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Respectability politics and dress code advice

26 Feb 2018

Wikipedia defines respectability politics as “attempts by marginalised groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference”. In the black community, this can include efforts to distance ourselves from the stereotypes of loudness, hyper sexuality, criminality, poverty, lack of education and overall “ratchetness”. And this coping mechanism is used mainly for survival purposes in the workplace and other sections of wider society.

So, this is a no-judgement zone, we’ve all done things like attempting to employ a racially ambiguous “phone voice”, felt awkward about wearing our natural hair to work or pretended not to know the words to *insert popular Stormzy track* when asked by our colleagues. The use of respectability politics, though admittedly problematic, allows us to assimilate and live somewhat easier lives in an environment that often uses tired racial stereotypes to isolate, ridicule and limit those of us of a darker hue. So, do what you gotta do, and in the words of our esteemed colleague Tupac Shakur, “I ain’t mad at ya!”.

My gripe with respectability politics is not so much with our use of it for assimilation and survival but rather with its use within our community to police and judge each other. I particularly dislike the disproportionate focus on the choices and overall existence of the black woman. The standards of “respectability” are defined by the most powerful group in any society, and in most places that is straight, white men. The further you are from that demographic, the tighter the restraints are on your existence for you to be deemed respectable.

“Black women seem to have drawn the short straw here… we’re judged not only on the respectability of our race, but also on the respectability of our womanhood”

Needless to say, black women seem to have drawn the short straw here. For us, this pressure is doubled and we’re judged not only on the respectability of our race, but also on the respectability of our womanhood. Endless feminist literature speaks of the disproportionate restrictions placed on women’s expression of sexuality, dress codes and lifestyle choices. We are told that our worth and right to autonomy is dictated by the respectability of these aspects of ourselves. Our careers and even the way in which we sit, stand and our sense of humour is constantly under intense scrutiny.

I am a proponent of what I like to call “realistic intersectional feminism” (not very catchy, I know… it’s a work in progress). Whilst I recognise and pick apart the injustices of racism and of the patriarchy, I don’t believe that the best way to fight it is to live as if it does not exist. This approach is Utopian at best and impractical at worst. Casting my mind back a year or two, I remember a raging Twitter debate about comments made by Erykah Badu, discouraging school girls from wearing short skirts due to the attention it would attract from older boys and men.

Similarly Steve Harvey’s advice to young men about being courteous and unthreatening to police in a conversation about police brutality was not received well by activists and followers of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the sphere of academics, activists and allies on Twitter, both incidents were seen as examples of respectability politics and victim blaming. I however, understood both messages. (Stick with me please, it’s not what it looks like…)

“Growing up I have always been chastised for and advised against wearing revealing clothes, mainly by my mother and aunts”

The issue with these messages, in my opinion, is not the content, but rather the audience and the unintended consequences when they fall on the wrong ears. This became clear to me recently in a very heated conversation with my closest male cousin and my mother. Growing up I have always been chastised for and advised against wearing revealing clothes, mainly by my mother and aunts. Their reasoning was understandable, as most women have first-hand experience of the intensity and frequency of male attention, both positive and negative, that women receive when wearing such attire.

Though the details of this conversation are hazy, my cousin articulated the view that women wearing revealing clothes want a certain type of sexual attention and treatment, a viewpoint which is not uncommon. Due to my fiery and filter-less nature, the conversation regrettably blew up into an argument and ended badly. However, upon reflection I came to the conclusion that his viewpoints are a result of the unspoken messages received by young men.

“The unspoken and implied message received by young men in my cousin’s position is that those who dare to show some skin are ‘asking for it'”

He grew up in an environment where he heard black women policing each other’s dress codes and behaviour based on the sexual attention it attracts. Such advice between women of different generations has an element of practicality which I think is important, but it also reinforces common judgements about the character and desires of women who choose to dress a certain way, particularly when constantly discussed around men and boys.

The unspoken and implied message received by young men in my cousin’s position is that those who dare to show some skin are “asking for it”, “it” being, anything from lingering stares to catcalls to full on sexual assault. Similarly the unspoken message transmitted through Steve Harvey’s “advice” is that black men are at fault when they are killed by police as a consequence of non-compliance.

As a “realistic intersectional feminist”, will I tell my future daughters about the discomfort of the heightened male attention that comes with wearing revealing clothes? Absolutely. Will I let my sons and nephews hear me? Absolutely not. I think that with discretion we should find safe spaces to equip young women with understandings of misogyny, racism and respectability which allow them to make informed choices about how to live their best lives. This however does not negate our collective responsibility to dismantle misogynoir and raise better men (but that’s a whole other story).

In short, adhering to what can be seen as standards of “respectability”, though problematic can sometimes be useful in understanding and navigating the world we live in. However much more harm than good is caused when such discussion falls on the wrong set of ears without a detailed and nuanced critique.

As black women we should be able to wear and do what makes us happy with eyes wide open and an understanding of the oppressive structures and attitudes working against us. It’s extremely important to me that we allow black women the freedom to follow their hearts’ desires and exist at different parts of the ‘respectability’ spectrum. We can be loud, quiet, overtly sexual, sexually conservative, academic, creative, ‘ratchet’, ‘boujie’ or all of these things at once and still be deserving of love and respect.