Philosophical Exceptionalism and the Politics of Respectability, II

In this post I want to present a little genealogical work on respectability politics, in order not to carry it too far from the conditions out of which it was produced, or – if I do – to be accountable to that. If, as I claimed earlier, that the work of pluralism is negotiating the distinction between failure as fecund, and failure as wounding, with attention to who is made to bear that distinction, then attention to the ground out of which this concept grew is important part of that work.

Respectability politics is a theoretical analytic traceable back to the Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higganbotham. In her book, Righteous Discontent, which describes the role that black women in church organizations and clubs played in setting the norms of respectability in the project of racial uplift, Higganbotham argues that

“Respectability demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines. The goal was to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes. Individual behavior, the black Baptist women contended, determined the collective fate of African Americans… There could be no transgression of society’s norms. From the public spaces of the trains and streets to the private spaces of their individual homes, the behavior of blacks was conceived as ever visible to the white gaze” (198 – as quoted in Boundaries of Blackness, 72).

E. Francis White, in Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability, describes the contradictions of respectability politics:

“On the one hand, women in clubs and church organizations used respectability as a discourse of resistance… Ironically, by censuring African Americans who did not behave in ways that black club and church women considered proper, these women helped authorize racist stereotypes. In some ways, they worried too much about what whites would think about black people… Black club and church women also used the white gaze as a tool to regulate black behavior” (36-37).

Respectability politics can be both a discourse of resistance and at the same time an oppressive discourse. If black folks are racialized as stupid or lazy, then it is resistant to prove white supremacy wrong by being well educated and hard working. In a culture that affords no dignity, it is resistant to insist upon one’s dignity. This can at the same time mean that, even if it doesn’t seek integration, respectability politics seeks assimilation to white norms. And because identities are constituted multiply, this means that the policing of behavior integral to respectability politics has differential, and oppressive, effects on women and gays/queers.

These oppressive effects of respectability politics are analyzed by Cathy J. Cohen, in Boundaries of Blackness. There Cohen argues that the particular focus of respectability politics on sexuality had the effect of excluding homosexuality from this construction of blackness. This contributed to a pervasive denial about AIDS within the black community, endangering the lives of gay black men in particular, since it was impossible for them to adhere to the heterosexual norms at work in respectability politics; black gay men therefore thus fell outside of the construction of blackness it shapes:

‘…there was a silencing of, and a silence among, those who wanted to step outside the model of innocent victim to challenge their secondary position in black communities as well the inactivity of black elected officials in response to AIDS. Black women were allowed to speak as long as what they said did not threaten the respectability of community members, in particular black male elites. Highlighting stories on black women and children instead of, for example, black gay men is facilitated by myths that construct black women and children as community members who need and “deserve” protection and are not fully capable of independent group membership. This is an interesting contrast to many dominant narratives of black communities structured around the strong, black matriarch protecting or destroying, depending on your perspective, her family, and black men in particular’ (202).

One of the faithful proponents of respectability politics is the venerable comedian Bill Cosby. In a representative speech from 2005, commemorating Brown v Board, Cosby claimed black vernacular speech, wearing pants low and hats backward, and $500 sneakers were examples of black folks responsible for failing to adequately combat racist stereotypes. While most black conservatives don’t have the media access Cosby has, this kind of sentiment is not unusual. Nor is it universal. What is interesting about Cosby as a representation of respectability politics, however, is how comfortably respectability sits alongside accusations of sexual abuse. Bill Cosby is accused by multiple women of having drugged and raped them.

Insofar as respectability politics claims personal behavior as the site of reproduction of racism, it places the responsibility for combatting racism on the individual. This makes respectability politics uniquely suited for a neoliberal age. As Frederick Harris argues in “The Rise of Respectability Politics,”

“What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elite to ‘uplift the race’ by correcting the ‘bad’ traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans – but particularly for black Americans – the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.”

It is this neoliberal politics of respectability that can lead Geraldo to imply that Travyon Martin was responsible for his own murder because he was wearing a hoodie. It is this neoliberal politics of respectability that says that young black men can successfully combat joblessness, mass incarceration, and murder by turning their music down and pulling their pants up. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues convincingly that, “as in all cases of respectability politics, what we are really saying to black people is, ‘Be less human.’” The lesson of respectability politics is that, when white people say, “I don’t think of you as black,” that this is precisely the goal.

Under a liberal political paradigm, the politics of respectability might make more sense: it puts the lie to the liberal ideal of equality, challenging it to fulfill itself by extending its privileges to those who have been unjustly excluded from it. The performance of respectability is a sensible strategy against constitutive exclusion, in showing the grounds of exclusion to be baseless, on the claim that black folks can enact the same norms. Historically this was a successful strategy, but it came with a cost. It led to the further exclusions, such as that of black gay men – characteristic of what Cohen theorizes as advanced marginalization. And it is totally consistent with gender violence, especially intraracial gender violence – as liberalism is itself entirely consistent with gender violence (as Carol Pateman so masterfully shows).

These exclusions, and the politics of respectability as a strategic response, have the effect of essentializing, or shoring up the identities on either side by surpressing the internal difference on each side. This is on display in Mia McKenzie’s brilliant analysis of the feminist response to Beyoncé over at BlackGirlDangerous. In that post, McKenzie looks at the responses to Beyonce’s newest album across the feminist blogosphere. She sees the imposition of a troubling demand on the part of black feminists to defend Beyoncé against white feminist skepticism that she is a feminist, or feminist enough, to join the club. McKenzie worries that this has had a kind of essentializing effect: the need to defend Beyoncé against racist attacks on her feminism leads to the suppression of legitimate critiques feminists might have of Beyoncé’s expression of feminism on the album. She points to perhaps the biggest cause for worry: the inclusion in “Drunk in Love” of Jay Z’s (Mr. Sean Carter-Knowles, legally speaking) reference to a scene from biopic of the marriage of Tina Turner and her famously abusive husband/manager Ike, in which Ike forces Tina to eat a piece of cake by smashing it in her face. McKenzie finds the inclusion of this scene of domestic violence troubling, and expresses worry about a woman of color/black feminism that requires her to overlook this in order to defend Beyoncé. The point here is not the policing of feminism per se, but rather a kind of politics of respectability that reduces complexity, for the sake of rushing to support Beyoncé as a feminist in the face of racist mean girl skepticism. Instead of refusing the air the dirty laundry on Beyoncé’s own record, McKenzie argues for an understanding of feminism that goes beyond the essentializing politics in which it is embroiled: a politics that asks how much we should expect from pop star feminism, and how much more we could expect from a feminist pop star.

A similar dynamic is at work in the discussion of the NYT piece by Stanley and Weaver. While Stanley grants that the piece he co-authored with Weaver should have 1) included authors from within the black tradition, but also admits 2) that a more radical critique would not have made it into the NYTimes, specifically into the Stone column, and thus would not have had the impact the authors desired, Stanley is granting that their piece is shaped by the politics of respectability. First, by separating the issue of the inclusion of an author from the black tradition, and the issue of the substance of the critique, Stanley is at odds with the very critique that Curry and Drabinksi were making. That is, while Curry and Drabinski argued that they piece ought to have included voices from within the black intellectual tradition, given that the subject was racial domination as practiced against black people, they also argued that this was not a matter of simple liberal inclusion. Instead, they argued that turning to the black intellectual tradition and engaging it more fully would alter the frame of analysis in such a way as to de-center the liberalist frame upon which Weaver and Stanley rely.

Both of these are examples of how essentialism is produced through respectability politics, an essentialism that is produced by means of the constitutive exclusion along other axes. Respectability politics can police the sexuality of black people by excluding gay black men from the conception of blackness it animates; and it can well tolerate a spokesperson who puts the burdens of combating racism on the shoulders of individual black persons, while exercising his own exceptionalism against the bodies of black women.

So, while the politics of respectability may have been a reasonable strategic response to liberalism, it produces a whole nother set of constitutively excluded others. Under neoliberalism, those who could not be included under the norms of the older paradigm – because they constitutively excluded in virtue of their poverty, or their queerness – found out that they were on their own.