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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.

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