Respectability politics refers to the ways we as a community police ourselves and attempt to align ourselves with what the mainstream deems as appropriate rather than challenging the mainstream for refusing to accept us as we are. Respectability politics lead to statements like “pull up your pants if you want respect” or “stop sagging your pants”. This can also be applied to situations where people suggest that women should cover up more if they want to be treated with respect.
All of these statements and the ideas that motivate them are contrary to the goals of fighting racism and fighting sexist discrimination. They help nothing because they assume that the onus is on the oppressed individual to “earn” respect — which isn’t possible. MLK was still shot. The most “respectable” women in society are still subjected to sexism.
In the Caribbean specifically, respectability politics run rampant. It’s almost an addiction. It is nearly impossible to get anything productive done as an activist or as an individual when we are so constrained by the extreme conformism that our society enforces. Especially since this conformism serves no practical function and it does absolutely nothing to bring an end to women’s oppression, economic oppression or racist oppression.
This obsession with respectability only exists to assuage some mythical master who we have invented and who we must heel to. We force ourselves into boxes to fit certain molds not because anyone says we have to but because we are conditioned to believe that people deserve abuse for not conforming. This is of course… unethical and wrong.
Conforming to global white supremacist values will not stop the fact that our population is largely of African descent, and largely of a poor socioeconomic class. We cannot use societal approval to fix our social problems. If we all dressed up in our Sunday best and behaved our absolute best… It would change nothing. Systemic problems are not changed by being more respectable.
Respectability politics in West Indian schools mean that there are excessive rules about taming natural hair but there is very little education for young women on how to navigate a world stacked against them. We focus on minute details of physical appearance — nail length, skirt length, hairstyle — than we do on protecting young black children from abuse. We care more about how black girls wear their hair that how they are treated by society. This is just one example of how respectability politics functions in our academic system.
We also see respectability politics in the ways the children school uniforms are heavily policed. Appearing to adhere to an invisible and stringent code of conduct ends up being more important than students health and well-being overall. Teachers and educators may obsess over how children look in school, but there is very little done to assist children who are being abused, who have difficult home situations or those who may suffer from learning disabilities.
The school system isn’t the only place where we find respectability politics playing a harmful role. Once women are out done with school, there are a series of unspoken societal rules we are expected to live by. Women who do not adhere to the standards of what is seen as respectable are often said to be deserving of abuse and other kinds of negative treatment from individuals and from other societal structures.
For example, in St. Lucia there is a rule that no tank tops are allowed to enter certain government buildings. Many St. Lucians seem to believe that any pushback against this rule is totally unacceptable. The only reason they believe so is because of respectability politics. They believe that you need to present yourself in a certain acceptable manner to be deserving of government services. However, the government is not there to serve only the most respectable people in our society. It is there to serve everyone. A dress code for civilians to use government services is purely discriminatory — and again, unethical. The theme of a lack of ethics from our ruling class is a common one.
Such a rule exists only because pompous people make rules because they can. This rule serves no practical purpose.
And that’s the thing about respectability politics in general. There is no practical purpose. Wearing a tank top or a long-sleeved shirt to a government building makes absolutely no difference to who you are as a person. Just like wearing your hair natural or straight has no impact on how “neat and tidy” you are.
There is a message abound in respectability politics that inherent in blackness is dirtiness and inherent in womanhood is lasciviousness. This propels respectability politics. There is absolutely NOTHING forward thinking about it. Dressing up the same old bad politics doesn’t make it progressive. Hopefully moving forward, as a society we can push back against respectability politics.
People do not need to dress a certain way or to look a certain way in order to be respected. We should live by the Christian values that most claim to uphold. We should respect people regardless of how they look. We should love every one of our civilians equally and treat them with the same respect with which we would like to be treated. No more paying lip service to these values– it’s time to put this into practice.