Let Go of the Respectability Politics

Can Black people dead respectability politics now? It’s been tried before and guess what? It still won’t make us acceptable to white society. There is a recent story of Kevin Kelley, owner of True Kitchen, scolding Black women for twerking in his establishment. This has sparked a debate about what is respectful and disrespectful behavior in “classy” environments. I would like to ask who determines what respectable behavior is? Who determines what is professional? Whose standards are we measuring this to?

There are Black people who believe that if they get a good education that they’ll be exempt from racism. Some believe that if they’re polite, they won’t experience police brutality. This is where respectability politics come from. Some of us believe think that if we aspire to what whiteness has convinced us that it is, then white people will accept us.

White supremacy tells us that our culture is simply uncivilized. If we want a job, we have to take the kinks and braids out of our hair. If we want respect, we must speak “proper English.” If you want to “properly” assimilate into society, then shed every part of your Blackness. Professionalism does stem from anti-Blackness. So, when we as Black people, call parts of our own culture unacceptable, we are expressing our internalized anti-Blackness. Why do some of us view twerking as inappropriate? Why do we view wearing bonnets as inappropriate? 

I can’t help but notice that True Kitchen embraces the aesthetic of Black culture. The DJ plays Megan Thee Stallion and they serve chicken and waffles. At the same time, Kevin doesn’t want twerking in his business. He views clothing like sweatsuits and baseball caps as inappropriate dress code. Kevin carries the same attitudes towards Blackness as “high class” white establishments do. He likes the style of hood Black culture, but he thinks that Black people like that devalue his business. This is anti-Blackness. If you have a hard time seeing it this way, try imagining Kevin as a white restaurant owner. What about now? 

Black people are guilty of carrying the same anti-Black views as white people do. Of course, this is not our fault. This is the effect of centuries of colonization. Black people have been brainwashed into believing that whiteness is something to aspire to. We have been forced to assimilate for survival. Assimilation to whiteness represents success to some of us. We have to unpack that internalized anti-Blackness as a community in order for true liberation to happen. 

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