How the Double Standards of Respectability Harm Black Women

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by Inda Lauryn

Acknowledging the ways in which black women and men come at odds with each other can be a painful experience. Trying to find common ground when it comes time to sit down at the table becomes a gargantuan task within itself. For while we share a common struggle as black people, we often try to ignore the ways in which gender dynamics affect us differently and do us harm.

A recent open letter by Breukelen Bleu on Black Girls Unscripted’s Facebook page as a response to the “Why You Mad, Son?” Radio Show’s video of a young woman being harassed on the street makes this clear. Bleu’s response is scathing and gets at the heart of the problem with respectability politics. In an open letter to the young woman in the video, “The MadMan” blames her harassment on the fact that she is wearing revealing clothing and she had to expect the behavior of the “disturbed” man following her around with a camera. Bleu responds:

“If you put a fancy car in front of a black male, you MUST be ‘asking’ him to steal it. If you [are] walking with a purse on [the] street, you MUST be ‘asking’ to get mugged. If you open up a gas station in a black neighborhood, you MUST be ‘asking’ to get robbed.”

Intentionally or not, Bleu gets to the heart of the problem with how we gender respectability politics. Seeing black women in the same way as one sees fancy cars, purses, and gas stations puts us in the same category as property. And whether or not they intend it, black men who attempt to police black women’s behavior and dress are looking at us as their property, not a humans with autonomy.

It also reinforces a double standard for black women. While black women generally will defend black men’s right to wear the kinds of clothing they want in any style they want whether or not we like it, we do not get the same acceptance from black men. Black women are expected to uphold standards of respectability when men want it. However, these men also catcall and harass women who wear fashions typically seen in many music videos and other stages of public spectacle. Furthermore, even if they are “accepting” of black women’s rights to dress as they want, they still feel this gives them license to access these bodies as they want.

Bleu’s comments also point to another problem regarding respectability politics when imposing restrictions on what women wear by saying they will attract “disturbed” individuals. People who do this are inadvertently making a claim that black men (and by extension, all cisgender men) are inherently rapists or at least potentially rapists. Such a claim reinforces the belief in an inherent pathology of black men who are sexually aggressive and violent. All it takes is the “right” circumstances and opportunity and women become fair game to them. What this belief also does not consider is that rape and sexual assault most often occur at the hands of someone the victim already knows and trusts.

In writing that open letter to the young woman harassed in the street, “The MadMan” not only disrespected the autonomy of black women but also further pathologized black men. He had no way of knowing how safe this young woman felt with someone openly following her and filming her as she walked down the street or if she actually did retreat to a private space when she went into the room with other people already there. He also does not question why the harasser feels entitled to film this woman, then tells her to shut up and calls her out of her name when she asks him to leave her alone.

This type of harassment and respectability politics is not the sole mentality of black men. As Byron Hurt points out in his 2006 documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, this form of toxic masculinity is rooted in the mythology of the Old West that has deeply embedded itself into the national psyche. This means misogyny, and more specifically misogynoir, is not a product of black male pathology. Not surprisingly, many black men have embraced toxic masculinity in a society that devalues their manhood in much the same way black women embrace the Strong Black Woman trope. Unfortunately, toxic masculinity in black males harms those into which they come into closest contact, usually black women.
Black men must realize that the attitude that allowed a man to follow a woman with unwanted attention—then broadcast his stalking of her—is not seen as harassment because of toxic masculinity and a double standard in respectability politics. When people like Bleu remind us of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, they remind us that all black lives matter, not just black men in suits and ties and black women in their Sunday best. They also remind us that respectability politics will not save us. When Christine Fox asked women to tweet about what they wore when they were sexually assaulted, thousands of women responded and showed that rape and sexual assault are not contingent upon what the victim wore.

The gendered nature of respectability politics harms black women. Black men who believe that black women only deserve respect when they meet certain criteria unintentionally tell us that not all black women or all black people matter. Just as a black man does not deserve to be stopped and frisked because he sags his pants, a black woman does not deserve to be harassed and assaulted because she wears short shorts. Black women stand by black men in all types of circumstances. Black men must step up and provide that same support and protection to all black women, not just the ones they deem “worthy.”

Photo: iStockPhoto

Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects and occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press.

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