You Can't Win With Respectability Politics
While I’m writing this blog post I’ve got Michael Jackson dancing as the scarecrow in my head from his post where the ravens would talk all that smack. My boy couldn’t win, and you can’t either, unless you change your mindset. (If you didn’t know, I am talking about the Wiz. smh)
What do I mean?
Well, I was reading the comments from someone I don’t know on Facebook about a video of a guy punching a dude for being racist. Now for me, I ain’t necessarily about ass whoopings, but I understand why someone would want to lay out another person for being belligerent in their face. I get it. There is only so much any individual can take. Anyway, the point is not to support or admonish the puncher, but it is to address what someone said in the comments. She said “we shouldn’t play into their [white folks] thoughts of us.” White people don’t need help being racist. The least important factor for this guy laying the smack down on his candy ass is “what will white people think?” We should think about the consequences of our actions as far as going to jail, being a good example for our children, someone could really get hurt, that violence often doesn’t solve anything, etc. but the idea that anyone’s first consideration is “what would white people think?” is dumb. Racist white people are going to think what they want to think regardless.
The basic message from that comment was don’t be what white people stereotype Black folk to be. Don’t be loud. Don’t be violent. Don’t be overly sexual. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be unkempt. Don’t be overly “ethnic” or too “urban.” Don’t be___________. Really you could fill in the blank with just about anything. The “don’t be” implied that instead of being ___________(blank), instead you should show them that we are: quiet, peaceful, smart, well put together, pure and chaste, and in so doing, prove that we are worthy human beings who can and do adhere to the [white] rules of society. Prove that we aren’t what they say we are so they can see us as actual people and not base-savages. Prove to them that we are civilized and worthy of full inclusion in to their version of “American society.” But, like I said, with that mindset:
YOU CANNOT WIN!
If you play your hand according to what white folk stereotype Blacks people to be, you confirm them. If you don’t act according to their presumptions, you are the “good” negro. You are the anomaly. You are soon to be the token Black, invited to the vestibule of the party, often mistaken for the waiter, even within the small space you are allowed to take up. All the while you are asked to bend over backward to cater to white thoughts and feelings. To be the petting zoo. To play the part of the exceptional negro. You will always be asked about your brethren and when they may finally be civilized. You will be subject to proving daily that you are still the magic negro they picked up, dusted off, and GAVE a good life to. Conversely, acting as they expect you to act, keeps you exactly where, in their minds, you belong. Your slice of the American pie will continue to look like jail bars and low wage positions. Your slice will be overpoliced, under represented, and ignored until they can figure a way to purge your ass right outta here. Mind you, even if you are the magical negro, you will STILL be subject to the over policing etc. that you think is deserved of them but not of you. You will never be allowed to progress past them. You will always have to remember your place.
See how in either scenario you don’t win. Even worse, your hoop jumping or proving them “right” will be emotionally exhausting. Because you aren’t being yourself. You are playing into respectability politics or playing into stereotypes. All in all, you can’t enjoy your life for you because you are literally busy living for someone else.
I eat chicken and watermelon because I like it. I watch the Sound of Music because I love it. I am loud because in a world with a melodic cacophony, I want to be heard...and I’m Nigerian American. I was raised on yelling celebrations that sound combative and anger filled. I cannot change who I am to suit the whims of others. They will hate me anyway. Those who don’t like you are NOT looking for reasons to be in your good graces. They are only going to look to confirm what they already feel. For those who think I am an oreo, my watching the Sound of Music with joyful rapture is confirmation. For those who think I am a pampered princess, they will see confirmation with the way my parents love on me. For those who think I am a backward, savage African, it will be confirmed with my booming voice and my dancing as I eat my tasty chicken (or goat meat). If they are going to hate anyway, you might as well BE YOU, SIS. Whatever that means. Let us experience you in all your glory. Wear those fantastically bright colors. Do your happy dance while you eat. Show the fullness of your emotions from joyous glee to frustrated rage. Be you! That doesn’t mean be destructive, or blah blah blah, it means stop damping down who you are just to please someone else.
As a Black (sex) therapist, all I see are people struggling. Struggling to fit themselves into the spaces they have been allowed to occupy and no more. Women who are shamed or being who they are because they are so called giving the “good” black folk a bad name. People who are literally asking for permission to live their lives or asking if they are even allowed to live for themselves. Women are often told their “place.” Being a Black woman or a WoC often means being considered subordinate to men, and also being subordinate according to race. Even within that, there is a hierarchy according to skin tone, hair texture, body size, being cis or not, being trans or not, etc., even if we want to kumbaya ourselves and say our collective struggles are the same.
Stahp it! Just because the struggles aren’t the “same” doesn’t mean they don’t have similar impact. It’s okay to acknowledge that our struggles come from white supremacy without trying to say all experiences are the same and hold equal amounts of crap. The point is that the weight of shame from not fitting yourself into the box or for “erroneously” being yourself fully is still shame! It hurts. It’s draining. To not be yourself is hurtful and draining. To have people tell you that you should be ashamed for who you are is hurtful and draining.
For those who are giving the message of shame, to be less than you are, to be ashamed of who you are, what do you gain? Mind Your Business and just Be you. Do you.
Look, I’m Just Sayin’
I understand the realities. Being ourselves is dangerous because we are literally being killed in these streets. But here is the other thing, I don’t see a real difference in those being killed. They are quiet, loud or in between. They are dark and light skinned. They are self and/or publicly identified men and women. They are trans and cis. They are a spectrum of color and their crime will continue to be their identification as Black folk. The crime with continue to be not being what a white supremacist patriarchal cis capitalist society desires. The unwanted. They are still subject to the racist and sexist mindsets of those in power. They are fodder for play.
The least we can do is live our lives for us. Let that be our act of defiance. Living out loud. Living our lives to their fullest potential in the face of hate. Living our lives with love and support from each other. Do it all with your full being. Yes, it is scary, and it is still necessary. Radical self love and living are game changers. No, I’m not talking about self love being a game changer for the white “other” and what they will see. I am talking about what you will see. What you will experience. Respectability Politics won’t save you. But loving on you despite the rhetoric might. Protect your mind, your body, and your spirit. Be all that you are, not to spite anyone, but because you deserve it.