Respectability politics is a term most commonly used in or in reference to African-American interactions with society at large. It proposes that there would be less racism in America if black men wore belts. Or if black women didn’t have children without the benefit of a marriage licence. It puts responsibility for external attitudes on the individual. This is problematic in a lot of ways… hoodie-wearing should not be a death sentence in the case of Trayvon Martin. The problem in that case was George Zimmerman, not Trayvon Martin. Respectability politics suggests that Trayvon could have controlled Zimmerman’s reaction to him by wearing a suit and tie. Respectability politics is society’s equivalent of an abused spouse internalizing and owning the abuser’s assertion that the spouse is only subject to a black eye because they know better than to disagree with the abuser. If you didn’t piss me off, I wouldn’t have to beat the shit out of you.
But this mentality is deeply ingrained. And it isn’t just within the African American community. We are a country with a skitzy understanding of personal responsibility. Listen to the self-descriptions of people who are long-term unemployed. They talk about all the things they should have done, as if any individual cog can control the big gears of our society. An individual cog can move the big gears, but it has to be in the right place. Like the head of Goldman Sachs. Little cogs from the working class in Indiana had nothing to do with the global forces that have shaped our economy in the past 50 years. You’d have to look to the politicians for that.
Collectively, there isn’t one former miner or factory worker who could have been respectful enough, educated enough, good enough, or well-spoken enough to save the jobs that provided middle-class lives to high school graduates. You can’t look at the long-term unemployed and subject them to the same rational that drives respectability politics.
You should have tried harder. You should have done better. What do these statements even mean? Better is not a measure. It isn’t a concrete action. We all do the best we can with what we have at any given decision point. No one wakes up and says “I think I’ll fuck up permanently today.”
None of which improves the individual experience. What is true collectively doesn’t hold up individually. All it does individually is absolve someone of self-recrimination for the past, freeing them up to address the future. Respectability politics wouldn’t have saved you, and they aren’t going to save you now. I don’t propose anything criminal, but I most certainly propose those things that don’t require someone else’s permission.