Welcome to April! This month, the I Am Free Agent blog will focus on the concept of Respectability Politics and the impact of Respectability Politics on black women in America. Respectability politics are about regulating life to the standards of the most privileged people in white America. The Politics of Respectability regulate sexual practices, family planning, cleanliness and order, education level, and public decorum. No group can avoid the scrutiny. The Politics of Respectability make life restrictive for women, regardless of race, but they make life doubly difficult for women of color. And, they make life triply, perhaps even quadruply difficult for women if they are, say, disabled or have non-normative sexual preferences.
As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham explained in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent, “Respectability functioned as a ‘bridge discourse’ that mediated relations between black and white reformers.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, black and white Baptist women collaborated to improve social conditions for both groups, and black respectability allowed them to be comprehensible to their white counterparts. Respectability Politics are just that, political. Politics have both positive and negative ramifications, and respectability politics are no different. The positive side of Respectability Politics is that they assured black folks during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras that there was hope of triumph over the oppressive racist structures under which they lived. The downside of respectability politics is that black Americans forced themselves to conform to the “virtues” of white society, hoping that by following the rules, they would “earn” their rights. The idea behind respectability politics for black folks is: “I will work to convince you that the racist stereotype you have of me is wrong.” In other words, respectability politics fails because it forces oppressed people to prove to their oppressors that they are worthy of freedom.
Higginbotham’s 1993 book centers the contributions of black Baptist women from 1880-1920 to the black church, their communities, and their nation. She writes that their “struggle for self-definition tells the story of African American women in the making of the church, in the making of black communities, and in the remaking of America.” The church gave these women a place for, as Higginbotham puts it, “coming into their own voice.” During a time when everything was changing socially, they needed something to hold onto, and they chose their virtue.
As a contemporary black Baptist woman, I am an inheritor of their choice to make black Baptist churches the center of their social and political lives. Even for black women who are not actively involved in religious culture, contemporary black women are expected to be moral barometers for the rest of society. We are berated for not being good enough girlfriends, wives, and mothers both in our homes and in society. We are derided for what we choose to wear. Hard work is demanded of us even when we do not receive fair wages in return. We are expected to be pillars of moral and spiritual strength. When we fall short, our shortcomings are said to be an affirmation of every misogynistic and racist stereotype with which we have ever been labeled. Who are our critiques you ask? For one, we critique each other. We also face the critique of black men. Then, of course, the rest of society gets their chance to take aim at us. We must be virtuous; we must be respectable.
My April posts will all focus on different sides of the respectability argument and will center black women. My first post will deal with respectability within the black community. I will discuss the need to claim (or discard for good) the terms “bitch” and “nigger” in our discourse. I will discuss the impact of the continued use of those words in popular culture by focusing on the use of both words in popular music. My second post will focus on purity culture. It will ask the question, “Who does the black woman’s body belong to?” My third post will focus on the professional life. It will center the voices of women who participated in the recent #BlackWomenatWork conversation. My final post will attempt to update or reclaim respectability politics considering our current social needs. In that post, I will dig into what intersectional respectability politics might look like as I do understand one of the failures of respectability politics to be its adherence to the standards of hetero-normative family life. Let’s get started.