Away With the Respectability Politics

Updated on March 25, 2019

In today’s world, it is not unusual to turn on the news or see on Twitter an oppressive act against minorities. These events caused by people in the majority can consist of violence, prejudice, or even murder. Whether it includes race, gender, or sexuality, there is no doubt that discriminated groups of people face a lot of judgment from people outside of their group. However, on top of dealing with discrimination from outside groups, prejudice also exists within marginalized groups. This is expressed through respectability politics, which are defined as “the set of beliefs holding that conformity to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a member of a marginalized or minority group from prejudices and systemic injustices” (Dictionary.com). By stripping away the use of respectability politics, we will be able to measure progress within an oppressed group via the diversity within that group.

"By stripping away the use of respectability politics, we will be able to measure progress within an oppressed group via the diversity within that group."

The issue of respectability politics is something that is extremely relevant in society today. With the widespread use of the internet and social media, it is easy to look on your phone and see what other people are doing. This accessibility to others also makes it easier to critique people who go against the “norm”, whether it be their appearance or their actions. When these criticisms occur within an oppressed group, it has a significant impact on the person being judged, as they are also facing judgment from sources outside of the oppressed group. For example, in the black community, it is generally not acceptable to be gay. Due to this, black gay people face the oppression of being gay on top of the discrimination against blacks. In other words, respectability politics help further prejudice.

"This accessibility to others also makes it easier to critique people who go against the 'norm', whether it be their appearance or their actions."

If people in discriminated groups know what it is like to face oppression, why is oppressing someone else through respectability politics such a popular issue? This can be for multiple reasons, such as the discriminated oppressor does not know the harm they are causing, or they are simply a judgmental person. However, the most likely reason is that these critiques are seen as beneficial to the discriminated group as a whole. As mentioned earlier in the definition about respectability politics, a lot of times policing others for their actions and behavior is to benefit and protect the person being policed. This is because those who follow mainstream society rarely cause conflicts since they are doing what is seen as normal. This need to be socially accepted is even more urgent for discriminated people, since following the norm makes it is easier to fit in in a world where they already stick out. By following the rules of society, oppressed people believe this predictability of behavior will prevent discrimination. However, by following the mainstream and expecting everyone in the community to act a certain way, the problem of discrimination increases and the progress for equality is damaged. The progress of equality can be measured through the diversity within a discriminated group. This is why Du Bois’ fight for the Negro college is so significant, as it allows for blacks to receive an education not previously available. Du Bois explains, “The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and co-operation” (Of the Training of Black Men, 319). Not only does he present the purpose of the Negro college, but he also describes why this college is necessary. He writes:

Above our modern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect; there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development; that will love and hate and labor in its own way, untrammeled alike by old and new. (Of the Training of Black Men, 319)

Respectability politics destroy this minority diversity as they punish members of an oppressed group who do not follow the status quo and fit in with the other members of that group. This punishment for being different only encourages the idea of categorization, which allows people in the majority to categorize, or stereotype, a certain type of group.

"This need to be socially accepted is even more urgent for discriminated people, since following the norm makes it is easier to fit in in a world where they already stick out."

Diversity within a discriminated group is something that should be encouraged, as it prevents stigmas from being associated with everyone in a group. Allowing people in oppressed groups to vary in appearance and behavior inhibits this idea of categorizing minority groups. In history, it is common that the people who do something different than their peers make progress. For example, what type of progress of equality would have been made if Martin Luther King Jr. had followed everyone else and did not speak up about his beliefs, or if Rosa Parks had decided to follow the status quo and sit in the back of the bus? Some people believe that being considered socially acceptable will keep a discriminated group safe, but in reality, the minorities who fight against the societal norms are the ones helping reach the goal of equality. By taking away these categories of oppressed groups, it will be easier to reach equality, since people will start to be seen for who they are and not for what society assumes of them. Du Bois believes that in the future culture will defeat social injustices as he claims, “That the present social separation and acute race-sensitiveness must eventually yield to the influences of culture, as the South grows civilized, is clear” (Of the Training of Black Men, 317). He illustrates for us that the more diversity there is within a group or culture, the more progress that group has made.

Respectability politics are something still prevalent in everyday life. Whether it is women criticizing other women about the way they dress, or gay people criticizing other gay people for being too feminine, there is still a lot of work to be done to eliminate the use of these respectability politics. However, there are steps that each one of us can take to help stop the use of respectability politics. First, if someone in a discriminated group is policing someone else in that same group for appearing or behaving in a certain way, simply telling that person that what they are saying is wrong and that we should allow people to be who they want to be is a way to combat respectability politics. However, this approach may cause confrontation, which is why a more effective, passive approach of leading by example can be helpful. If a discriminated person chooses to express themselves and live without following the societal norms expected of them, this freedom of expression will spread to others, encouraging them to also be themselves. By just simply being ourselves, we can demonstrate that we have something unique to contribute to society and that we should be considered equal to the majority. On the other side, if we choose to play into the role the majority has scripted for us, then we are only perpetuating categorization and ruining any progress towards equality.

Similar to most efforts of progression, the stairway to equality is a long and gradual process. With every news report of a hate crime or a prejudice-motivated action, it may seem like the promise of equality is unrealistic. As Du Bois states, “Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push” claiming how the fight for progress is filled with numerous setbacks (Of the Training of Black Men, 312). However, no matter how slow or difficult, progress is progress. Minority groups already suffer with enough inequality from the majority, and further oppression within a minority group only hinders the progress towards equality. If we take away our judgment of others, especially those within the same minority group, we will be able to help people fully express themselves, creating a space for diversity and freedom. By presenting different qualities within a group that is categorized by the majority, the stigmas associated with that certain group will not hold true and will start to slowly fade away. Once this happens, the prejudice inside and outside of discriminated groups will also go away. Even though it may take years of hard work, and there may be numerous setbacks along the way, as long as we stop our judgment towards others and end our use of respectability politics, we will reach a future of equality.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. "Of the Meaning of Progress", "Of the Wings of Atalanta", and "Of the Progress of Black Men". Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. David Bartholomae, Anthony Petrosky, and Stacey Waite. 11th ed. Boston/New York: bedford/st. martin's Macmillan Learning, 2017. 291-324. Print.

“Respectability Politics.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/respectability-politics.

Questions & Answers

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      • bradmasterOCcal profile image

        Brad Masters 

        3 weeks ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

        Do you have any real life examples to show, or is this just an abstract concept?

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