Say No to Respectability Politics

 

 

woman with black and white sweater with pants sitting on black leather sofa beside red painted wall
Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

As a Black woman,  it has been implied  to me that because I “spoke so well” and “behaved myself”, I wouldn’t have it as bad as other Black people who “didn’t” however  despite all of that, I  have faced  microaggressions and been called the n word as I walked down the street on my way to lunch.  As a woman, I was told to not dress in certain ways so men wouldn’t harass me however I have been cat called on the street even when I was 9 months pregnant.

Respectability politics is a term coined by author and professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. While the term is relatively new, the concept is old.  It is telling an oppressed group that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.

 The practice of respectability politics is a problem because it shifts blame and responsibility from the oppressive group to the oppressed.  Respectability politics tells us that the oppressed group must police themselves in order to stop being harmed.  This is of course not true because no matter how you carry yourself there is a chance that someone will exhibit racist, sexist or negative  behavior towards you. I’m a Black woman who probably would be defined as respectable however I have experienced racism and sexism no matter what I’m wearing or how I’m speaking. Dressing a certain way or speaking a certain way won’t save you so just be yourself.

Microaggressions at Work

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Being a Black woman at work often means dealing with microaggressions from other co workers.  This is a list of  common ones and how to deal with them.

1- When White people think you’re the help-  This happens often because people often don’t  except Black women to be in corporate or professional positions.  While we should never believe we’re above people in service positions always be assertive in telling people who you are when they assume you’re the waiter, waitress or bus person..

2-When your presence disturbs them-  For some reason many people are afraid of Black women especially if we raise our voice or seem assertive.  Don’t make yourself smaller to please anyone, always stand tall and speak your truth.

3-When your hair seems to be the talk of the office-  Why do they always want to touch our hair?  If you’re not comfortable with anyone touching your hair say please don’t touch my hair, I’ve done this before, they will get the message.

4-Your voice is heard but not acknowledged-  You say something then your White co worker says the same thing and somehow they’re acknowledged.  This is extremely frustrating.  Speak up and make your voice heard.

5- When you’re stereotyped-  Have you ever had a White woman co worker run to management crying because you corrected her?  I had this happen with an intern I was supervising and I was told to be nicer to her.  The tears can be annoying but remember they often cry because they don’t want to stand up to you and are afraid of your greatness.

It gets frustrating dealing with this stuff but no matter what remember you’re fabulous.

 

Talking About Race With Your Children

On August 11,  White nationalists marched on the campus of the University of Virginia in protest of the removal of a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee.  This led to violence and the death of a young woman and also a resurgence of discussing race relations in the United States.

Some people say  that “racism doesn’t exists anymore” or “All Lives Matter” however continued evidence is provided to show that this is a myth.    Segregation is technically over however our society continues to have overt and covert examples of discrimination and racism.  I have recently witnessed some disturbing comments and views from people who are therapists about race, racism and discrimination which has shown me that we have a very long way to go.  For most parents in particular Black parents, this brings concerns about the safety of their family and when should they  have a conversation about racial differences and discrimination..

For most parents of color, talking about race is a natural progression of being a parent  in America.  These conversations are often difficult for both the parent and the child.  It’s important to discuss the differences in racial identity with your children and do not fall into the belief that “we don’t see color ” or “we’re all the same”.  These statements are not helpful or factual.  We all see color and we’re not all the same.    It’s important for  parents to discuss with their children that they need to treat others with respect and also explain to their children about racism and discrimination.  Parents of color should also discuss with their children how to react in racist situations or when confronted with micro aggressions.  Speaking about race with our children has many positive effects such as children are more respectful of other racial and ethnic groups and they will recognize and respond to racism and discrimination.  When talking to your children, it’s important to recognize your own views on racial issues and also be ready to manage your emotions in order to help your child.  It is also helpful to share your experiences with racial discrimination and prejudice.    While this is a difficult topic, it is very important that we discuss it with our children.

Racism and PTSD

Post traumatic stress disorder usually makes us think of  combat veterans or terrified rape victims, but new research indicates that racism can also be a cause of PTSD.   I’m focusing this on the Black community since that is the community I know most about since I’m  a Black woman in the United States however other people of color may also suffer from PTSD and racism.

Racism-related experiences can range from frequent “microaggressions” to blatant hate crimes and physical assault. Racial microaggressions are subtle acts of racism,  these can be brief remarks such as “You’re not like other Black people”, vague insults, or non-verbal exchanges, such as a refusal to sit next to a Black person on the subway. When experiencing microaggressions, the person  loses  mental resources trying figure out the intention of  the one committing the act. These events may happen frequently, making it difficult to mentally manage the volume of racial stressors. The unpredictable and  often anxiety-provoking nature of the events, which are often  dismissed by others, can lead to victims feeling as if they are “going crazy.” Chronic fear of these experiences may lead to constant vigilance  which can result in traumatization or contribute to PTSD when a more stressful event occurs later.

While most people can understand why a violent hate crime could be traumatizing, the traumatizing role of microaggressions can be difficult to understand, especially among those who do not experience them.   Many African Americans also often wonder if what they’re experiencing is a microaggression and often worry that they will be perceived as being overly sensitive.

Studies also show that African Americans with PTSD experience significant impairment due to trauma, indicating greater difficulty carrying out daily activities and increased barriers to receiving effective treatment.  Racism  has also been linked to other problems, including serious psychological distress, physical health problems, depression and  anxiety.   A strong, positive Black  identity can be a potential protective factor against symptoms of anxiety and depression, but this not adequate protection when the discriminatory events are severe.

Trauma can also  alter one’s perceptions of overall safety in society.  Black people with PTSD have been found to have lower expectations about the positivity of the world than Whites.  This adds to the suspicion many Black people have of the motives of Whites.

Once sensitized through ongoing racism, routine slights may take an increasingly greater toll.  Microaggressions, such as being followed by security guards in a department store, or seeing a White woman clutching her purse in an elevator when a Black man enters, is  another trigger for racial stress.     I’ve experienced microaggressions myself on many occasions.  For example,  once when I was a social work intern making home visits, I had to visit a White family in a predominantly White area in New York City,  and one day the family had a visitor and asked me to hide in another room because they couldn’t explain to their friend why a Black woman would be in their home.  I remember feeling helpless, angry, and confused.  I  felt that I had a good relationship with this family and couldn’t believe they wanted me to hide, when I visited other families, if anyone came over they would introduce me as a friend or a social worker for their children.

Sometimes I wonder how people continue to remain resilient in the face of ongoing, undeserved discrimination. Within the Black community, positive coping with racism may involve faith, humor or optimism.  These cultural values have allowed African Americans to persevere for centuries even under the most oppressive conditions. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that we can “fix” people to enable them to manage constant, ongoing acts of prejudice with a smile, and ask them to be perpetually polite, productive, and forgiving.  I believe we  need a shift in our social consciousness to understand the toll this takes on the psyche of victims so that even small acts of racism become unacceptable. We  also need people who witnesses racism to speak out and victims to be believed.