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.