To Hell With The Politics Of Respectability

by Osamagbe Osagie

"Beware of Respectability. It is a terminal disease." -Dr. Mark Naison

Shame. Guilt. Lack of necessary social resources. These are all the tactics employed by one of society's most notorious yet oft overlooked murders: the politics of respectability. Cultivated in a hetero-normative, Eurocentric, cis-male, middle/upper class, Christian based, hegemonic context, the politics of respectability thrives off of debilitating its prey in order to concentrate and maintain its power.

Not too long ago, I was on Twitter and I came across a tweet, written by an African-American male that stated, "(insert a particular all male higher- learning institution), do not air out our dirty laundry." Having heard this phrase countless times, I become increasingly fed up with the nonsensical nature of this saying.
In my opinion, "Do not air out our dirty laundry" implies that one is more concerned with up-keeping his or her superficial facade which he or she feeds the public, than dealing with the underlying issues. Normally, the usage of this phrase is used to 1) alleviate the individual from feeling emotions -- which cause vulnerability. and 2) Prevent the loss of one's power/prestige. The combination of these two factors clouds our judgment and restricts us from accessing opportunity.

When dissecting this "don't air out our dirty laundry" mentality, I believe it is essential that we respect the importance of societal constructions (i.e. race, class, gender, sexuality, etc). For non-whites, specifically African-Americans, I find this phrase especially disturbing because our existence has faced routine denigration. Therefore, in order to regain a level of humanity, we have clung close to this idea of “respectability.”  Irrespective of the internal problems that persist, as long as we appear respectable (.e. wear suit and a tie to a 9-5 job, sport “professional” hair styles , embrace a svelte body-figure, refrain from having babies out of wedlock, refrain from ascribing to "hood-rat tendencies",  refrain from bearing non-ethnic names, etc, than we will be seen as”appropriate."
When we measure our morality and respectability to standards that have been created by a community that has oppressed us for hundreds of years, one cannot help but see how silly and, more importantly, how detrimental this is to our survival. When we consider this "don't air out our dirty laundry” mentality, it does nothing but strengthen the power of those who fit into the hegemonic, American mold. It baffles me that someone who does not fit this criteria would further subjugate themselves to its power.

Another key portion of this "don't air out our dirty laundry" policy is the necessity of secrecy. As mentioned earlier, because vulnerability threatens the maintenance of one's power/prestige, then it is crucial that secrecy is uphold. Rather, it is the presence of secrecy that deafens the cries of those who are oppressed the most. How many gat men and women, girls and boys, have put themselves in perilous situations or even worse, perished at the expense of "not airing out dirty laundry"? What about the young teen moms? The one's who are afraid of the backlash that they must face if their pregnancy is revealed so she undergoes a risky abortion? Not enough? Well, let's consider the women, men, girls and boys that are victims of sexual and domestic violence. You know those little girls who are getting raped and whose mamas are getting beat. But because their mother is guilted into not shaming the family, she remains silent. We mustn't forget that society faithfully shames individuals, particularly girls, for expressing a level of sexually agency and responsibility, so she forgoes using contraceptives. In return she receives a STI/STD.
It pains me that so many of us are overly concerned with how we are perceived at the expense of not only our souls but of the souls' of the innocent. The obsession with our perception plagues far too many of us. If failing to be respectable means that you will not turn a  blind eye to your son as he suffers sexual abuse from a revered religious leader in your community, then so be it. If failing to adhere to the politics of respectability means that your institution is known for its financial instability, its underlying culture of homophobia or its trivial, elitist school rivalry with a neighboring institution/other things which I will not list, then SO BE IT.

What profit does silence bring? The great Audre Lorde said it best, "Your silence will not save you." At the basis of silence lies stagnancy, so denounce your inferiority. Put down your pride. Recognize your weaknesses. Use your vulnerability and work toward a better outcome. Seek assistance.
My heart weeps for the astronomical number of lives that have been ruined and prematurely claimed all in the name of upholding "respectability" in a society that will never respect them. As an optimist and seeker of social reform, it is my desire that as a society we radically re-evaluate and re-define what is acceptable, so kiss the politics of respectability a hearty "goodbye" and send that sucker straight to hell.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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