These days, black people will try any and everything to avoid racism and white supremacy. We have negotiated, bargained, attempted to conform, done battle, and have lived in denial of its existence and impact on our daily lives. Because Black people as a whole are not a homogenous group, and process the abuse of racism differently, some have come to believe that changing the way you present yourself, particularly African American men, can blunt the impact of racism in our lives.
I learned about the theory of respectability politics in one form or another throughout my life. The belief that if you present yourself in a proper, intellectual, and “safe” way, this will not only protect you from the evils of racism, but it will make white America see you as a good, smart Black person. Not one of them ghetto hoods that everyone fears. The biggest part of respectability politics has been the clothes.
In many discussions about fighting for equal rights and defeating racism, what you wear has always been of importance. Older Black people regale stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and SNCC looking prim and proper with their suits and fedora’s marching throughout the south, holding sit-ins, and demanding equal treatment.
A man who had lived during the Civil Rights movement would ask, “You see what they looked like? They looked good, presentable, like they mean business! The men didn’t have their pants hanging off their asses and big T-shirts, and hair looking crazy. They were clean cut, so the white man could take them seriously!” I remember conversations like these because they steered the way I acted and dressed in the world. I wanted the white man to look at me as an equal. So I would not dress thuggish. I wanted good service in a store or a restaurant, so I stopped buying pants two sizes too big. I wanted to be accepted.
As I began to study racism, I reflected on many past experiences. When I wore a suit, I was still harassed in supermarkets, ignored in department stores, looked at as a criminal by almost every white woman over 40, and pulled over excessively by police officers for a faulty tail light. I would later realize that was code for DWB (or Driving While Black). I got treated the same. The clothes didn’t make a damn bit of difference.
What practitioners of Respectability Politics don’t tell you is that there is no data that proves if a Black person is dressed professional, he or she will be treated any better than someone in a hoodie and basketball shorts. Also, Martin Luther King Jr. and many of the Civil Rights workers were attacked, brutalized, and killed while wearing suits. Going back even further, many pictures of Black people being lynched were also in dress shirts, slacks, and ties. This proves nicely dressed negroes were still hung.
I believe Respectability Politics is in its essence, a form of victim blaming. It is a weak-willed way of looking at life instead of identifying the real culprit, the number one reason why black men are viewed as dangerous: racism and white supremacy. The refusal to be honest within the society that we live in has caused us to look inward. “There has to be something wrong with what we are doing!! If we can’t change our skin, how about our wardrobe?? Pull them pants up! You don’t want them to be looking at you as a criminal!”
In one of the saddest examples of Respectability Politics, Lawrence Otis Graham, a well-known lawyer and author, showed his children’s newest wardrobe. In a video clip, Graham highlighted the many dress pants and tennis sweaters he bought for his son. Graham said the reason for these recent purchases was to “make sure his sons didn’t end up like Trayvon Martin.” Rza of the Wu-Tang Clan has also subscribed to this theory, telling his son to “take off the hoodie and put on a blazer. Make them look at you differently.” Earlier this year, educator Steve Perry and comedian Steve Harvey held a “manhood bootcamp” with the US Army for young Black men, shaving off their dreadlocks and braids to make them “more employable.” The two Steve’s, along with Graham and Rza actually believe that clothes will save their sons from being profiled, a haircut will make them more acceptable, and a tie and jacket will stop them from being killed. What if the kid comes home bloodied and bruised while in a collared shirt and khakis? God forbid a young man is lying dead while in a suit. What will we say then? Will we turn our fingers pointing at us and turn them in the opposite direction, to the real problem?
When I think about dressing and presenting oneself in a certain way to avoid mistreatment, I thought about the young lady who was gang raped in New Delhi, India. Many mothers and older women marched through the streets with signs saying “teach your daughters how to behave at night.” Women were telling other women to wear different clothes that would not make them susceptible to rape. Essentially saying to other women, “it is your fault for wearing revealing clothing.” I sat back and thought about this. Men are not being held accountable for their actions? Is this some kind of alternate universe where the blame is placed on the rape victim and not the rapist? I thought this was absolutely ridiculous then and my thoughts on the matter have not changed. That’s what Respectability Politics tells us – black people, it is your fault. If you just straighten your clothes, speak without Ebonics, act more white, and pull up your pants, you will be accepted. Then none of these killings would happen.
As I walk through downtown San Francisco in my sports coat, oxford shirt, slacks, and monk strap shoes, I am aware of who I am. I do not fool myself that these clothes make a huge impact in how I am viewed, nor do I make a conscious decision to change that perception. At some point, Black people will have to do away with the cowardly train of thought that is respectability politics. We will have to realize that it is not the clothes that we wear that makes us a target, it is our skin. A Black man is a Black man, whether he is in a business suit or prison jumpsuit, we are all viewed the same.
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