Lesson 5: Respectability Politics

The theme of our fourth session was Respectability Politics.

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” ― Zora Neale Hurston

We spent the bulk of the hour talking about how hard it is to root out the idea that certain people are more valuable than others because they conform to the standards of the dominant society. That we are all socialized to believe that CEOs have more intrinsic value as members of society than sex-workers, that a person with a PhD in Sociology, but no experience in a trans community has more valid things to say about that community than a person living in it, that people who dress a certain way, and speak a certain way, and have a certain life trajectory are more respectable than those who don’t.

We talked about how this is rooted in the concept of the American Dream, the idea that if you don’t “make it” here, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. We go looking for what exactly is wrong, and any differences between how people present themselves or their ideas, or how they live their lives, becomes the “reason.”

If we want to bridge gaps and build a more liberated world, we’re going to have to shed the notion that there is intrinsic value in the way that people within the dominant culture behave. Having the power to impose your world view on others does not mean that it is a more valid world view. Those of us who participate in the dominant culture should tread very lightly in spaces that aren’t familiar to us, should listen more than we speak, should show humility, and should learn the language, presentation and stores of value that are customary in those spaces, instead of trying to impose our language, presentation and stores of value on others.

We also watched this short video, detailing one example of how respectability politics plays out within and between groups. We didn’t spend much time talking about how people within marginalized communities internalize this idea of respectability, but this does a good job of describing how that works:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JM7RvwAwXSs

If you want to do more exploration, here are some extra resources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmdlMlRdt7Y

https://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/02/09/as-loud-as-i-want-to-be-gender-loudness-and-respectability-politics/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/jun/02/gay-stonewall-respectability-closet

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-politics-of-black-aspiration

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