the size of their body, the clothes they wear, etc. A person may feel threatened by how free someone else is in what they wear or how they behave. This is based in respectability politics and in turn is based in racism.

In the case of Black people, the stereotypes often given have to do with increased sexual prowess to the point where men are insatiable sex horses from whom white women must be protected, while Black women are sexually insatiable creatures who cannot be raped. Basically, saying that the sexuality possessed is base and “animalistic.”

The use of politics of respectability in this context would require Black people to be sexually chaste. Well, this would be more for Black women. They will need to present themselves as being sexually pure and chaste. Black men, are still men, and men are still seen as being sexual beings, with the right to express that sexuality however they please. However, Black men have to walk an even more fine line in still being presented as sexual beings while at the same time being seen as non-threatening, safe.

Regardless, politics of respectability and the subsequent need to shift or code switch don’t help us to appreciate diversity and what someone brings to the table. We are working so hard at being homogeneous that we find it difficult to appreciate what makes someone different, bold, or refreshing. Funnily enough, we might appreciate it at first, but then in our “love” for it, we then try to cage what we once found to be so beautiful. Almost like we want to own it or keep it to ourselves and not allow others to breathe in the free glory of it all. Or worse, we want to stifle it because we cannot fathom being as free ourselves. With regard to mental health, constantly shifting who you are and trying to adhere to the respectability politics instead of being all of who you are, can make you feel paranoid, like you are not yourself, and exhausted. It can lead to feelings and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and being discontent or feeling stuck.

Community Impact

When everyone is trying to put on a front to be less than who they are so that white people can be more comfortable with them, what ends up happening on a community level is that we are constantly policing each other. On a global level, we become stifling and unable to accept how diverse we are, even within groups--I mean how many times has someone doubted your blackness? Said something you do is not authentically Black like your hate of Mac n’ cheese makes you an anomaly? It is not enough that we can be limited by the very nature of dealing with white supremacy or the stereotypes that are foisted on us, we must also bring that within the community. And I get it! There are still those who believe that if we were to dress, present, speak, act, and overall be a certain way, that we would earn the respect of those in power while at the same time being able to protect black bodies. It sounds like a good deal, you get to maybe get the job, make a little bit more money, while protecting yourself from state-sanctioned police brutality. But when has it ever worked that way? And is not the mental health burden enough reason to stop? Many of us don’t know who we are without these politics in place. We have defined ourselves in the context of whiteness, whether in opposition to or in favor of.

Protecting Yourself: Steps to Take

1. Recognize and identify if you change yourself according to where and who you are with.

2. Recognize and identify if you try to police others, and the origins of the policing

3. Consider, who are you when you are completely alone, with family, with friends

4. Consider, if there is a difference between the various versions of yourself and if it feels comfortable for you to be “different” based on where you are and who you are with.

5. Choose a route that honors who you are and what you want. There is no need to change if you are comfortable. I just want you to consider if you feel like you diminish who you are to make others comfortable, what purpose it serves, and if it is something you feel comfortable doing. This way, not only do you recognize who you are, even in the face of respectability politics,but you are actually making a choice on if/when you want to continue to present in that way. This makes it about you and your conscious choice and less a reactionary reflex. This is the act of knowing yourself as an individual and not only within the context of whiteness.


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The book by Jones and Shorter Goodman is called: Shifting, and can be found in the "Black Beauty" section of the AnnodRight Amazon Page (you can find other book recommendations there too!