Wrestling with Respectability in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: A Dialogue

The rejection of respectability is central to the organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement. References to "respectability politics" are often used as short hand to signify standing in solidarity with those most marginalized in Black communities. But rarely is context provided for the phrase, and its origins are almost never mentioned.

Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham theorized the concept of "the politics of respectability" in her 1993 work, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Therein she articulates a politic in which Black church women with few resources are empowered by embracing a moral authority that is rooted in self-determination rather than shame or blame.

For Harriet's founder and editor-in-chief, Kimberly Foster, sat down with Professor Higginbotham to discuss the often ignored complexity of her work on respectability.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She recently received the National Humanities Medal for her work, and she is the incoming president of the Association of the Study of African American Life and History


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo: Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

FH: How has your research on the politics of respectability been misinterpreted? 

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham: When Righteous Discontent first came out, it won several book prizes from the American Academy of Religion. The year that it won, we had a big session just around the book. I remember there were people there who made comments to the effect of, "This respectability, it's so snobbish, and it's so middle class." I remember saying to them, you didn't read it carefully then, because this is exactly what it is speaking against.

I think that the word respectability connotes a variety of things to people. The word respect has a meaning that is somewhat straightforward. The only reason I say somewhat straightforward is that on the street, you can kill somebody because they disrespected you, but the idea of respect means that you look upon me in a way that makes me feel that you believe there's something of worth in me. That's respect.

There's something about the word respectability that I think does conjure in people's minds this front, this facade of feeling that you are better than other people when, in fact, that's not really the meaning of respectability. When I was writing about it, I was interested in how these people who were primarily maids and teachers, for the most part this is a movement made of low-income women, how do they fight for their civil rights? How do they fight for greater voice in their own communities and especially in the churches with these men? As I listened to them in my head give their speeches, as I read their minutes, as I look at the words that they use, I came up with this concept of the politics of respectability, because it is political.

Kim, put yourself back in 1950 [with] the segregation signs. You have to go through the backdoor. There's lynching. There's everything from the outside society that's telling you you are inferior and you are not worthy of respect. You are not able to be disrespected. What someone like Nannie Helen Burroughs says, and she's the great champion of this, she says that you are not made in these contexts that are demeaning you. Your definition of yourself, the worth of who you are isn't determined in these contexts of racial discrimination. If you believe that you are worthy of respect and if you live a life that is worthy of respect, then nothing anybody else can say about you can define you.

This is really important because now what is a life worthy of respect? For them, it's religious. It's a christian ideology. I think that is what makes some people think, "Oh well, this is middle class." When you go to church, they do teach you certain things like love your neighbor as yourself. Do good to those who aren't necessarily good to you. There is a message of character.

That message of character, on some levels, dovetails with what society considers proper behavior. I think we see it best in somebody like a Martin Luther King, because Martin Luther King would embody both the values that a very much consonant with what America thinks of itself, I mean America in its ideology, in its creeds, in its precepts. This nation stands for democracy, it stands for freedom, it stands for equality and justice. That's what America has always stood for. We know in reality it doesn't practice any of that.

Somebody like a Martin Luther King would espouse those same values of the nation. As a person who went to Morehouse and came from a family that was, by the standards of its time, a middle class family, he would have been taught certain ways to talk to women and to behave in public. Then he has this Christian ideal which also motivates him as a civil rights leader to get out there and fight for civil rights. He's not fighting in a violent way. He's fighting in a nonviolent way.

The politics of respectability, and this is the key thing about it, gives you a moral authority to say to the outside world, "I am worthy of respect. You don't respect me, but I'm worthy of respect. You don't treat me like an equal person, but I know that I am an equal person, and because I am an equal person, I'm going to fight for my rights. I'm going to demand equality. I'm not going to let you treat me like a second class citizen." That's the way they interpreted this.

When Nannie Helen Burroughs says things like we need to teach our young people, our boys and girls, that they aren't who they are because of segregation laws, that they are who they are because of how they are raised in their homes and the kind of character that they have, that was important for them. She'll say a certain class of white people have set a poor example for blacks in many sections by making a point to just get and take your seats.

Obviously, she's talking about segregation, but what she's saying is here is our opportunity to show ourselves superior. The catch is that this behavior shows you as superior. The classic example would be Rosa Parks. Why is Rosa Parks able to galvanize a whole movement of people around her when other people who also defied the bus that driver were not able to? It's because she was the epitome of respectability. She wasn't some middle class bourgeois woman. She was a seamstress. She was the secretary of her local NAACP. This was a woman who was an activist. She'd gone to the Highlander Folk School with other activists the year before to talk about how we can implement integration of the schools. When she says, "I've had enough," then people realize that she is the symbol because this idea of  the politics of respectability is also very symbolically oriented—what you represent.

Around her is put in motion a plan that already existed. They didn't come up with that plan. She was the person that could move it going. The idea, when you read this, I said that respectability offered these women a perceived weapon in defense of their sexual identities. It gave them a sense of themselves as good, and the reason this is important to them is because for many of them their status isn't derived from money because they don't have much income, their status isn't derived from education because with the segregated world they don't have education. Their status isn't derived from being high society. Their status is derived by what they would define as their character, and it's a character that says we have to conduct ourselves a certain way at the very time that we fight for our rights.

What makes it progressive? What makes it progressive is that they are fighting for their rights. Somebody asked me once about the young woman who climbed the pole.

FH: Bree Newsome.

Higginbotham: Yeah. They said, "That wouldn't fit the politics respectability," and I said, "No, that would be considered the politics of respectability," because she's going up there [and] had she taken it down and screamed curse words and epithets and thrown the flag or something like that, that wouldn't have worked. You see, this kind of righteous discontent, it's a discontent, don't think that this doesn't mean that you don't defy. Think of the Civil Rights marchers. When you think of those images from SNCC, when they are walking in there you see them in their Sunday clothes, but they're defying the laws aren't they? They're sitting at those counters. They're not going away when people are coming.

When you see all these white thugs are coming and they're throwing coffee on them and they're cursing at them, the world looks at that and sees who is respectable.

FH: It's so interesting that you just said that about Bree Newsome because I never would have conceived of it in that way, but I remember that she made it a point, as she was coming down, to recite scripture.

Higginbotham: Exactly. That is my point. That is the politics respectability.

FH: I just made that connection.

Higginbotham: It is defiant. Don't get it wrong now. It's not that it's not defiant, but it's respectful. She's not going to be respectful of that Confederate Flag being up there, just as previous activists were not respectful of segregation. They are going to jail. They are risking their lives, see? This isn't something that is not defiant. This is definitely defiant of American law, of the segregation values in the nation, they're not trying to tiptoe along with it such that they'll be liked, such that they please the white man, that kind of thing. That's not what that's about.

It's about doing it in a certain way that when people see you, they see respect. For her to come down reciting scripture, for Christian people who look at that, they respect her bravery. If she come down with profanities, that would have had a totally different impact.

FH: I agree. I've listened to Black Lives Matter activists, and I guess what they would argue is what good is moral authority in a fundamentally immoral society?

Higginbotham: Okay, let's talk about that because that's a very good question. I think moral authority is something that gives you a sense of the justice of what you're doing. I think it's important to have a sense of the justice of what you're doing because you're willing to risk a job, a friendship...you're willing to risk it, and we see that with the Civil Rights Movement. When I was young and I was into Black Power and all this, I thought exactly the way that this Black Lives Matter [does.] What is there in an immoral society? Now, you do change as you get older. You do recognize as you get older that you have to be clearer about what it is that is your goal, and I'm going to talk about that.

If you think you are in a fundamentally immoral society, do you take the position of a Martin Luther King or Gandhi or Frederick Douglass that you must be moral, or do you take the position of someone who is immoral? I don't see that as the option. People talk about Malcolm X, but Malcolm X adhered to the politics of respectability. Think of how he looked, how he was dressed, how he spoke. He wasn't a preacher like Martin Luther King, but he had a wonderful speaking. There was a logic there. For him to say that you need to defend your children and your wives, was that an irrational statement to people who had just come back from World War II and the Korean War and they'd been fighting for other peoples children and other peoples lives?

What he was saying wasn't irrational. Malcolm X did not like the "N word." He would never have used it. He didn't even like the word Negro, remember? He didn't like the idea of drugs in our community. That is the definition of respect. The way he differed from King was in the level of nonviolence that King was willing to die for. He didn't believe in the turning of the cheek philosophy of Christianity, so that was one of the big issues. Both of those men believed in a politics of respectability. Then you understand this not to mean something about snobbery or looking down at poor people or trying to be like white people. This is not what this is about. Again, it's about character, and it is about a moral compass.

What do you do in an immoral society? Now as a historian I look at the great social movements of our day that had to tackle questions of an immoral society, and let's go back to 19th century slavery. If you look at the fight against slavery, the arguments that they made were always moral arguments. One of the fundamental arguments was a religious argument that comes from the bible, the Book of Acts, that said, "God have made of one blood, people of all nations." They rested on that. They also believe that there is a human dignity, that every life has human dignity and that no life can be property. They're standing on that moral ground.

Now this is the 19th century, so by today's standards these wouldn't be people who we would see as particularly out there. Just think about it. Do you know that their homes were burned, they were killed, [and] they were ostracized in their communities? These are people who are risking everything to stand on a moral conviction in the face of a truly immoral society. Law wasn't on their side. The Constitution wasn't on their side. This didn't just flip over overnight. What was the goal? The goal was to create a morality where none existed. The goal wasn't a Utopian society, but the goal was to create a morality in law, and that morality in law was the 13th amendment that said slavery is abolished.

These people are not all alike, and we wouldn't like some of them. They were very different, but the one thing they agreed on was what? Slavery had to end.

Now one could argue, and I do argue, that the conservative side of the politics of respectability is that they demanded of black people certain types of behavior that weren't necessary for your rights. For example, for them, it would have been really important, and it's also true for the Civil Rights Movement, when they went to march they wanted to look clean cut. They wanted to look clean cut because they wanted people to see them and say, "These are the respectable people. Look at these people. They're not even different from us. Their cause is something that we can identify with." The problem, and this is the conservative side of it, the problem is that how they dressed should not interfere with their right to vote. The truth of the matter is white people can dress any kind of way in this day and have a right to vote.

There is a strategic use of it. I argue that it's what we call a bridge discourse, and this is another issue. Who are your allies? It takes me back to when you talk about an immoral society, but in any struggle you have got to have allies. We are not being honest if we think we don't need allies. You're talking to somebody who was in the Black Power struggle. It seemed so logical to me then, but the question that I needed to have been real clear about was what was my goal?

If my goal had been to be part of a separate black nation, and there were people in the late 1960s/early 1970s that did want to be in a separate black nation, then maybe not wanting to deal with any white people would have made sense. But even if you had a separate black nation, nations have to deal with other nations. You still have to deal with people. I did want to go to graduate school. I did want to take advantage of this new thing called Affirmative Action. I did want to live as an equal person in neighborhoods of my choice. It didn't seem as logical to say, "I don't want to be around any white people" when I was putting myself in context where there were lots of white people.

For example, if you are a black student at Harvard and you want black studies at Harvard, there's nothing wrong with wanting black studies at Harvard. But don't fool yourself. You want an identity within something that is still Harvard. That is the goal. There's nothing wrong with wanting black power. There's nothing wrong with saying, "We want a movement of black people." It's so important to be clear about your goal. If your goal is to make black lives matter, I mean really take it literally, then it's got to matter in a whole lot of different contexts. One of the places it's got to matter is in white society.

In all those contexts, you need to work with people who believe in that. When you work with people who believe in that, that doesn't necessarily mean that all of them are going to look like you because some of the people who look like us are actually our enemies. That's just historical. Some of the people who don't look like us won't be our enemies. The key of the politics of respectability is to bridge these groups. When you bridge them, how do you bridge them? How do you bridge who your allies will be?

FH: Is it possible that respectability becomes a means to marginalize the people who can't completely buy into it?

Higginbotham: Yeah, but this is the point I'm making about the politics of respectability. It is the ability for you to gain respect.

FH: When we think of respectability, I often think of performance. You're saying it's not about a performance?

Higginbotham: It's not just performance, no. It's about standing on a moral authority to fight for your rights. That's what the politics of it is. Now you can disagree with me on this, but in certain respects in our community, there is a performance on the basis of clothing. It doesn't have to be the same style of clothing that white people have, but it's about very expensive shoes or...I remember in the 1990s when I lived in Philadelphia, in our community people were getting killed for gold earrings.

There's always been a value to clothing and dress in our community. Don't get me wrong on that. The question is not about that. It's about being clean. You can be somebody who has on a maid's outfit and you're clean and you are hardworking. In their philosophy, I believe if you've worked all day and you got on a bus and you didn't smell quite great because you just came back from work, that wouldn't deny you respectability.

I do want to emphasize the politics of it because the politics of it says that I am worthy of respect because I carry myself in a respectful way. Carrying yourself in a respectful way isn't about your clothing. It's not about your education. It's not about those superficial things. You carried yourself in a respectful way, and you expected to be treated in a respectful way.

When you look at the Delta, just think about these people. Do you think Fannie Lou Hamer had fancy clothes? They believed in the respectability of their lives. There was no threatening and cursing and disrespecting or talking to people in a certain way. Even when Stokely Carmichael screams for Black power in that first 1966 iteration, he says, "I'm tired of this." Black power doesn't defy the politics respectability. They did it in such a way that when we look back at that, you can't deny the image, the power of their image. That is the politics of respectability.

FH: Is there not equal power in the images of an uprising in Baltimore or L.A. after Rodney King or Watts?

Higginbotham: I think for reasonable people, rational people or people who know history, they understand those riots are a raisin in the sun. Remember that poem? They get it. What they also recognize is that after those riots occur, what comes next? The what comes next is what's so important because if there is nothing that's mobilized after that, nothing comes next. I lived in D.C. when that riot took place after King's death. We had neighborhoods that it took thirty years to rebuild. Now some people would say, "After the riots, that's when the government did ... " but that's not technically true.

Even things that come after the riots like the Kerner Commission where there was a real effort to come into the communities and try to understand what's going on with people, and I mean really an effort to say, "Let's put affirmative action into play," who do you think was involved in making those things happen? We were involved working with other groups of people to make that happen. If you're going to live in the United States, and if you want the most out of this country, if you want the justice that you think this country "stands for", no matter how you protest the injustices, the end result has to be something.

There's only one thing it can be: changing laws and making sure that laws are enforced. Making sure that courts interpret the laws [justly], because that's how this country operates. We fought a war. It's not like we didn't have blood shed. Did we not fight a war that truly put an end to slavery? Then what happens after that war is fought? That's what really made the difference. After that war was fought, it could have gone several ways. The first way the president was going wasn't the way that was going to get us equal rights, but you had congresspeople and you had efforts on the part of black people to get the vote and be elected. We got a14th amendment and a 15th amendment. How in the world do you get those amendments? Through the ratification process.

There's no way you can get past the government in this country. People say it doesn't matter who's the president. It does matter. People say it doesn't matter who's on the Supreme Court. It does matter who's on the Supreme Court, and we need to be conscious of this. In the midst of our protest, we need to be conscious. What are our goals? Let's look at Black Lives Matter. If the goal is to simply stop the police from killing black people, if that's the only goal that they have, there still has to be a strategic effort to make sure that happens. Voting is one way. People say, "Oh my god, that's not radical enough," but that DA in Ferguson became the DA through people's votes.

I'm not naïve. I know that just putting people in power and just passing laws, doesn't create the government for the people, by the people. I get all that, but you just have to keep pushing. The story of this nation is the constant push to make it more democratic. It is far more democratic today, despite all of its problems, than when your great-grandparents were alive.

I remember, I was in a meeting at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and we were in Jacksonville, and there was a panel on the long Civil Rights Movement and there were people who were arguing about the problem with integration. There were a lot of problems because some of our traditions were lost like newspapers and negro leagues. At the same time, the opportunities for inclusion were so much more. One of the things that was so obvious is that we could not even have been in that hotel in Jacksonville, Florida having that discussion had there not been a Civil Rights Act of 1964. It's easy to overlook the strides when you still see much injustice.

There is injustice, but we have to fight it. I still believe the way to do it in a lasting way is with allies. That's how movements are formed, you've got to have allies.  I was reading a post on For Harriet, and there was this young woman, I forget her name, she was talking about "Sometimes I just don't feel like being bothered." I understand it.

FH: That's a very common sentiment among people my age, honestly.

Higginbotham: No, I get it. I understand that historically. In the end, changes are not made unless you get some allies. At certain points it is strategically necessary to really be all black. At another point, you have got to get allies if you really want to make structural change in America. [For example] obs for our people and institutions of law and judicial systems, those are structural change. Changing disparate sentencing is about changing the court systems. If we want that kind of change, we've got to have allies.

FH: I won't inject myself into it, but I would say that from my conversations with activists, I think that they would really bristle at the idea of a political position that is meant to communicate something to people outside of the community.

Higginbotham: They don't know history. That's the second part of that. That was always the line that Malcolm X used, "You've got to know your history." He would argue that when he was in the Nation of Islam. He changed on that, but he always remembered his history.

The key thing is show me any moment in the history of our people in this nation where we did something completely black and we changed our situation. It just didn't happen. Not even people who had black towns. There were [some] examples in the 19th century. A black town in Mississippi, for example, called Mound Bayou. You could argue they changed the situation in this sense because most black people in Mississippi couldn't vote, but in Mount Bayou they had their own mayor. But those places are hardly functioning today. They become isolated. They become like dinosaurs.

FH: Also very vulnerable. Of course, I'm from Oklahoma where we talk about Black Wall Street  and the Greenwood district in Tulsa, but it was, of course, incredibly vulnerable to ...

Higginbotham: It was, but see there was a logic to Greenwood because those were the days of segregation. Those were the days when white society said, "You don't have access." What did we do? We built ourselves. In fact, this is what the church does. Why the church is so important is because it was the one institution that acted as public space for our people. It's in churches where we first established our insurance companies, our libraries, our schools because people were able to pull money together in those contexts.

I get it. Now if you look too strong, like Black Wall Street did, then they're going to quell that. The goal is to become strong, but even as strong as they were, their goal wasn't to be segregated and vulnerable and be made to feel like they were unequal. Imagine John Hope Franklin. His father was a lawyer in Tulsa. He had his own law firm, and he is made to feel unequal during World War I. This was even before the riot. John Hope Franklin was a little boy. He tells the story of his mother taking him on the train and these Germans, prisoners of war, are able to sit in the regular train while he is an American and his uncle is off fighting and they are in the Jim Crow car.

There's so much injustice, but the question is are you trying to be an actor in the transformation of America or are you an actor in constant protest? I'm not saying that protest doesn't create change. I'm not saying that, but protest has to be accompanied by all these strategic acts. For example, if you look at the groups like the NAACP, they're fighting in the courts to change laws. Martin Luther King is marching in the streets to gain the attention. There are people literally in the congress now who are talking to both those groups to begin to craft legislation. It's so much more of a complicated scenario. and that's how change is made.

Again, let's look at the abolitionist movement. I think people really need to study this—the history of black people in America, because our strides have come from these social movements. They come from our struggle of abolition. They come from our struggle against Jim Crow. They come from our struggles against lynching. Lynching was our Black Lives Matter in the late 19th century. Ida B. Wells was going all around the country talking about lynching, and there were people who thought that some of her language wasn't respectable because she was so graphic about people getting lynched and people's penises getting cut off, but no. She had a moral authority to push that message, and it was the women who supported her to do that message.

When she brought that message to the American people, they weren't listening. She had to go over to England. That's where she got her allies. She went over to England, and when the English press started talking about how barbaric Americans were, Americans felt a little bit miffed about that.

All those things work together. When you begin to think strategically, you have different groups. It's just that no one group should think it's the only answer, because it's the working together. You did have tensions around these groups, there's no getting around it, but it truly was all of them in play that made the difference.

FH: Can I pivot a little bit? Because respectability politics or whatever people have derived from the politics of respectability is, I really think, one of the most influential ideas in social justice discourse no matter how it's been misappropriated, but it's interesting to me that you are not visible in those discussions.

Higginbotham: That's often the case though. A scholar will come up with a term or a concept, it'll be popularized and they won't have any idea. When we talk about Black History Month or black history, a lot of people don't have the slightest clue who Carter G. Woodson was. That's very common, but people will come up and give me credit. Professor [Henry Louis] Gates is always telling people, "She's the one that came up with that." I'm not so egotistical that I have to remind people every time I hear it. I just don't want people to get it wrong. It bothers me when they say all these respectability people, as though these people are voices for the status quo. We're not the voices of the status quo.

FH: I think the Internet has something to do with this. On these terms and concepts and ideas that originated in academia are creeping their way into non-academic discourse everywhere. I had a conversation with my mom, who's an engineer, recently about something that happened at her job and she said, "Oh that's that white privilege."

Higginbotham: Yes. I don't know exactly who started white privilege, that term, but somebody did. You know who it was, the academic?

FH: Peggy something, I had to read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack for a class. I was interested in your thoughts on the benefits of these terms making their way into the mainstream. What are the benefits of that?

Higginbotham: I think it's people like you. You take these classes, first of all, and then you take these classes and you read these books and these words are there and you talk about them with other people. You talk about them with your parents. They seep into the culture just like things seeps into the culture of PhDs. Those words go both ways. The question is what the words mean.

FH: Peggy McIntosh, that's her name. Sorry.

Higginbotham: Peggy McIntosh, okay. White privilege, what does white privilege mean though? When a person says white privilege, does it mean the same thing? For example, when a white person says white privilege, do they understand it? Because that's a word they should be using, not just your mother. Your mother's very clear about what it means. Most black people are very clear about what white privilege means. Are white people clear about what white privilege means, because they take for granted so much of the privileges that they have. It's just like oxygen. The police are protectors to a lot of white people. To us they're people that you run from. See what I'm saying?

What do these words mean? If they are utilized or even if they're transformed for purposes that have a meaning that is positive, I think it's good. I think what bothers me about the misappropriation of the politics of respectability is that I am trying to describe what our people actually did and thought. It's not just something that I imagine and then fictionalize. This is a strategy. It's more than a strategy. You wouldn't just say Martin Luther King had a strategy of nonviolence. He did have a strategy of nonviolence, but he believed in it. He believed in it to his very core.

This politics of respectability is a way of thinking. Here's another side of it that most people recognize. You know white America is looking at black people. How many black people have said if certain crimes are committed, was it a black person that did it or a white person? That's the politics of respectability. What difference did it make? Do you think white people go around asking that question? Unless they're racist in their thinking it's a black person that did it, but the average white person, if they heard about some shooting in a mall, they're not going to ask was it a black person that did it or a white person that did it. They might ask it now about the police. If a policeman gets killed, they'll ask, "Was it a white person? Did a black person do it?"

We often will ask. It's important to us to know. That is the politics of respectability because we know that if it's a black person, on some level, there's just a negativity that we don't want to deal with. The flip of this is that if the police kill somebody, we are sometimes shocked. Freddie Gray. Those were black people involved in that, It's not just simply about race. I don't know that Black Lives Matter thinks about all police. Is it just about police?

FH: I think it's state violence.

Higginbotham: State violence, okay. Well state violence occurs at the level of police, at the level of the courts, in our prison systems. It's there and those things need to be transformed. The question is how do you transform them? All I'm saying to you is that the transformation of it takes on another level, one which you might call respectability politics, where you get somebody who comes in there and demands a voice at the table and the restructuring of things. Who's going to be at that table talking to governors and to people?

FH: In Baltimore for example, Marilyn Mosby became a hero when she was reading the indictments of the officers responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, and I never would have connected the politics of respectability to Marilyn Mosby being in the position that she's in to level some sort of justice on behalf of the people.

Higginbotham: Don't you think it makes a difference?

FH: It absolutely makes a difference. I think that representation absolutely does.

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