Politics of Respectability and the Guise of Institutional Power
Over the weekend, I attended a very rich, data driven conversation about Race and Equity with a group of over 40 systems leaders, across a diverse range of industry sectors in New Orleans. The first day, I arrived to the conversation a bit late, so I asked a familiar face (who happened to be hosting the event) where I should sit. He responded, “Do you drink CC’s Coffee?” I said, “No I drink PJ’s Coffee…but I remember seeing you in there pretty frequently at one time.” He responded, “Yeah I remember…the hair…” He then made a hand gesture illustrating the width of my thick, frizzy hair.
Later that evening when the session ended, a friend was having a conversation with the same man that referenced my hair. She asked me if he and I had ever met. I explained that we knew each other because we frequented the same coffee shop. He responded and said, “Yes those earrings are huge (pointing to my hoop earrings)…massive…that’s how I remember her.”
I went home that night and gave his comments some consideration. I wondered if the other people in the room saw my thick, frizzy hair and “massive hoop earrings” and decided that I was less professional than the other individuals in the room, due to my appearance. The next day I arrived with a minor adjustment…my thick, frizzy hair pulled was pulled back into a thick, frizzy ponytail.
After the second day of the session, the same man approached me and said, “Hey who knew there was a brain in between those big hoop earrings?!? I had no idea that you were intelligent….I thought you were just a pretty face…”
This was not my first encounter with a reference being made about my hair or my earrings. Years ago, I was at a staff meeting and a black female colleague of mine asked me, “Danielle is your hair naturally just frizzy like that or do you have to do something to make it look like that.”
The encounter from years ago was with an African-American woman and the one that I had over the weekend was with an African-American man. There have been many encounters in between the aforementioned two described, from both African-Americans and white people. I have experienced these comments across a wide range of ages…from millennials to baby boomers. I have even experienced them from family members.
So I decided to give some thought to my very ethnic appearance…my thick and frizzy hair, my large hoop earrings, my curvy body, and my attire that is often form fitting to my curvy body. I wondered if I were less curvy, wore stud earrings and had flatter hair, and more conservative taste in clothing, if my appearance would deem me to be seen as “intelligent.”
Afterall, a black man had taken one look at me and deemed me unintelligent on the basis of my appearance. So in one glance my doctorate degree, two masters degrees, my position as the founder of an organization, my short laundry list of certifications and the fact that I had been invited to be a part of this conversation with systems leaders was nullified by my appearance.
People of color have a treacherous history with politics of respectability. Navigating our historical legacy of racial terrorism and the contemporary challenges that we face, our ability to take control of our appearance has been regarded as a protective factor…a tool that can be used to protect us from being categorized as the negative stereotypes that exist for African-Americans, protect us from the inability to acquire a job, protect us from not being regarded as “respectable”, protect our sense of safety and security. Or does it? Even altering our appearance to meet what we deem as Eurocentric standards of appropriateness, professionalism or respectability still WILL NOT protect us from any of those things.
While I do not wish to exacerbate the vulnerability of my social position by not subscribing to the appearance of “intelligent.” I also feel a strong spirit of resistance to subscribing to what does not feel like my natural expression of my outward appearance, in an attempt to gain the respect or approval of others.
In 1850, Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) challenged white women suffragists around the politics of respectability of that era through her Ain’t I A Woman speech. She challenged a movement that excluded enslaved black women from the fight for equality of all women. Sojourner Truth was fighting to be regarded as a woman and part of her argument was that black women deserved the same politeness and kindness shown to the white women of that era (The Victorian Era).
And as recently as 2015, author and scholar Lakisha Michelle Simmons, wrote a book titled Crescent City Girls. In it, she expounded on this same notion of politics of respectability. She explored the ways in which politics of respectability can be limiting and restricting to a black woman’s individuality and expression of such individuality. She contends that the generation of women that were raised and mothered by women who were raised during the Jim Crow South Era experience rigidity around the way that they should behave and appear in order to be considered a respectable lady and to be deserving of the privileges associated with such.
There has clearly been intergenerational transmission of this ideological perspective. However, it has manifested itself into the ways in which a woman should appear and behave in order to be deemed as deserving the privilege of politeness, respect and in my own personal case, be regarded as intelligent or deserving to be in a cohort of system leaders. The standards of appearance and behavior through categorizations are rigid and restrictive and dangerous for individuality and inclusion.
The social stratification system that undergirds contemporary American society is the impetus behind inequities in the distribution of wealth, health, education, access and opportunities across race, class, and gender in this country. The historically dominant ideological perspective, cultivated during colonialism, which established the white male as the ruling group member, remains the fabric of American society today. This ideological perspective shapes the features that are essential to institutional and social power.
Each time an individual participates in upholding such standards or subscribing to them to attain perceived access or perceived upward mobility, perpetuates the guise of institutional power. If we intend to gain access, upward mobility or institutional power in an authentic way, it will not require altering our appearance to meet rigid and restrictive standards that exclude ethnic expression of personal style.
After a lot of deep deliberation, I have decided to do my part in expanding the schema of what an intelligent black woman looks like by continuing to wear my naturally big and frizzy hair, my large hoop earrings that have been a part of my personal style since early adolescence, my matte red lipstick, my curvy body, my clothes that fit to the form of my curvy body and my general around the way girl, Ethnic swag. I have decided that this is one of the many ways that I will contribute to diversity and inclusion in an authentic way.
Written by Danielle K. Wright