Politics of Respectability and the Guise of Social and Institutional Power

Politics of Respectability and the Guise of Social and Institutional Power

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


Exploring the lived experiences of the Strong Black Superwoman

Exploring the lived experiences of the Strong Black Superwoman

Exploring the lived experiences of the Strong Black Superwoman

There is a character on ABC’s popular medical drama series, Grey’s Anatomy, named Dr. Miranda Bailey. Dr. Bailey is a black woman. In fact, she is the substance of what black girl dreams are made of. She is high academic achieving, ambitious, goal oriented, the chief of a medical hospital, a well-respected surgeon, a consummate professional, and she does all of this while being a mother and a wife.

Dr. Bailey is the superwoman archetype of black women personified. And just like many of the real life black women that are seemingly “effortlessly” excelling in every aspect of their lives, she struggles with showing vulnerability. Dr. Bailey is a strong black woman, and there is very little to no space for vulnerability when you are a strong black woman.

 As black women, we take on so many roles as professionals in industries in which we are underrepresented, as caretakers of our families, as nurturing friends and the list goes on. We manage the day to day responsibilities of these various roles within the context of toxic environments in which we routinely encounter racial and gender micro-aggressions. We engage in code switching as a professional development tool and we think and rethink our every move to avoid not being categorized as the pervasive and dangerous negative stereotypes of black women such as the mammy (caretaker/nurturer), the jezebel (hypersexual), the sapphire (spicey/sassy), or the welfare queen (lazy and living off government assistance). We work so hard to avoid these categorizations that we often times leave microaggressions unaddressed, discriminatory practices unaddressed and our very own lived experiences unaddressed.

In the 2009/2010 academic year, black women received a higher percentage of degrees within their race/ethnic group than did women in any other major group in the country, however, we continue to face a wage gap even larger than women overall. We are leading the nation in labor force participation, burgeoning entrepreneurship and voter participation. We are healing the world. But we are doing so at the cost of our own health.

The stress responses to these lived experiences orchestrates physiological responses in our bodies that change the course of our health across our life span and across our children’s life span. Black women are driving the infant mortality rate in this country because of the impact of institutionalized racism on our lived experiences in this country. Black mothers in America die at three to four times the rate of their white counterparts. The disparity in infant mortality between black women and white women is wider today than it was in 1850, 15 years before slavery ended.

We are also disproportionately impacted by adverse health outcomes such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, cervical cancer, fibroids, sickle cell, mental illness and sexually transmitted diseases.

There is a cost associated with being a superwoman who does not have the freedom to process stress and emotional distress through vulnerability, when living in a society in which you are multiply marginalized. This past season, on Grey’s Anatomy, the strong black superwoman character known as Dr. Miranda Bailey, had a heart attack. While her intellectual superpowers, her ability to advocate for herself and navigate the health care system saved her life, these black girl super powers could not protect her from health care practitioner’s dismissal of her symptoms and misdiagnosing her accurate self-assessment of cardiac arrest. Dr. Bailey admitted herself into the emergency room reporting symptoms of cardiac arrest and she had to fight to get proper treatment, she had to fight to get doctors to believe her reported symptoms, she had to fight to save her own life! Black women are 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than their white counterparts.

Although Dr. Bailey is a fictional character, her experiences within the health care system are consistent with what many black women have experienced and continue to experience because of racial bias within the healthcare system. Studies have shown that unrecognized bias against a specific ethnic group can affect the care given to those individuals. So for all the strong black women that may not be armed with the superpowers that served as protective factors to Dr. Miranda Bailey, their vulnerability is exacerbated.

There is strength in vulnerability and tremendous healing power. Connecting with our vulnerability allows us to feel what is going on inside of our bodies. When we avoid vulnerability with busyness, we place more stress on our bodies and ignore early signs and symptoms of health issues. Vulnerability is the greatest superpower of them all. It helps us to be proactive with our physical and emotional health. While it may be painful to acknowledge, process and move through vulnerability, because it forces us to address challenging life experiences, we are strengthened by this process. So to all the strong black superwomen, find your vulnerability super power, because we must first heal ourselves before we can go out and heal the world.  

Holistic Health

Holistic healing focuses on the health of the whole being- physical body, mind, emotions, spirit, and environment as an extension of the human being. It’s the natural way of taking care of the body to maintain optimal energy flow, balance, and functioning in all of the body’s layers and systems. Holistic health takes a preventative approach that encourages attunement to the cycles and seasons of nature so that lifestyle choices align with the body’s natural energy, maintenance of a clean nourishing diet with periods of cleansing and fasting, using natural products without synthetic chemicals (if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin), taking care of the earth and keeping it in balance as our main source of life, involvement in a values aligned community to support growth, service, and self actualization, career/work/daily activities for mental stimulation and fulfillment, intimate relationships and creative outlets for social and emotional well being, physical movement to shift energy and detoxify, stillness to release energy and balance the nervous system, and time in nature to reset the bodily systems. When illness, pain, distress, or some other imbalance arises, holistic healing looks to the root of the imbalance by paying attention to the body and how it’s operating in its day to day routine such as changes in sleep/rest patterns, day to day stress, challenging transitions. Holistic healing considers how the body is responding to its environment and the effects that has on physical constitution such as pain, digestive issues, inflammation or swelling, excess mucus, congestion, and low energy levels, among others. When ailments arise, the medicine varies from healing foods (mostly or all plant based), medicinal herbs, prayer, rest, healing modalities from ancestral, Eastern, and native traditions. Holistic healing does not diminish the value of allopathic/western medicine for treating chronic and acute issues and seeks to avoid having issues rise to that level. Practicing holistic health is a beautiful process of intention, self-discovery, self-realization, connection, self-love, self-care, and growth that delivers a deep and intimate knowing of the individual and recognition of the divine intelligence, wholeness, and interconnection of the human body and human beings. It has helped me to realize how valuable my health is and has given me an appreciation for life, how good my body can feel, and what I’m able to create and accomplish when my energy is clear and available to focus on living purposefully.

By Kimberly Doley