I used to engage in respectability politics. I was taught that, if I proved I was of “good character,” I would be accepted by white society. I learned that it was my job to convince overtly and covertly racist white people that I was okay. I needed to make myself less threatening to shift their conscious and unconscious racist views and thereby make my life better. I was supposed to change someone else’s preconceived notions about myself based on their delusions of white supremacist superiority.
I’d smile when I didn’t really didn’t want to. I’d deflect compliments because I soon learned that, when I did well, I was often met with resentment and hostility. I’d try to be personable with people I really didn’t care for or about to reassure them that I was safe. When getting into elevators, I’d move closer to the wall and give white people a wide berth. I was always trying to be the best — over-achieving, even when exhausted — because I knew I was being judged more harshly. There was absolutely no room for being average — or even being slightly above average. The perception of my race depended upon it. I spent most of my life engaging in respectability politics. But that began to shift after the events of September 11, 2001.
Up until that point, I had believed that racist acts were based in ignorance and that the solution was education. However, I now realize that such acts are a conscious and deliberate choice. In the days following September 11, I noticed a shift in how certain folks were treating me. I was living in Tampa, Florida at the time. Because of bigotry fueled by delusions of white supremacy, I’d become accustomed to being treated in certain ways. Amongst many injustices, I’d become used to being followed and looked upon with suspicion when shopping — even though, statistically, it’s white females between the ages of 15 and 35 who do the majority of shoplifting.
But there was a dramatic shift after September 11. When I went into the stores, white shopkeepers would greet me with a genuine smile. When they asked, “Can I help you?” they really meant it. I was suddenly okay with them. It was an odd sensation that I’d only felt when I’d traveled overseas – the freedom just to be. When I talked about these experiences to others of my persuasion, the story was the same. A burden that wasn’t mine had been lifted, but I knew it wouldn’t last. Unfortunately, a new target had been obtained — those of Middle Eastern descent and those who presented as such.
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Another experience that shifted my desire to move away from respectability politics was finding myself on the receiving end of said politics. A few weeks after those planes crashed into those buildings, I was in a grocery store. My grocery cart accidentally bumped into that of a woman wearing a hijab. I haphazardly said, “Excuse me, sorry,” and began to go on my way. In heavily accented English, she breathlessly exclaimed, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I said, “It’s okay. It was my fault,” and tried to continue on my way.
She kept saying, in a nearly breathless and panicked voice, “I’m sorry!”
When I looked at her, I saw that her face was consumed with panic. A little boy stood next to her, both of his hands wrapped tightly around hers, his eyes wide with fear. I looked around and noticed some of my fellow Americans giving her the clear side eye. One white male stopped and asked me whether I were okay, as if I were the aggrieved party. The woman’s eyes dropped down to the floor as she continued to apologize. I had no idea what she had been through in those few weeks after the attacks but, based on my own experiences with white supremacy, I knew it wasn’t good.
By pure instinct, I put my hand on top of hers and said, “It’s okay.”
She nearly jumped. She looked up at me.
I said it again, “Everything is going to be okay.”
She squeezed my hand tightly, and I squeezed hers back. Some of the panic left her eyes. What I wanted to say was, “I’m sorry you’re going through a whirlwind of shit because of what nineteen men did. I’m sorry that you’re experiencing so much hatred and bigotry. I’m sorry that you’ve had to step into my world.” We nodded to each other, and let go, and went on our way.
My second experience of being on the receiving end of respectability politics happened on my first flight after September 11. Now, I didn’t hate flying until I went skydiving on my twenty-fifth birthday. It was a tandem jump, so I was attached to someone. When it was time to go out of the plane, though, I didn’t want to go. I remember screaming in terror until the ripcord was pulled. Even though it was incredible being so high and seeing the world from that perspective, I developed a terror of takeoffs. So, since then, my routine when I get on a plane has been as follows: I sit down, try to get a blanket, put on my neck pillow, put in my ear buds, and go to my happy place until the plane is safely in the air. Then, I’m good.
Although I had selected my seat when I’d bought my ticket, things didn’t pan out. Because I was flying out of Tampa, there were a lot of snowbirds headed north. As a result, I lost my choice seat over the wing by the exit doorway and was relegated to the back of the plane next to the bathroom. As I angrily huffed to my seat, I saw my row companions: a middle-aged white man with a twisted look on his face and, next to him, a man in his mid-thirties who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. He had the biggest smile on his face, but his eyes were filled with a slight edge of fear and panic. I knew that look all too well. He was frantically engaged in conversation, attempting to make the white man comfortable.
As I watched this scenario — a scenario that I had played out a million times — I noticed another emotion. It was fear. I felt fear towards the Middle Eastern man. I was shocked and appalled. I remember watching coverage of the bombings in Atlanta and Oklahoma City and praying — I was still religious at the time — that the perpetrators weren’t Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. I knew the rain of hell fire that would come down because of stereotypes and bigotry. It’s a burden no one should carry.
So, I was shocked when I felt that fear. All the anti-Muslim, anti-Middle Eastern propaganda that the world has to offer had seeped into my sub-conscious and created within me an unconscious — yet now, very conscious — bias. We now call this implicit bias. As I walked toward my seat, I realized that I had two choices: to treat this man with suspicion and fear, or to act like a human being. I chose the latter.
I made my way to my seat. The Middle Eastern man introduced himself and told me about his work and family. Confident that I resolved my internal conflict, I put on my headphones and my neck pillow, asked a flight attendant for a blanket, and attempted to retreat to my happy place. Unfortunately, the Middle Eastern man kept trying to talk to me. I started to feel annoyed. My anxiety increased as we backed away from the gate, and I realized he took my silence as suspicion.
Finally, I took out my ear buds and said, “Dude, I’m not afraid of you. We’re good. Really.” He looked at me with a stunned expression on his face. I put my ear buds back in and konked out.
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We can’t appease whiteness based in bigotry and ethnocentrism. That is an insatiable pathological beast. One of the first plays I saw as child was “A Soldier’s Play.” It was later a movie starring the late Harold Washington, Jr. and the brilliant Adolph Cesar. Cesar’s character, Sargent Waters, was the epitome of a self-hating black man who heavily engaged in respectability politics. His goal was to prove to the “good white folks” that he wasn’t like the “rest of them.” In that effort, he sought to destroy any black person who he felt proved black stereotypes. Just before he is murdered, in a drunken moment of clarity and truth, he screams, “No matter what you do, they still hate you.” His desire to appease a type of whiteness rooted in bigotry could not be achieved and cost him his life
Engaging in respectability politics is damaging because being hyper-vigilance is bad for the health. Hyper-vigilance is a response to trauma and anticipated threat. A 2013 study shows a direct correlation between hypervigilance and insomnia, hypertension, and heart disease. Preparing for and dealing with macro- and microaggressions, having to be overly careful about one’s presence in the world to avoid harassment, takes its toll. It is harmful to the self.
Now, this doesn’t mean that one can change racist delusions of superiority. But we can stop attempting to appease the insatiable beast. I know that, as long as I live in this country, I will be affected by those who need to cater to their delusions of supremacy based on the melanin in their skin. However, I’m no longer going to engage in unhealthy, self-deprecating behavior to minimize myself and to appease a beast that will never be satisfied. That is a futile and misguided effort.
Are you learning to walk away from respectability politics and find healthier ways to resist racial oppression? Check out our webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a black woman with short black hair and brown eyes. She is wearing a gray shirt while resting her head on her left hand and looking upward with a serious expression.]