The Politics of Respectability is a Myth

By Featured Blogger Curtina Simmons

There has been much discussion lately about the “Politics of Respectability”. It is a concept as old as dirt that has been defined and redefined since the 1800’s. From what I’ve read and heard, its primary focus has been the behavior, appearance and the criminality of Black people. While exploring this concept, I decided not to frame this discourse in academic rhetoric but offer a common sense analysis on the mindset of elitist, educated Black people who launched this construct of self-hatred and inferiority upon Blacks of “lesser means”.

My question is: “Why do some of us hate our cultural heritage?” Yes, we are African descendants, ,but our culture is that of an African-American which is quite different. Our cultural heritage was born out of slavery and the will to survive. Out of all the cultures and ethnicities in America, why is our intelligence, our appearance and our behavior always cited as being inferior and unacceptable?

What is it about us that is so repulsive that we seek to replicate the appearance, behavior and attitudes of our white counterparts? Other cultures generally cling to those attributes that reflect who they are. It seems that we tend to run from ours. There is nothing wrong with enculturation because Americans are sharing their culture with each other more than ever today. However, there are many elements of our cultural heritage that need to be and can be preserved.

Indicators of “respectability” change over time with each generation. In comparing and contrasting patterns of respectability the 40’s and 50’s come to mind. Women wore hats & gloves. They always wore stockings and young girls wore socks even in the summer months. Outside of work, men wore hats, ties and suits for most occasions. Women didn’t wear pants to church, work or most places. It wasn’t until the early 60’s that girls wore pants to sporting events. There was no such thing as a pant suit unless you were Greta Garbo, a well-known 30’s actress and Hollywood icon who wore custom designed men’s suits on occasion. It was interesting the way she wore those suits with hats, heels and furs. Garbo had a very distinctive feminine aura and mystique about her.

Men opened doors for and tipped their hats to women as a greeting. Most women didn’t smoke or drink in public unless it was a private club, a supper club or a “juke joint” in the south. It wasn’t proper for a woman to attend a social affair i.e. dance, formal banquet, etc. without a male escort. During that time period, women were referred as “ladies” and men as “gentlemen”. In Black households husbands and wives, in the presence of others, would reference each other as Mr. or Mrs.

The desire to be acceptable was so strong among African-American men and women, that they worked tirelessly at altering their physical appearance. There was not a Black woman who did not own a “straightening comb and a curling iron” . An invention that made Madam C. J. Walker the wealthiest Black woman in America at that time. Madam Walker’s company trained beauticians and licensed them as shop operators. Some Black men had their hair “processed” using a lye mixture to straighten it out which often resulted in severe burns to the scalp. Let’s not leave out the skin bleaching creams that left many Black people with pigmentation problems.

You’ve heard all the references and coded language that refers to Black people with a negative inference such as “thugs in the hood”. Which brings up the issue of criminality as a way of life for Black people. In my opinion, it is a false premise because criminality knows no borders it’s found in every culture and ethnicity.

Many Whites see criminality as a major obstacle to success in our culture because of the disproportionate number of Blacks that are incarcerated. Some believe that criminality is genetically inherent in Black people. Not taking into consideration judicial prejudice, the lack of a competent defense, legal advisement and encouraged plea dealing. The reality is if you don’t have the money to hire a competent lawyer you will likely spend time in prison whether innocent or guilty.

As far as I’m concerned, the politics part of this issue is nothing more than nuance. For most African-Americans, all of the “bells and whistles”that are supposed to create the pathway to success boil down to a non-starter. How do you change generational taught racism and practice? How do you deal with poor self-esteem and self-hatred? These are my questions. In my opinion…it has to die and this concept of “respectability politics” needs to die with it. We need to redefine what “decency” is and what it means to us.

For those of us who’ve had access and opportunity let us not forget our humble beginnings. While we sit on our elite perches of relative success let us not forget our brothers and sisters who, for whatever reason, have not been as fortunate. For the educated Black elites, who think that others haven’t tried hard enough…”get over yourself”. You too are not considered the cat’s meow in a white man’s world. Our Black people don’t need to be told how inept they are because their lifestyle is different from yours. They need encouragement not disdain or to be degraded by what you think you know. We all are still in reality learning mode.

One of the things that has puzzled me for some time has been the attitude of some Black people about the food choices we’ve made over the years. It’s a given that many of these choices were unhealthy. However that isn’t the issue for me. The issue is what is the difference between eating snails and fried frog legs and the innards of a pig? Can you eat a fried chicken wing or leg with a fork? Or better yet what is the difference in eating watermelon off the rind rather than in a bowl? Why are these choices so degrading and considered shameful?

White America, your behavior, appearance and criminal instinct is no different than that of other cultures and ethnicities. It is no less or any better. Other cultures don’t need instruction on how to improve themselves. For starters ,the terms Black and African-American are used interchangeably among us. Neither reference infers socio-economic or educational status. Black people don’t need your approval to live as they choose. If you are white and this “shoe” doesn’t fit then these comments are not applicable to you. Social media has revealed how misinformed and under-educated many white Americans are. It must be noted here that no one culture or ethnicity owns “superior intelligence”.

I still have hope for a more productive future for those yet unborn. Why? Because our young Black men and women of today have taken on the struggle for equality. What is refreshing about their resolve is their mantra of “no excuses”. There is no passivity in their effort to bring about change. They are comfortable in their Black skin and confident in their ability to make a difference. They are intelligent and educated. For me that’s half of the answer. The other half is for them to define.

All Cultures and ethnicities want mutual respect and equality as humans in lieu of being judged as unacceptable because of skin color, language and lifestyle. America is not a homogeneous society even though some of us still think it is. If we are to survive as a nation every culture and ethnicity must be able to maintain their heritage, exercise the same rights and privileges as others, and participate in the democratic process.

The End!

Curtina is a Retired university administrator and professor. She is a blogger, political junkie and urban youth consultant. Contact Curtina at and follow her on Twitter @moaninmary

(c) 2014 Curtina Simmons

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