Why I'm Not Here for the Abusive Language of Respectability Politics

by Candice Iloh

About six weeks ago, Franchesca Ramsey appeared on a Yahoo! News focusing on #BlackLivesMatter and racialized police brutality. At one point, she rhetorically asks a fellow panelist, “What are we supposed to do to act like ‘Good Negroes’ and not get killed?” This video was recently shared on my News Feed and a large number of online friends had a response—myself included. Days before watching the clip, I read an excerpt of Kendrick Lamar’s Billboard interview, in which the rapper questioned, “How can they [police and authorities] respect us if we don’t respect ourselves?”

After both instances, I had to take a break from the Internet. It was too overwhelming to encounter the two messages in such close proximity of each other. On one hand, Ramsey had been invited to participate in a panel focusing on #BlackLivesMatter, but basically ended up defending her right to being treated as a human being, and not be profiled or harassed by police. On another hand, Lamar seemed to have the opposite opinion, his words that until something changes within our community, we cannot expect—or better yet, we do not deserve—for society as a whole to change how it views Black folks.

As many of us who follow pop culture know, this prompted a response from Azealia Banks via Twitter, in which she called out the rapper’s sentiments as the “dumbest thing” she had ever heard. Several media outlets, including Billboard, covered her response—focusing on how she delivered her statements, rather than the validity behind them. Instead of considering how damaging Lamar’s remarks were, they unfortunately centered the conversation around, “Should we be listening to this woman?” and “Maybe Azealia Banks would gain more respect as a person if she would chill.”

I cringed at all of these instances—from Lamar’s horrendous statements to a largely white mainstream media outlet, to watching what was obviously a very triggering exchange for Ramsey as she had to defend Black folks’ humanity. I had to take a step back and ask myself, “What was going on?” This was all too familiar and too painful: the idea that Black folks needed to change ourselves in order to be deserving of our existence.

I found this rhetoric to be incredibly offensive, but I had heard this language before. We all have. It’s the language we use to excuse and justify abuse. Think about it: the need to correct one’s own behaviors, mannerisms, and self to maintain or be considered “deserving of” livelihood is what shows up in a lot of violent and unhealthy intimate relationships. How often have we heard this language used by individuals who victimize their partners? “If they would just stop upsetting me. If they would do X right or Y correctly, then I wouldn't need to beat them. Maybe then I would treat them better. Maybe they should just stop doing things to piss me off. It's not my fault.”

In this case, a racist America is the perpetrator. And so many of us who identify as Black or African-American have the false belief that in order avoid being further abused by an oppressive system, we must be good and nice and make ourselves worthy enough of respect. But that is not how oppression works; oppressive and dehumanizing systems remain that way, and the “respectability” of its victims has little affect on changing this fact. There is a marked difference between respectability and respect. True respect means that all of us deserve to be recognized as human beings. True respect means we all have the fundamental right to walk this Earth without being brutalized or murdered simply because we were born in brown skin. The notion that there is something inherently “wrong” or undeserving within us, that we must first change first, so that police or other enforcers of white supremacy do not take our lives from us? That notion is backwards. That notion is contingent on a dangerous politics of respectability.

And really, what does this “self-respect” even look like? What are the guidelines for this “self-respect” that allows others to deem us worthy? Who would set the barometer of said self-respect? Who would determine the benchmark for a proven illustration of our right to belong on this earth without constant fear of assault? We shouldn’t have to imagine what that would look like. There are plenty of folks who were “being good,” and their lives were still snuffed out.

You really have to wonder what this message says about us and about the world. You have to wonder what message it sends to our young people—to our young girls and our growing boys. You have to wonder which message is louder: Are we telling them to accept themselves for who they are? Or are we demanding they shift into something more digestible for whiteness?

Unlike Kendrick Lamar, I strongly believe self-love is a conduit of knowing who you are and knowing that you deserve respect just as you are—not after you have assimilated to meet some standard set by an unjust society. The lethal policing of black lives has taught us to alter who we are, until there’s nothing left for “them” to fear or hate. Unfortunately, this is not how abuse works. An abusive society always has something to be angry at.

And yet, because so many of us have become familiar with and accepting of this abuse, we still think we deserve it.

Photo: Shutterstock

Candice Iloh is a poet, creative writer, and educator residing in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Insight Magazine, Blackberry Magazine, and the January 2015 Black American issue of the Fjords Review. She is a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation Alum and the Managing Editor of Quiet Lunch Magazine. When she is not writing or working with young people, she dances. Contact Candace through her website at BecomHer.com.

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