We Must Abandon Respectability Politics

Daniella Brito, Contributing Writer

After reading Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, my initial reaction was to become my most respectable self in order to dissolve and challenge the stereotypes and caricatures of Black women. A fear of the promiscuous, predatory stereotype that Jezebel perpetuates clouded all of my attempts to assert sexual agency. Within her biomythography, Lorde brings to light several highly critical insights. Most resonant with me, however, were her references to everything that Black women are socialized not to be: queer, hypersexual and powerful. Lorde points out that the media has historically cast Black women to seem hyper-aggressive and hypersexual, which threatens existing power structures that place Black women at the bottom of the social ladder. As a Black woman, I initially felt that I could not allow myself to be vulnerable or hypersexual but that I must assert myself with a specific amount of power to disprove the media’s misrepresentation of my race and gender. I felt that to amass power by eliminating elements of my identity that have historically been used to devalue Black women was to reverse harmful stereotyping and to thus ward off the possibility of seeming weak or unintelligible — to evade patronization.

The limited number of powerful women in the media tells me that to achieve success, I must be my most respectable self. However, these standards are defined by white American standards of decency. The model of respectability is the straight, cisgender, Christian and non-disabled white man. My understanding of what makes a woman respectable is largely influenced by images of the white, passive, dutiful 1950s housewife tending to her husband’s every domestic need. Anti-Black advertising that promotes skin-lightening creams and hair straighteners acts as the perfect platform for social control, capitalizing on white-American beauty standards that establish and promote perceptions of beauty, femininity and purity that are destructive to the Black woman’s psyche.

This is where a large distinction must be made between Black and white feminists. Black femininity has been socially conflated with promiscuity in the same sense that white femininity has been equated with purity. Constructions of white femininity have not been made out to be inherently impure or vulgar. We cannot afford to look at the construction of womanhood through any lens other than an intersectional one — one that recognizes and celebrates the differences in women in terms of race, class, gender, ability, age and sexuality. The femininity of Black women has either been characterized by white America as a fallacy — seen in the overused “Mammy” caricature — or as coercively sexualized by a media that does not offer roles beyond the “sassy” Black secretary or the sex worker. We should work toward eroding the debilitating narrative that has been historically forced upon Black women, belittling our existence and diminishing our agency.

There is no simple way to eradicate these harmful caricatures. Respectability politics — the self-inflicted policing of the social values of minority groups in order to achieve a consistent image of respectability — aids white supremacy. It rejects our sense of agency in constructing our own identities. For now, I have decided that it is my responsibility to assert the threatening parts of my identity without hesitation. Reclaiming power and control over my identity will challenge the limiting narrative of the Black woman. For me, this means addressing my sexual identity just as fervently as my racial one. Historically, Black men and women who have articulated their queerness within the context of Black civil rights movements have been deemed a threat to the greater movement. Such criticism not only marginalizes queer identities but also disregards the importance of difference as a unifying force. Homogeneity within any social movement is debilitating because it produces a single narrative to describe an identity.

This week, after International Women’s Day, I am left with a newfound sense of hope. I’m optimistic that adopting an intersectional lens to address sexism, racism and homophobia — among other factors that contribute to identity — will trump respectability politics, which has, for too long, contributed to the erasure of identity and agency.