I realise that many people will most likely be familiar with respectability politics as this relates to black Americans or the LGBT movement. I’d, however, like to add black Africans into the mix, and bring in a slightly different dynamic. Black Africans are not numerical minorities in our countries, but we do tend to be on the back foot in terms of power when dealing with transnational corporations and western nations. Furthermore, our very recent colonial and current neo-colonial experiences mean that we are still grappling with respectability politics in different aspects of our private and public spaces.
The basic tenets of respectability politics centre around a dominant group that considers a certain grouping to be inferior to them in mind, deed and morals. As such, they declare that this segment of the population will not be entitled to the same basic rights or human dignity.
The oppressed group is obviously not happy with the status quo and decides that it is going to prove the dominant group wrong, by not only upholding the same moral standards they [the dominant group] adhere to, but by meeting them and encouraging others within their [oppressed] segment to do the same. Additionally, there are social sanctions introduced for those within this oppressed group who appear to be letting the [oppressed] side down.This way, it will become patently obvious that the dominant group has no reason to fear treating the oppressed group like people.
In our colonial history many stereotypes were thrown about about the nature of black Africans, a popular trope being the lazy, loud and generally amoral African. This constructed African was thus obviously not worthy of inclusion in the power structures of society. Respectability politics posited that this position was essentially a misunderstanding, and that if we could work harder and change our cultural behaviours to sufficiently match the (puritanical) norms of the settlers we would have a leg to stand on when bringing forward our grievances.
Respectability politics says that if you show up to a discussion less than the image of perfect virtue that the given society currently upholds, you are disqualified from claiming the benefits of human decency and safety. Respectability politics also poses as quite revolutionary but really is just an internalisation of an inferiority complex coupled with an agreement to operate within the granted parameters, so as to not offend the sensibilities of the status quo. This strategy essentially leads to the reform of the bare minimum as it is compromise in the worst possible sense.
Respectability politics within women’s movements
What I find particularly worrying is the way in which different kind of activists continue to rely on respectability politics to get ahead. I have in mind, particularly, people involved in the women’s movement. We tend to find ourselves in quite a precarious situation where we don’t want to disqualify our insight before we have been heard to speak. So, what do we do? Policies aside, there is a tendency to leverage our actual or perceived fulfilment of what our patriarchy considers to be the requirements of good virtuous womanhood.
Our current respectability politics dictate that before we can bring up women’s rights, we must be seen to be good wives who meet their wifely obligations, we must be good mothers, we must be sufficiently submissive and not be overly concerned with cultural reform.
In terms of the latter, we must not be seen to overly question cultural practices such as the payment of roora/lobola. Neither must we be seen to engage in critique that could be seen to be an advocacy of foreign (often Western) values. Indeed, we must be seen to walk the line of puritanism inserted into the African culture by colonialism really well and appear to be happy about it in order to substantiate our Africanness. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a wife or a mother, rather what is problematic is the continued implication that you fail at [African] womanhood if you do not fulfill these roles. With the further implication that you are therefore not worth listening to.
In order for our experience to be legitimised by patriarchy we must not only be virtuous, but we must be seen to be exceedingly hard working and must seem sufficiently grateful to be in public spaces. Preferably we are to pipe up and be vocal about (perceived) moral decay.
When we accept the idea that human rights are earned or need to be granted by a patriarchal institution, then we also accept that these same institutions have the right to take them back. We must always be on guard lest the powers that be decide that they don’t like how you’ve turned out and they would like to go back to the days of (your) glorious subjugation.
There is no space left for individual identity and when perceived virtue is leveraged in order to gain access to rights, the rights which are granted are seen as being for that class of the ‘wonderfully virtuous’. A new conformity is required which is essentially a rehash of oppressive patriarchal structures but with new varnish, namely holding up your end of the bargain and ensuring that society does not implode.
Rights that are earned through respectability politics essentially come with a good behaviour clause, and where there is a good behaviour clause there will be policing to ensure that no one is letting the side down. Impose on each other, offer unsolicited advice on the way to ensure that you maintain the appearance of virtue. Not just for your sake but for everyone’s. The way you live your life becomes a matter of public concern, as if you appear to be abusing the rights so magnanimously granted by patriarchy you will prove the old stalwarts of patriarchal hegemony correct.
Victim blaming becomes not only acceptable but necessary. If the person who has been subjected to a crime fails to meet the standards imposed by patriarchy – I mean, the demands of respectability – then society becomes entitled to let themselves off the hook. This means that not only is the victim judged, but any calls for society reform are pooh-poohed. Society can in good conscience say that the person brought the harm upon themselves as they were not following the recommended safety guidelines. A particularly pertinent example in Harare has to do with sexual harassment and harm. When a woman who is dressed in a way not condoned by the patriarchy (e.g. a mini skirt) is attacked in public spaces, the issue is framed as her failure to meet societal rules. This is as opposed to the real issue of disregard of women’s bodily autonomy.
Furthermore, in order to ensure that in your complaining you’re not asking society to shoulder a burden that is yours and yours alone, the door is left open for intrusive, entirely irrelevant questions which seek to undermine the harm you have experienced. The classic example being, “What were you wearing when you were raped?”
What we need to do in our movements is consider women a non-homogenous group. We must constantly be asking ourselves whether our feminism is intersectional or whether we are sacrificing some women for conditional rights? Our plans are problematic if there is a class of women we think are not deserving of personhood. This also means that we need to seek out other voices and collaborations with women from different backgrounds. The point is not tokenism, rather connections built on dialogue and solidarity. The women’s movement needs to be wary of exclusion or forced inclusion but must have a lateral view of progress. Respectability politics only earns some of us a small step forward. We must cease to look to patriarchy to legitimise our actions and demands.
This article initially appeared at https://thirdculturefeminist.wordpress.com/ and has been adapted for Her Zimbabwe