Though the left and right, Democrats and Republicans alike, choose to believe they are vastly different from one another, one problem comes up across the political spectrum: the use of respectability politics. As it’s used today, respectability politics can be defined as “what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.”
The term was coined in Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s “Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920.” In the fight for equal rights, some people in minority groups attempted to distance themselves from the negative qualities that the majority — the white population — stereotypically ascribed to them. In Higginbotham’s book, she describes how black women attempted to gain respect in their movement by building schools and social welfare programs, as these were deemed to be respectable methods of resistance.
On the surface, respectability politics appear harmless, even beneficial. One may feel that it makes complete sense to behave better if you’re seeking better treatment. But in reality, respectability politics are a tool for keeping oppressed populations oppressed.
Opponents of respectability politics, such as myself, argue that this practice is problematic because it shifts blame and responsibility from the oppressive group to the oppressed. Rather than pushing for the group in power to stop reinforcing racism, sexism, etc. and make meaningful change, respectability politics tell us that the historically oppressed group must police themselves in order to stop being harmed.
This isn’t just another fancy term. Respectability politics permeate many facets of everyday life. It takes form when we talk about victims of police brutality. Some people will say the victim “deserved it” because they carried themselves a certain way or they talked back to the officers — things that are harmless, but are deemed dangerous. It can be seen when we tell young men not to sag their pants if they want people to respect them. Former President Barack Obama was criticized for using respectability politics when bringing up issues of black criminality following the verdict in Michael Brown’s case.
The problem is that not doing any of these things — being disrespectful to officers, sagging your pants — won’t actually save you. We’ve seen the police hurt people even when they do all the “right” things, like Philando Castile. We’ve seen “respectable” black men still be treated unfairly, like Sen. Tim Scott, a black senator who said he was pulled over by law enforcement seven times in one year. This shows that no matter how many times an oppressed group tiptoes, says “excuse me” and “thank you” and gets college degrees, those issues will still be there. No amount of “respectable behavior” actually mitigates racism.
Respectability politics simply don’t work, and people need to face that so we can stop dividing our communities. I even see it practiced on this campus whenever there’s an incident that prompts action against the administration of Binghamton University — there are always talks about what the “appropriate” way to act is. More often than not, it leads to inaction. Respectability politics take the blame away from the perpetrators of oppression. It makes us focus on the mode of telling our message rather than the message itself. And through it all, it hurts our communities.
Let’s stop tone-policing and actually get something done.
Sarah Molano is a junior double-majoring in English and philosophy, politics and law.