On Black Respectability (and the Moment I Realised It To Be a Lie)

The ideology of respectability politics is one which has been sold to black people as a solution to curbing the negative stereotyping and racism they face. Prominent figures such as Bill Cosby and, more recently, Piers Morgan, have essentially argued: “Hey, black people! If you stop sagging your pants and using slang/African-American Vernacular English (including the subverted use of the word “nigger”), then white people will respect you more.”

For the longest time, I internalised this message.

My conduct was that of which I believed white people would approve.  I succumbed to my teachers’ demands that I speak proper English in class – which I coupled with a “proper” accent – rather than my uncivilized mother language. I relaxed my hair because although it was not as amazing as Caucasian hair (as social standards dictated), straight hair was prettier and tidier than, or at least not as unkempt as, nappy or “kaffir” hair, as my afro would later be described.  Instead of being vocal or assertive about my injustices, I remained docile out of fear of offending my white peers.  And who likes loud, angry black people anyway?

And then MXit happened.

For the young, old or uninitiated, MXit was the ancestor (or at least aunt or uncle) of mobile IM applications, one which you could – or “can” if you haven’t graduated to Whatsapp, BBM and such – use to both keep in touch with friends and family, as well as meet new people. For a socially awkward individual such as myself, meeting and chatting with people electronically was rather ideal*.

Meet new people I did, a significant portion of whom were white. I would have a lot in common with them, from my taste in music (predominantly punk, rock and metal), my interest in video games and certain extreme sports such as BMXing, skateboarding, surfing… well, you catch my drift*. And I would make sure to use proper spelling and grammar, partly for my own interest, but also to avoid being mocked for being stupid or butchering the English language, as was the case when I mispronounced words and such.

I would form kinships with these individuals. We would chat every day after school, talk about the day’s events, laugh at silly things, and even confide in each other about the things that weighed us down. Then the moment I came to dread (and which would later be repeated in my Internet interactions) would arrive:
“What race are you, by the way?”
“I’m black.”
Occassionally, I would get the odd, “Oh, I thought you were white!” or “But you listen to metal!”, but the outcome was always the same: I was deleted forever.

All of this culminated into a moment of realisation that respectability is, in all regards, a lie. Whether I’m quiet or loud, into rap or rock, use proper grammar or not, or have natural hair or a weave, to the racist, I will always be just another “kaffir”. Hell, even Barack Obama, the Harvard-educated lawyer slash president of the world’s global superpower, is still called a nigger ALL. THE. TIME.

But perhaps what angers me most about respectability politics is its insistence on blaming black people for the oppression to which they are subjected. Like rape culture, respectability blames the victims and hold them accountable for the racism they endure. “Oh, a black person was shot? Was (s)he wearing a hoodie or a suit? Were their pants sagging? What were they expecting walking around looking like a thug?” and so forth. If it’s not okay for rape to be attributed to the victim’s attire, where and when they were walking about etc., then it is certainly not okay for racism to be blamed on black people.

I will close this post with a tweet which summarises what is so problematic about politics of respectability:

And no one, regardless of race, gender or class, should have to behave in a certain way to be treated like a human being.  Dignity and respect are not options, but basic human rights.


*I must note, however, that my choice in hobbies did not revolve around white people. Just putting it out there. Okay, cool.


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