Respectability Politics Aren’t So Respectable


In 2004, Bill Cosby remarked “Are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up” to supplement his point that black men are not good fathers or role models for their children because of how they appear.

Telling someone to “pull their pants up” does not do as much good as you think it does. In fact, it does the opposite. Although people should take note of where they are, having sagging pants does not mean that you should not be taken seriously or respected. It does not give the ultimate title of thug; it is just what society finds unacceptable. On the other hand, when girls’ bra straps (and other undergarments) show, they are automatically given a slap on the wrist.

Respectability politics —when members of a marginalized group police their actions into being more “mainstream” or “acceptable”—undermine the actions of that specific marginalized group. It does not add to the conversation; it detracts from it. It gives the dominant group of people in a community more power, and it shames the marginalized group.

Black people use respectability politics to police one another’s style of dress, attitude and to denigrate each other’s personalities. Pants should be belted at the waist instead of lower on the butt. Hair should be neat and permed. Dresses and skirts should stop below a certain length. Shirts should not be revealing. Proper English should be spoken. This is done in order to assimilate as best they can with the white community. It has the idea that if they look a certain way, respect will come.

A person’s value should not come from how they look. However, we hear and see many comments on this saying “If he pulled his pants up, more people would take him seriously” and similar comments. Many activists of the Civil Rights Era wore suits, but they were still brutalized despite the nonviolence of it’s members. Politicians wear suits, but that does not mean that they do not have the potential to be bad people.

Recently, their have been ordinances and laws passed to ban saggy pants in Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parrish, Ocala, FL, Pikeville, TN, and Hampton, GA with the punishment starting with fines to awaiting a judge’s order to jail time because sagging pants have been deemed as “disrespectful.” In 2008, Obama stated that he believed that pants should be worn at the waist, but did not believe that there should be laws against it since there are other, “real” problems out there.

Everything that is claimed to be “respectful” is anti-black. For example, certain schools have restrictions on hair. A school in Oklahoma banned one of its students because she had dreadlocks.  Their dress code stated: “Hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” Dreadlocks are not unnatural to black communities; neither are afros. The code insinuates that hair cannot be natural for the student to be admitted.

Something similar occurred in the United States Army as well. The only hair styles that were allowed are ones that are similar to white hairstyles. Twists, dreadlocks, and large cornrows were all banned in the military as they downsized. However, Black hair grows differently than the “norm” of white hair which they use as a baseline. Black hair has several different textures, but most of it tends to be curly and difficult to pull back into a bun (or any other hair style deemed as acceptable) without having to chemically straighten it, and black women who serve — any one who serves — should be able to wear their hair as they see fit. They shouldn’t have to change it to look “neat” because to them, their hair is neat.

The whole idea of respectability is not only seen in racial occurrences either. Sex workers are typically not respected because of their services. Women are not respected because of either what they wear or who they sleep with. Gay people are not respected because being gay is “unnatural.”

However, if you see a certain group of people one way, nothing they say or do will be able to change your mind. If you see black people as criminals, they will be crimanals no matter what they wear.

Respectability politics assume that the problems faced by marginalized group can be solved by the marginalized group. The problem is not the marginalized group; it is the people around them. Not everyone respects themselves in the same way, nor do people have to be uniform in order to get respect. People should be accepted for who they are instead of what society wants them to be.

Published by

Ashley Elizabeth

Ashley Elizabeth (she/her) is a writing consultant, teacher, and poet. Her works have appeared in SWWIM, Rigorous, Mineral Lit, Sante Fe Writer Project, Knights Library, and Kahini Quarterly, among others. In June 2020, Ashley was the featured writer at Drunk Monkeys. She is also the author of the chapbook, you were supposed to be a friend (Nightingale & Sparrow). When Ashley isn't serving as assistant editor at Sundress Publications or working as a member of the Estuary Collective, she habitually posts on Twitter and Instagram (@ae_thepoet). She lives in Baltimore, MD with her partner and their cat. Once COVID is over, they plan on going on a foodie road trip.

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