Respectability Politics
The Witness

Dispose of Respectability Politics

Ally Henny

I’m a first-year seminarian and I’m taking a class on the Theology and Ethics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Part of my required reading is James Cone’s, Martin & Malcolm & America. I’m not very far into the book, but I’ve already learned many things.

One thing that jumped out at me was how invested Dr. King and many of the black people of his time were in respectability. The idea was that if you dressed well enough, spoke well enough, got an education, and showed yourself to be human, racist white people would treat you better. Spoiler alert: many white people didn’t think twice about beating, spitting, and turning water hoses on black folks who had college degrees and were dressed in their Sunday best.

Pants Up, Don’t Loot

Today, black people still feel the pressure to conform to the politics of respectability. This pressure is from within and outside the black community.

When black influencers admonish other black folks to dress and speak a certain way because some speech patterns and clothing styles of our cultures are deemed unacceptable based on majority culture norms, they are promoting respectability politics. This often gives people in the majority culture license to critique the black community in a condescending, hurtful, and wholly inappropriate way. It also marginalizes those who don’t conform.

Even without the apparent endorsement of black influencers, people always seem to find ways to debase black people and our cultures under the guise of defending respectability.

During the Ferguson Uprising, “pants up, don’t loot” was a common retort to the hurting black community’s cry for justice. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read about how “protesters” or “those who are offended” (read: black people) should “show some respect,” I could pay for my entire seminary education and take a cruise after graduation.

Rationing Validation

It is common for black people to police the speech, dress, mannerisms, and life choices of other black people. It’s especially problematic when classism and internalized white supremacy are the motivating factors. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve given my fair share of side eye to black folks who were acting “typical.”

We all have an innate desire to feel affirmed and valued by those around us. Even the most contrarian person has a need for affirmation. This desire can be particularly insidious for minorities because it often causes us to feel like we need to prove something to a majority that is often fickle in their rationing of validation.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that if we wear our hair a certain way, code switch, pull up our pants, and assimilate to the majority culture, then their affirmation will make us worthy to be treated equally and that racism will end.

Many times, we see fruit in our endeavors. Doors open for us that remain shut to those who don’t play the game (or don’t know how). Many of us have seen those same doors close and favor evaporate when we stopped playing.

We need to divest of respectability politics. When we engage in them, we are saying some people should be treated better than others based on human standards of desirability. James 2:1-7 cautions us against this very thing. Respectability politics is a sin of partiality. It strips the dignity of many while conferring virtue based solely on external criteria.

Weaponizing Respectability

Dr. King and the rest of the ancestors knew what they were doing when they worked hard, got their education, and showed up to marches in their Sunday best. Their emphasis on respectability got us to where we are today and I would be wrong to criticize them for that.

But we are in a different time. The very thing that our forebears used to affirm their humanity is often weaponized to dehumanize us today.

Respectability is used to divide the black community and to further marginalize those who don’t meet its standard. It can produce pride that puffs up and makes us feel superior. Respectability can cause us to bolster unjust systems and white supremacy as we seek validation. Respectability strips the dignity of marginalized people.

There is nothing wrong with being a respectable person. As Christians, we should make presenting ourselves well in every situation a priority because it is our witness and testimony to Christ who has saved us. However, we need to let go of respectability politics which stakes our worth in how well we meet a human standard for behavior. When we seek humanity’s standard, we will always be found lacking.

The Resistance

Romans 12:2 tells us we should not conform to the pattern of this world. Christians should think and behave in ways that are congruent with the teachings of the Word of God rather than the standards put forth by society.

In the United States, the “pattern of this world” is steeped in White Supremacy. White Supremacy isn’t the only sin, but it is the sin that is most often encountered when marginalized people interact with broken people and systems. As black believers, we must take care not to allow ourselves to be shaped by its influence. White Supremacy is a sin of partiality.

Disposing of respectability politics means to invest in the integrity and solidarity of our community. It means we don’t write off those who don’t (or can’t) code switch as ignorant and uneducated. It means we rid ourselves of classism and internalized white supremacy. It means while we might roast people for their style and choice of music in-house, we rep The Culture hard when we’re outside so that no black child grows up thinking we are inferior.

As Christians, we have a duty to point to the real, non-gentrified Christ who doesn’t require us to speak or dress a certain way before we can know him.

In MLK’s time, the politics of respectability was an act of resistance. In our day, our resistance is our resolve to walk in the fullness of our sanctified identity, that is, to be unapologetically black.

15 thoughts on “Dispose of Respectability Politics

  1. Getitright

    @Toviyah… would be great if you could have actually responded with something substantial to what Mr. Thomas W. Your comment was petty and unhelpful…just like mine lol. #irony #hypocrisy #ohwell #dontcare #dobetternexttime

  2. Kira

    I agree. It’s like saying “I know more than you about what’s going on, even though you live it everyday and I don’t.”

  3. Wesley Roy

    Great article and the knee jerk pushback centering whiteness supports the points made.

  4. Thomas W.

    Of course. My apologies. I use “Ms.” when I don’t know as it can apply to both. I read the bio at the bottom after I had posted. Unfortunately there isn’t an edit function.

  5. Jeff

    Nicky –

    “Jeff you are choosing to be willfully ignorant to the racism that clearly exists. You say that you sit with people unlike you, but you obviously are not learning from them or you’re not having deep conversations with them. ”

    Wrong, wrong, and dead wrong.

    I would strongly suggest you broaden your horizons, spend time with people unlike yourself, listen to them and learn from them. Stop scapegoating and MAKE the changes you want made – starting with yourself.

    I am not your enemy.

  6. Nicky

    Jeff you are choosing to be willfully ignorant to the racism that clearly exists. You say that you sit with people unlike you, but you obviously are not learning from them or you’re not having deep conversations with them. Should one dress for the job and business culture that they are pursuing, that is correct and I don’t believe she was debating that. However, in everyday living I shouldn’t have to walk around in my Sunday best in order to gain respect on a Tuesday.

  7. Jeff

    That’s funny Carlotta, because what you accuse me of is exactly what you are guilty of. Except I don’t consider myself a victim, and scapegoat entire cultures and races of people.

  8. Carlotta Kimble

    There will always be the ignorant few who resist learning anything, who only hear their voice, because they refuse really hearing what is being said to them…the MESSAGE. Count yourself among those few, Jeff.

  9. Jeff

    Thank you for clarifying that. But honestly, that makes this article even more troublesome.

  10. Toviyah

    Hello Jeff,

    In a previous post she boldly shared her personal experience with raising children in her interracial marriage. I offer this information only to be informative and enlightening. Below are a couple of quotes from her post:
    “I wonder when the appropriate age is to explain that we can’t stop every time they need to pee because there are some towns where our presence isn’t welcome. Or if we should just continue to do the thing where I try to act invisible while their dad goes inside with them.”

    “Even as an interracial family, it’s often a calculated risk because so-called ‘race mixing’ can be a trigger for harmful people. As a mother, my main concern with making a pitstop should be whether or not the bathrooms are clean and not, “Will we die today?”

    The entire post can be read here:


  11. Toviyah

    okay, but respectability suggests that we call her ‘MRS.’ Henny (not Ms. Henny) thanks.


  12. Thomas W.

    Ms. Henny,

    I will disagree with you that we are in a different time. The reason MLK was so successful is because he was above reproach. He didn’t advocate looting or violence, nor did he tear down white people in the process of calling for equal treatment. You’ll always have those who will respond to that method with violence (Jesus was hung on a cross for being the most loving, nicest, above reproach person ever. One of the most polarizing and inciting things a Christian can do is actually live up to the gospel and Christ’s calling to be holy as he is. Fallen people hate that. ).

    Pants up isn’t a color/race thing so much as it is a symbol that became tied (intended or not) to “gangterism” and crime. If a white male walks into a place doing the same thing, he gets looked at the same way. Human beings, science will tell you, prefer good hygiene and how you clothe yourself as a reflection of the rest of one’s attitude toward life, work ethics, community, and so on. It’s not a “game”. And in America it’s perfectly fine if someone still wants to live that way, but expecting society to adjust it’s standards of that is like C.S. Lewis’ comment about not making a midden of the world’s rose gardens for the sake of the few who don’t like the smell of roses.

    If you went to anywhere else in the world in just about any culture, the response to the indecency of having your pants dragging would be pretty synonymous. I would argue it isnt’ a white supremacy issue at all, though it certainly can manifest itself there. Chicken vs egg arguments or the blame game are dead ends in this regard.

    Also, I think the criticism which certainly can have it’s over reach into judgmentalism and stereotyping, is well merited at its root. If respectability is a good thing as you say, then it is a good thing, but you are right that we should guard ourselves against only seeing the outside presentation of a person at the same time. We don’t have to play politics about it to dismiss it as a reasonable criticism or attempt to lump it in solely with white supremacy to knock it down.

    We have the capability, esp as Christians, esp knowing our value is in Christ in the first place, and independent of the world’s perception, to be receptive of criticisms like “pants up, don’t loot”. Looting is terrible and hurts many innocents.
    It’s okay to say it’s bad. It’s okay to disassociate that with a cultural identity, and one should. It’s not a devaluing attempt.

    “Pants up” is more subjective, but if symbols to others are a problem, then it should be considered, rather than dismissed as an attempt to devalue. I’m sure at least many of those in the black community who criticize these things aren’t doing them from hearts that seek to devalue, but to build up and encourage their community and culture that has it’s own share of problems worth addressing and correcting.

    I don’t think MLK’s actions were that of resistance. I think it was far more Paulian in it’s approach to engaging culture and persuading change. Paul didn’t go about creating uprisings, playing the blame game, or calling out groups in the world. He lived above reproach, tried to be everything to everyone, and focused on the root of mankind’s problems in sin and its default fallen nature.

    One reason we so often believe we are devalued is because we often tie our beliefs about culture and life so intimately with our identity that we think the criticism there of is a criticism and tear down of us personally (or culturally). As Christians, if we are truly valued in the first place, then this is one of most important areas we should be above reproach in when it comes to engaging the world and other cultures. We should have the capability to look beyond the labels, politics, colors, genders, etc to hear what is right and true, hold to what is right and true, and be receptive of the refining of our own walk in sanctification. All while not tearing down others in the process.

    The world’s false idol of equality is founded on the assumption that in order to achieve equality, one must devalue someone else.

  13. Jeff

    There is no “politics of respectability” among white people. Why does it get batted around among blacks?

    Like it or not, the way you dress and the way you act has a profound impact on what you get out of life. We all know it. If you want a job as a teller at a bank or credit union, don’t show up to the interview in a hoodie pulled completely over your face, and pants handing low enough to expose your entire butt – then complain about not getting the job. That’s not racism, but reality. If you want to be a doctor, you’re not going to be able to just saunter into hospital rooms and start poking on people. There are pre-requisites, and they are not racial.

    The pastor at any black church doesn’t need to dress the way he does, but he does anyway. Why?

    So much to learn, so much to learn…

  14. Jeff

    How can you expect to get anywhere in life – and in your spiritual life – when you are so steeped in hatred? Everything is “White Supremacy” this and racism that… If your life is immersed in “us versus them” thinking, it will be miserable indeed.

    If you want to learn, and to grow, I would very strongly suggest that you sit down over coffee with people such as me – people who are immersed in a culture not their own, loving people completely unlike themselves, and learning that the world indeed does not revolve around us. Rather than viewing white people as your enemy (an extraordinarily anti-Christian thing to do), why not look at them as brothers and sisters?

  15. BPC

    I think we carried ourselves a different way. We wore our Sunday best and spoke correctly, because we were taught to do so and in doing so
    we respected ourselves. Not trying to win over whites or blacks.
    Then and Now
    We know who we are and to whom we belong

Leave A Comment