The problem with respectability politics

When there is injustice or abuse carried out against black people one of the responses we usually see is “Oh well if they did this then we would treat them like this… ” or “If they didn’t do this then this wouldn’t happen”. This is respectability politics. This is a form of racism. It’s the carrot and stick approach to induce certain behaviour in black people, which is basically if you do what we want you to do then we will reward you, if not we’ll beat you with a stick although in our case we may get killed. Black people are not the only group of people to experience the carrot and stick approach from society (see trans, gay, Muslims), however black people are the focus of this article as we are one of the few groups that is still being killed when we don’t adhere to society’s expectations of us.

In a way to help us receive the carrot and not the stick people (including other black people) have told black people “fix up” and it’ll stop, “work hard” and you’ll get what you want. Which on the surface level this is true, it makes perfect sense that if you act politely people will treat you with respect, if you work hard you will achieve your goals. However, we don’t not live in a perfect world, and people are choosing to deny that there are people who will hate us just because of the colour of our skin and will treat us less than them.

No amount of good grammar or dressing well will change a racist persons mind. Let’s think back to the incident that happen in France on the Paris Metro when a black man tried to board the train and some Chelsea fans would not let him on and begun to chant “We’re racist we’re racist and that’s the way we like it”. This man was not dressed like a ‘thug’ neither did he say or do anything inappropriate, he just being black.

Now this is a small incident in the grand scheme of things, the man obviously got on the next train and apart from the shame and humiliation of the moment I assume that he is ok today. However let’s go further how many people have been shamed, humiliated or even physically harmed for just being black and then when they told someone about their experience were asked given a tip for how to avoid this in the future, which implies that we are the ones doing something wrong for simply existing. Respectability politics tells black people “you must be on your best behaviour in order for people to be comfortable with your presence”.
Imagine if one of the men who was racist to the black passenger attempting to get on the Paris Metro was the hiring manager at a company and a qualified black person comes in for a position that they are well-suited for do you really think that someone who is comfortable displaying brazen acts of racism is going to hire said black person? No! So in this case what respectability politics can said black person employ to be treated as an equal? None. None, because racists do not have a problem with the things black people do, they have a problem with black people. Why else would black girls wearing canerows (I refuse to say cornrows) be called ghetto but when white/asians/Latinas do it it’s edgy? Why when black boys sag their trousers they’re called thugs but when white boys do their hipsters or just being a tad bit rebellious? Because these things originated with black people, I remember seeing a post that said:

If Black people started wearing suits and ties they would be seen as thuggish clothes

We’ve seen this time and time again, in hip hop when rappers started talking about Cristal the owners wanted them to stop because they were ‘detrimental’ to the brand which led Jay-Z to boycott the brand. This shows that society has deemed blackness synonymous with negative so that anything we like is bad and if we dare create anything it is savage, thuggish and senseless (see hip hop, our hairstyles, our slang ), well it is until a more respectable race takes over (see Iggy Azalea -no shade because I love Fancy).

I think people mean well when they suggest things we can improve in ourselves in order to receive better treatment from society. The thing they overlook is that the fault is not in black people the fault is in the system that views black people in a negative way. Maybe they don’t know that black men have been well-dressed in suits and they were still shot like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, black women were submissive and obedient but were still raped and tortured like the black female slaves. If we are all equal why are black men sentenced to longer sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts, why are black students treated more harshly by their teachers? As the Huffington Post says “Thus, all teachers, regardless of race, are more likely to think a black child, as compared to a white child, is a troublemaker.” This is because of society’s continuous narrative that says “Blacks are savage animals and should be treated as such, don’t associate with them, treat them more severely as they are not full humans like us”.

Leaders of March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom marching w. signs (R-L) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, unident., Eugene Carson Blake, Martin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, Matthew Ahmann & John Lewis.  (Photo by Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Leaders of March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom marching w. signs (R-L) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, unident., Eugene Carson Blake, Martin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, Matthew Ahmann & John Lewis.

We need to stop pointing the fingers at black people and find the root of the issue at hand, because the government and the media has been blaming us for our issues as if they are not a result of the systematic oppression and racism that black people have been receiving for many years. Many groups have been victims of this systematic oppression but black people have a unique situation as every marginalised group had also partaken in the discrimination of black people even Israeli’s and Palestinians who are victims of discrimination still find time to discriminate against black people.

We need to find solutions to change the system not black people. As history has shown us we can try and conform to the standards society has set but our skin colour will always betray us and leave us at the bottom of the barrel. As a society we need to set up and enforce solutions to fight the discrimination and negative stereotypes that are perpetuated about black people, as these are the problems that need to be fixed not black people. Like every group in the world the black community has problems that need to be addressed and there are many improvements but if you think that a young man wearing a hoodie and sagging his pants or a black woman being loud means they deserve to be killed then I’m sorry but you are the savage not us.


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