Respectability politics relates to the efforts of people in marginalized groups to convince their own group members to conform to the thoughts, values and practices of those in the dominant group, instead of challenging those in dominant groups about their problematic behaviours. I’ve been thinking about respectability politics a lot lately because frequently I come across this as a social justice blogger, the administrator for a feminist community and a member of various other online feminist groups.
I am pretty upfront in my activism at times. I can be very direct and expressive. I see this as the Jamaican side of my identity. Some English people can struggle to deal with this part of my Jamaican identity because it differs so widely from notions around British respectability, where traits such as politeness and being reserved and accommodating are highly valued. Other groups of people besides those who subscribe to stereotypical English norms can also struggle to deal with some of my ideas and ways of communicating, especially people who think that those in oppressed groups always have to be super nice to members of dominant groups no matter how much oppression has come their way. I do not personally subscribe to the belief that people in marginalized groups always have to be nice and placate their oppressors, or conform to their oppressor’s value systems. This is clearly oppressive in itself. When it comes down to it, I guess I have more of a Malcolm X philosophy in my approach than an Martin Luther King one (not to discredit the work of MLK). What I mean by that is I prefer radical and confrontation methods in my activism much of the time. That’s just me.
Most of my opinions are diametrically opposed to popular belief and make people who are heavily indoctrinated in white supremacist heteropatriarchy but unaware of this, extremely uncomfortable. When this happens, these people get upset and try to make their personal responses my responsibility. They get even more upset when I refuse to take responsibility for their feelings and then they try to convert me to the ‘correct’ way of thinking (aka try to encourage me to adopt white supremacist heteropatriarchal values). I expect this to happen to me of course as an activist, but I’m always really saddened when people from marginalized groups that I belong to try to do this to me.
I receive respectability policing from other people of colour at times and also from other women. Respectability policing is, whenever it manifests, just an indicator of an internalized ‘–ism’ in an individual. Interestingly enough I’ve been getting a lot of respectability policing lately from fellow mixed race people. In my feminist community some of the most problematic people have actually, much to my surprise, been mixed race. I’m not trying to send a message out there that mixed race people are the most problematic. My feminist Facebook page focusses on mixed race issues and whilst I don’t know the actual page statistics with regards to race, I imagine it’s possible the majority of the people on it are mixed race. The mixed race people who have been problematic on the page are relatively small in number overall. I have learned something important however from my experiences of facing respectability policing from mixed race people both in and outside of my feminist community. The stereotype that mixed race people are all race savvy and able to help unpick racism is a complete and utter fallacy. I’d even unconsciously bought into the stereotype somewhat myself and have had to acknowledge this lately. It’s really time we stopped pretending mixed race people are in some way naturally capable of ending racism. We ALL have work to do in understanding how white racism and other systems of oppression work. Mixed race people are not necessarily ahead of the game in any way.
I’ve been trying to figure out why some mixed race people engage in respectability politics. I think this is really just an elaborate defence. Critiquing whiteness can be particularly uncomfortable for some mixed race people, especially those who have some white heritage. For those of us who have some white heritage (my mother is white so I am included here), critiquing whiteness means we have to look at some of our own privileges and also perhaps how some aspects of our upbringing and family life were or are problematic. It’s not an easy journey to go on, but it’s a necessary one in order to dismantle oppression. For some mixed race people examining whiteness can feel like a betrayal of their white family members and perhaps their own identities. I notice what happens a lot is that I will be critiquing some aspect of whiteness in my feminist community and a mixed race person will step in to say something like ‘but not all white people’ or some other derailing comment in defence of white people. I see this kind of thing a lot in other mixed race communities too. Some mixed race people feel like they need to come in to bring the ‘white perspective’ on racial issues as if people of colour don’t already well know what the white perspective commonly is. White people don’t need their perspectives on racism advocating for them because these are the perspectives people of colour are continually force fed anyway. It’s so insulting when a mixed race person steps in to say they are just bringing the white perspective on racism. Seriously GTFOH. I had one mixed race woman (of black and white heritage) in my feminist community who I ended up having to ban because she was so persistent in her defences against examining white racism.
On the matter of mixed race people not examining whiteness and/ or their privileges due to colourism, I read an article recently about a mixed race woman who is Japanese and white where she discusses how she is treated in Japan. She talked about how things are generally ok for mixed race people in Japan completely ignoring that whiteness is revered there and so is she too to some extent because of her proximity to it. Mixed race people in Japan who are black and Asian on the other hand are commonly persecuted because anti-blackness is rife there. Some of them even take their own lives because it is so bad. The title of the article I’m referencing was ‘What it’s like to be half Japanese’ which was a completely inappropriate title because the article is not about what it is like to be ‘half Japanese’, it’s about what it’s like to be Japanese and white for one person. As mixed race people we can never make the mistake of thinking our experience is any kind of template for other mixed race people. The mixed race experience is massively varied and complex and naturally impacted by the white racist framework we live in. Another recent example in the media of someone with unexamined privilege as a mixed race woman is actress Zoe Saldana who is black, Puerto Rican, Lebanese and Haitian. She notoriously wore blackface in the role of Nina Simone and was unable to acknowledge her benefits or responsibilities as a lighter-skinned black woman in the situation.
The point I am making is mixed race people have their own awakening to go through and being mixed race won’t guarantee that a person will never be problematic when it comes to race, contrary to popular belief. Let’s remember there are mixed race people doing, or who have done great work in activism (such as Akala, Bob Marley, Frederick Douglas and so on) but at the same time remember mixed race people are on individual journeys when it comes to understanding and fighting oppression just like anybody else on the planet.
To the mixed race people who want to police me – I don’t go in for respectability politics so it is pointless to try. I speak my mind because if I don’t, I won’t find the others out there who are like me and really want to smash oppression. It is impossible to tell the truth in ways that are palatable and inoffensive for everyone. This is not my responsibility as a mixed race person though many people, mixed race people included at times seem to think it is. I refuse to play an impartial mediator in race relations. I am not impartial! My allegiance to the different parts of my identity as a woman with black and white heritage is not equal. How can it be when we live in a world where white people are at the top of a racial hierarchy and black people are at the very bottom? Also if I try to cater for everyone I will also be continuously putting the needs of others ahead of mine and I’ve done that all of my damn life as a woman of colour. Now this is my time and corny as this may sound no-one can stop me anymore from being authentically who I am.
My feminist community: www.facebook.com/amixedracefeministspeaks