The Limits of Respectability Politics
What does it require of us? Has anyone ever pondered that? I recently have been stuck on this thought, does Black respectability politics ask too much of us? When Black Americans interact with the world, is it fair that they are most take on the role of emissaries or ambassadors for the entire race?
When I was in college, I felt this I was one of a handful of minorities on a majority white campus and one of the few not there for athletics. That came with stereotypes that clashed with others’ thoughts on why I was there, and I felt it was my role to challenge those stereotypes. That is a lot to take on and, for many exhausting. But I believed that while we strive for a color-blind society, where merit and content of character determine success, we are not there and race and stereotypes still exist so we have to promote respectability politics. But my time in college also coincided with the election of the first Black President, A Black RNC chair, and multiple Black Americans filling leadership roles in the public and private sector that did not move the needle enough.
The thing is, Black respectability politics (defined as adhering to the mainstream of appearance, behavior, cultural norms, and so on) fails to account for something racist. I still believe in respectability politics, as it has achieved some success for us, but we have to acknowledge its shortcomings. 1) Racist individuals will always use the worst example, action, or moment of a marginalized group to justify their bigotry. 2) Racists will segment out what they think are the good ones or exceptions to the rule. Think about this even those who achieve success and follow are one bad moment away from being told they set their group back. I’ve heard it about Obama and his comments on race, Tiger Woods and his infidelity, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, and so on.
I write this because I think we need to rethink how we think about race and grace. I think we need to allow people to make mistakes and examine our views about one another. Are we race-blind if every misstep is seen through a racial lens? Does Black respectability politics work if one slap ends all the progress and gains of a race? Would this be said of other groups? I think you know the answer. I hope Will and Chris sort things out. Maybe other Black leaders should get involved, but I also hope we all sort out our thoughts on race too.
( One last thought. A Black man and Abolitionist was the most photographed man of the 19th century. Frederick Douglass met with presidents and was an amazing orator and writer. Booker T Washington established the Tuskegee Institute. There have always been examples of Black excellence, and we let racists off the hook when we justify their bigotry.)