The Harm Respectability Politics Can Cause Black People

etiquette book laying in green grass
Via Pixabay
Briona Lamback
May 29, 2024

When Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote "We Wear The Mask" in 1895, he described the use of respectability to disguise our true selves for survival in an anti-Black world. These three lies about respectability are still harming our people today.

Lie #1: Respectability Protects Us 

 Code-switching is a coping mechanism often linked to respectability as a way to survive racist systems. But “being nice” or “dressing like a lady” doesn’t protect us from the often fatal realities of racist institutions like policing. Respectability shifts the blame from police who murder our people to those of us murdered for not being "good" enough Black people. 

Lie #2: Respectability vs. “Bad” Black People

 When we perpetuate respectability politics that ridicule the behaviors of another group of Black folks, we aren’t any better than the people we are attacking. People considered  "too loud" or wearing hair bonnets in public should not be accused of "making us all look bad."  There’s no such thing. Jazz is one of our greatest contributions to the world, but some Black people once frowned upon it because they thought the genre “made us all look bad."

Lie #3: Respectability Is Our Responsibility 

  We resorted to respectability for survival, but it works against our people, shifting blame from anti-Black, oppressive systems onto us.

We don't need to combat stereotypes about ourselves at every turn. The world needs to change, not us. We should keep being our beautiful, Black selves.