Friday, January 31, 2014

Black Women & The Continuing Problem of Respectability


The myth of hyper-sexuality is a stereotype Black women have been forced to bear for centuries. It originates from slavery and is still thoroughly woven into our cultural imagination. It controls how Black women's bodies are viewed. It minimizes our sense of personal choice. It takes sexual subjectivity away from Black women.

Scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham coined the term "politics of respectability" in her landmark text Righteous Discontent. In this text, she outlines how nineteenth century Black Baptist women countered the notion of hyper-sexuality by supporting a strict form of sexuality: a more perfected and stringent version of the rules of sexuality in which white women were expected to follow in their hetero-patriarchal society. They believed that this would allow them to escape some of the vitriol of being labeled immoral and impure.

Of course, respectability politics makes a fallacious assumption in believing that Black people are maligned because of an inability to strictly conform to white middle class norms. Most white people do not even conform to white middle class norms. Black folks are degraded because of race. Every other reason is simply an excuse or a way of masking the true nature of anti-Blackness.
So respectability politics has never worked for Black people in mainstream society. However, it has become a means of inflicting horizontal oppression on each other through intersecting forms of oppression such as gender, sexuality, and class.

Today many Black feminists employ a different and oppositional strategy which can be summed up to being anti-respectability politics. It is built on the idea that Black women should not and cannot expect approval from white society and therefore, the white gaze should not be heeded to.

This method has done great work in supporting anti-classism and anti-sexism. It has allowed us to broaden our understanding of Black subjectivity and has contributed towards dismantling much white supremacist thought. However, it often makes the problematic assumption that oppression can be lifted by redefining what is respectable or discounting the importance of respectability altogether.

While the idea of Black women's hyper-sexuality has been with us for centuries, it has been constantly evolving. As white women have made feminist gains and white women's sexuality has been in many ways re-conceptualized to accommodate those gains, the myth of Black women's hyper-sexuality has shifted in nature but maintained its strength.

At a time where white women such as Miley Cyrus are lauded on the basis of their outright sexuality, we are simultaneously living in a time where Black women such as Beyoncé are stigmatized for theirs. Black women's bodies continue to be disrespected and devalued all while white women make strides.

Let's be clear. Being sexual has never been the issue. It is the ability to be respected and sexual that is the issue.

Poor women and women of color have always been assumed to be and coerced into being sexually available for the benefit of white men as well as men of color. Only women of privilege have ever been able to use abiding to cultural norms and respectability as a means of safety. In other words, only women who were deemed respectable on account of their privileged identities (race and class in particular) could then choose to abide by middle class white norms in order to further protect themselves.

So when people respond to the charge that Beyoncé wears too little clothes or is too overtly sexual by claiming that those things do not make her less "respectable" they are really not saying anything of substance. Obviously, Beyoncé's means of expressing herself sexually does not make her not respectable if white female entertainers are doing the same thing without issue.  

We are dealing with Blackness being mutually exclusive from respectability. 

And when we claim that respectability is not important any at all we are in essence throwing in the towel. Of course, respectability is important when Black women are being attacked, abused, maligned, and disrespected because we cannot fit within the parameters of respectability. 

I am as uninterested in shaming a Black woman for her sexual choices as I am in pretending as if ideas of respectability do not impact my life and the lives of other Black women.

Just as centuries ago, Black women continue to be a signifier for all that is non-respectable. White women have been fairly successful in re-positioning sex and sexuality itself to being "normal" and respectable. It is much easier and simpler to re-position an act as respectable than it is a person.

I certainly don't have solutions. But I do have a grasp of the problem. Truthfully, it is hard for me to imagine a world in which Black women's sexuality is not burdened by notions of hyper-sexuality. I suppose because that would necessitate a world rid of white supremacy and patriarchy.

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