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The Skin I’m In: Respectability Politics in the Context of Black Womanhood

Authors: Jordan Madison, LCMFT | Josee’ Muldrew, M.A., LAPC

If you are a member of “Black Twitter” or follow any of the hot topics on social media, then you have most likely seen the recurring controversy around Black women wearing their bonnets in public. However, even if you aren’t big on internet debates, the topic of how women, especially Black women, carry themselves in public is not a new phenomenon. However, recent comments from comedian and actress Mo’nique have brought this dispute back into the forefront of our social discourse at the moment. For some, it is believed that being in public, wearing bonnets, scarves, or anything else typically worn in your home’s privacy, shows a lack of pride in yourself, and therefore the entire race. But for others, this bonnet discussion is just another example of respectability politics. 

Coined by Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, respectability politics can be defined as the belief that behaving or appearing like the dominant group in society will deem you more respectable, and therefore more valued.  When it comes to our ancestors, proximity to whiteness was a means of survival. As time went on, it began to be done to gain “true” freedom and privileges. Unfortunately, some Black people adopted the ideology that the only way to do so was to assimilate into the dominant culture. Get an education, adopt Christianity, show how hardworking you are, set a good example, and then you will be seen as deserving of humanity or equal rights. To be clear, this is not to say you shouldn’t get an education, or be religious, or have a strong work ethic. But when you think having these things or behaving a certain way is the only reason you should be considered or deemed in high regard, that can become unhealthy.

The problem with respectability politics is that it doesn’t work. It places the responsibility and blame on the victim instead of the systems that uphold it. As Damon Young eloquently stated, “Instead of requiring the people and the institutions committing and propagating racist acts to change, it asks the people harmed by the racism to change to stop being harmed by the racism.” As if it is not heavy enough to carry the baggage that comes from experiencing racial traumas and stressors regularly, we also have to carry the burden of being the ones to fix what we didn’t create. How does that work? The other danger is that those who believe in it may have a false sense of security. Yet time and time again, history has relentlessly shown us that having money, degrees, fancy job titles, or achieving success does not protect Black people from experiencing racism. 

This goes for social constructs besides race as well; take gender, for instance. Women are often blamed after experiencing sexual assault or abuse, leading them to believe there is something they could have done differently so that this wouldn’t have happened to them. But it doesn’t matter what someone was wearing, whether they were drinking, or if they knew the person or not. The determining factor of sexual assault prevalence is not the survivor but the perpetrator. You can do all the “right” things, behave “respectably,”  and still experience negative events. But when we adopt the narrative of respectability politics, the marginalized group (whether by race, gender, sexual identity, etc.) is constantly being expected to perform and show they deserve to be deemed worthy by the dominant group. It is mentally exhausting to continuously receive messages that you need to present or be a certain way to be seen as valuable or worthy of human rights.                                                                                                                                                

These messages have been passed down for generations, so, understandably, these thoughts are still so prevalent. They permeate everything from the complex social systems in this country to the simplicity of wearing a bonnet. As I type this, I can recall never wanting to leave my house with a scarf or bonnet because I thought it didn’t look good when I was younger. I can’t even recall specific messages not to do so, but it was ingrained in my mind as something you shouldn’t do. However, I can also distinctly remember one homecoming weekend being the catalyst to changing my mindset. I had just gotten my hair done and refused to let some rain ruin it, so I left my house all dressed up but with my bonnet on. I remember deciding that preserving my hair (and the money I paid for it to get done) was more important than what I temporarily looked like to someone else. Contrary to some of Mo’nique’s statements, it wasn’t that I didn’t have pride in my appearance. On the contrary, I had so much pride in it that I refused to let it get messed up. Maybe it’s time for us to realize that what’s “respectable” may look different for each of us. Therefore, what one individual does should not speak for the entire race.  And regardless of how we appear to others, we still deserve common decency and respect as human beings. 

Respectability Politics in the Context of Black Womanhood

When we talk about respectability politics in the context of Black womanhood, we must acknowledge that the constructed norms are not useful, quite simply, because they were not created for us. Various mental health challenges arise when you can’t be who you truly are and feel devalued by society. Respectability politics can create a sense of shame, anxiety, worthlessness, identity confusion, racial trauma, and systemic oppression for those who constantly engage in policing themselves. 

It’s not always easy to resist the pressure to adapt to adhere to the dominant culture. However, it’s important to note that you don’t have to make radical changes to your lifestyle to defy respectability politics. Instead, you can make small shifts or integrate practices into your daily routines and rhythms that amplify your presence and support mental wellness. These routines could include: speaking positive affirmations that remind you of your worth, writing a gratitude list about the parts of your identity you value most, wearing your hair in whatever style feels most comfortable and true to you, choosing outfits that embody your personality, and style regardless of environment, and changing the way you speak to yourself if it is negative.

 As Black women, we must feel empowered to create new norms predicated on our multidimensional existence. Norms that are inclusive and champion the idea that we can ‘just be ourselves and that is a form of activism within itself. As Resma Menachem stated, “At its best, activism is a form of healing. It is about what we do and how we show up in the world. It is about learning and expressing regard, compassion, and love” (Menachem, Resma, 2017. My Grandmother’s Hands). Let’s heal together!

Helpful tips for challenging respectability politics as a form of healing and self-acceptance:

  1.  Challenge yourself to think of what respectability beliefs you may have internalized that are impacting how you see your value and move through this world
  2. Identify what spaces you are in and/or people you are around when you notice yourself changing to accommodate others.
  3. Distance yourself from people who make you question whether aspects of your identity are respectable
  4. Connect with a community that reminds you of our individual and collective value
  5. Affirm yourself and remember that just simply being you can be a form of activism within itself