Black Women Plant Seeds Columns

Can we Live? The Cost of Respectability Politics

Kristina Button

Comedian and actress Mo’Nique recently posted an Instagram saying she was in an airport in ATL  when she saw sistas with bonnets, scarves, slippers and blankets wrapped around them. She felt that what she saw was somehow robbing us of our pride.

I’m here to reshape the narrative and tell y’all this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Wearing a bonnet, durag, some pillow slides or sweatpants does not in even the slightest rob us of our humanity or pride in who we are as a people. We will not let respectability politics rooted in white supremacy define us.

White supremacy uses respectability politics to control and police how Black bodies move through the world. Many of the ideas that we have as a community about what behavior is appropriate and acceptable in public are rooted in the violence that our ancestors experienced during slavery. 

Enslavers used control to maintain the system in which Black people were bought and sold as commodities. Even when Black people were legally set free, white supremacy found more ways to keep us in chains. These methods of control ranged from strategies like redlining to practices like school conduct codes and workplace policies that mostly targeted Black ways of moving and being.

Let’s talk about some of the ways our bodies are policed today and how we can get free. To be clear, when I say “policing,” I am not referring to those agents of our criminal injustice system. That’s a whole different topic for a whole ‘nother day. “Policing” in this context means any enforcement of arbitrary regulations in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control or power.

I recognize a kind of policing in how white people react to Black people having the audacity to take up space. I believe the effects of redlining and legally segregated neighborhoods in the 1960’s show up today when we see Black people occupying space in predominantly white neighborhoods. 

We’ve seen videos of white people all up in their feelings when Black person is walking on the sidewalk  in the neighborhood that they also live in; asking them, “Do you live here?”, verbalizing that they don’t belong here, and even physically harassing them. We have the receipts. 

Look up hashtags #whileblack. We are free and yet the mindset of white supremacy has normalized that we are to conduct ourselves in a manner that upholds the status quo; the status quo here in America is to aspire to a standard of whiteness – to white ways of thinking, feelings, moving, and being because apparently white is right.

Unfortunately, this indoctrination has heavily impacted our kinfolk. One of the most prevalent ways this shows up is when our own kinfolk attempt to consciously or subconsciously police our bodies because we are not upholding these standards of whiteness. 

They  police our bodies in these ways most likely because they fear that white people are always watching and we must bow to their standards,  lest we rid ourselves of future opportunities as a collective. They give into the lie that we are not allowed to move freely as our full Black selves.

I remember as a teenage girl wearing my scarf/durag to the bus stop because I did not want to mess up my hair. I rode the school bus that way and once I got to school, away from the humidity I would comb my hair down in the school bathroom. That humidity would have ruined the style I was trying to maintain if I had waited on that bus with my hair unwrapped and combed down.

Your durag and my bonnet is a representation of the deep care we have for ourselves in maintaining our God-given crowns. I’m not sure what purpose commenting on Black people wearing these items in public serves, but it certainly doesn’t boost our self esteem or morale as Black people. It takes so much time and work as Black women and Black Men to maintain our hair in any state; so to those Black women and men, I say rock that bonnet, that scarf, or that durag. Rock it loudly.

Do you. Be Black and wear your bonnet with pride because it is an act of resistance to push back on these notions of who we are as people and the respect we ought to be endowed with. We are a people motivated by pride, not fear of what the status quo has to say about us.

I put together a TikTok that has had over 4.4 million views and over 650K likes on policing black joy and black accomplishments.  It has 4 video clips of high school seniors walking across the stage at graduation and breaking out into dance or an expression  of celebration. In two of the clips you can see two [white] administrators discourage the seniors from their personal expression of celebration and another other black administrator tell one of the students to go back and walk again, this time without the dancing. 

Let’s not do this to each other, y’all. Let’s not allow these standards of whiteness to keep us from being ourselves. LET US LIVE!

I come from a lineage where my maternal grandparents didn’t finish high school. I come from a lineage where my mother is the first to graduate from college;  this history is due to the generational economic oppression that we have had to endure as Black people living in America. It was against the law for our enslaved ancestors to know how to read.  In the year 2021, we are not policing Black Joy, Black Accomplishment or Black Bodies. We will not hold our applause.