Playing the Game of Respectability Politics, But At What Cost?



By: Odochi Ibe


In our society what you wear, how you speak, and even your hairstyle are just a few ways that someone may determine who they think you are. However, for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, there is constant pressure to present “correctly” in order to be accepted and treated with respect. Respectability politics, or the codes of behavior that BIPOC—and other historically marginalized groups—attempt to use to appear acceptable to the dominant culture carry an overwhelming weight. As police brutality, hate crimes, and White supremacists' propaganda grow, BIPOC are increasingly pushing back against oppressive and outdated views of who they are and how they “should” behave. Dallas-based therapist Tammara Letbetter, MEd, LPC, NCC, DCC, is done with respectability, and she's teaching her clients how to be too. She's a dark-skinned Black woman with pink hair, nose piercings, and tattoos to match. When her clients see her, they're surprised that she's their therapist. "When [people of color] come in, they have this narrative that the therapist is going to be this White woman with a board taking notes… judging them," says Letbetter, owner of Trinity Rising Counseling Center. "And when they see me, they're like, 'Oh, you have tattoos and piercings…I didn't think you were going to look like this. They didn't think I was going to look like them. And so to see that it motivates them. And it helps [my clients] build safety so they can be open in therapy, so I can actually help them." By giving herself permission to fully show up as herself, Letbetter is pushing back against harmful stigmas hurting communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. History of Respectability Politics

Respectability politics is nothing new in the United States. Since colonizers landed on the shores of the Americas, BIPOC have had to grapple with harmful beliefs and ideologies forced on them. These tools of White supremacy have attempted to strip away their authenticity and cultural expression. In 1895, famed Black American poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar penned "We Wear the Mask," detailing the experience of hiding one's true self to survive a racist and dangerous world. At the end of three stanzas, he encompassed how marginalized people moved through the world, "We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; but let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask!" It's been more than a century since this famous poem was written, but the issue of masking oneself is still prevalent and harmful. The term 'respectability politics' was coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1993 book, "Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church." It refers to the belief that marginalized communities must adhere to dominant cultural norms to receive respect. One person may feel they bear the weight of depicting an entire race, society, or culture on their backs. Respectability politics is a dangerous and ineffective coping mechanism from years of abuse and ostracization. It creates schisms between BIPOC and the larger society while also creating toxic situations within the respective community that allow marginalization to continue. Although it may seem advantageous to just assimilate, there’s little proof that shows people will no longer be persecuted for doing so. In 1903, Black sociologist, pan-Africanist, and educator W.E.B Du Bois wrote “The Soul Of Black Folks,” delving into the problem of race and inequality in America. In it, he talks of conforming to White society while attempting to stay true to oneself: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness…one ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Over 100 years later this burden is felt by non-White Americans who are attempting to merge their heritages with what it means to be American. Dispelling the Myth

Michele Kumi Baer, a mixed-race Japanese American racial equity consultant, says that one issue with the "model minority" myth is that it erases Asian American history of organizing and causing "good trouble." She described feeling a sense of freedom doing racial equity work where she gets to teach people about Asian rabble-rousers like civil rights activist and Japanese internment camp survivor Yuri Kochiyama who worked in solidarity with Black, Yellow and Brown people in coalition building. "I've been in this work of being a racial equity trainer and consultant, and I go to organizations specifically to talk about race and racism and to push people's buttons—hopefully in a good way—or with better, more progressive outcomes," Baer said. "And I can see some times when I'm in rooms, and I'm with other Asian folks who are on staff [there] and just how different it is for them to have an Asian person in front of the room doing that." By standing in front of other people pushing back on the way a "good Japanese woman" behaves, Baer is resisting. Although at times problematic, respectability politics has been used in areas such as voting rights, immigration law, and issues of police brutality in hopes of creating strides towards equity for oppressed communities. In Professor Angela Banks' essay, "Respectability & the Quest for Citizenship," she discusses the reversal of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act using respectability. This narrative "described Chinese immigrants as sharing a belief in and experience with democracy, having a strong work ethic, having high moral standards, Christian or believing in a higher power, a commitment to the rule of law, self-sufficiency, and individualism." Although these narratives helped to repeal the act in 1943, it created a space for the model minority myth to be co-opted by White supremacists. As the belief's grown, it's caused harm to the Asian American, Pacific Islander, and other marginalized communities. Racial Triangulation

Professor Claire J. Kim's 1999 theory of racial triangulation examines how dominant groups have weaponized marginalized groups against one another to dismantle solidarity and horde their own sociopolitical and sociocultural power.1 In this theory, she asserts that Asian Americans are racially juxtaposed against Black and White people. "Racial triangulation occurs by means of two types of simultaneous, linked processes: (1) processes of 'relative valorization,' whereby dominant group A (Whites) valorizes subordinate group B (Asian Americans) relative to subordinate group C (Blacks) on cultural and/or racial grounds in order to dominate both groups, but especially the latter," she continues. "And (2) processes of "civic ostracism," whereby dominant group A (Whites) constructs subordinate group B (Asian Americans) as immutably foreign and unassimilable with Whites on cultural and/or racial grounds in order to ostracize them from the body politic and civic membership." Code-Switching

Another form of resistance is putting an end to code-switching. The Encyclopedia Brittanica defines code-switching as how people who spoke another language other than English switched seamlessly between the two. However, it's evolved into another strategy of suppressing aspects of one's cultural identity and assimilating to boost others' comfort. According to a 2019 study by Pew Research Center, Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely than their White counterparts to say they sometimes feel the need to change how they express themselves when around people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds.2 The Harvard Business Review found that code-switching is one of the critical dilemmas that Black employees face around race at work.3 David C. Williams, assistant vice president - automation at AT&T, says that although he was taught it was necessary to move up in the corporate world, he rarely code-switches anymore. "The key to our own success is to not hide any of it [and] leverage it in whichever way that you see best…You can't do that leaving part of your past behind," Williams says. "At Coachella, [Beyoncé] created a unique business model by using her passion and her past experiences, all of it. And we just have to have the courage to be able to do that. I'm working on that myself, building that courage. Being that person that can be that. So hopefully, I can be an example for somebody else to do the same." Devon Estes, a therapist in Houston, tells her clients they can resist a little bit at a time, but speaking up is essential. "We have to resist these micro-aggressive behaviors by really sticking up for ourselves. And that is so difficult for people," Estes says. "Most systems in corporate America are structured in a way that reinforces power and control, or you're not allowed to have a voice." "I tell them to do subtle resistance things gradually," Estes continues. "Change your hair, wear it a different way, use a different dialect…maybe today, you're not using your Anglo-standard American accent. Just something that makes you feel more comfortable. Bring a picture to work, put your HBCU pennant on your wall, or a sticker on your desk. Bring something into your space that reminds you of who you are…." Showing Up at Work

Being yourself at work, and speaking up against microaggressions takes bravery, but not doing so can cause BIPOC workers harm. Not speaking up can lead to anxiety and leaving the workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a "great resignation" ensued with 4 million Americans quitting their jobs last July.4 The pandemic coupled with latent bigotry in the workplace has spurred a mass exit from those who felt burnout and imposter syndrome. In a survey by the Future Forum, a Slack think tank, 97% of Black people in the U.S. said they preferred a fully remote or hybrid workplace. Only 3% of Black workers surveyed said they wanted to return fully in person, compared with 21% of White workers.5 Across the board, people feel the impact of being able to be their whole selves while at home, free from the violence of microaggressions. In Letbetter's practice, she's seeing more BIPOC clients coming in saying they want to change careers so they can be happy. "A lot of people are starting to not buy into what it is to be Black, Hispanic, or Muslim…to be all these different things. A lot of people now just want to be themselves," she says. Estes says that even within the mental health industry, she's encountered harmful stereotypes and ignorance. Once when she worked at a predominately White juvenile justice organization, her colleagues were making fun of a clients' need for food stamps, not knowing she and their other Black colleague had personal experience using them. When they brought the situation up to the manager unafraid of being the "angry Black woman," they were told to come up with diversity, equity, and inclusion training for their White colleagues—unpaid. Both Estes and her coworker decided to leave the company. "That just said to the both of us that we needed to get up and get out of there, that multiculturalism in our practice was not important to them," Estes says. "[As a therapist] when you don't take into consideration cultural competency, you're not taking into account their culture and where they're from. And so that comes in a lot with diagnosis and misdiagnosis." Williams, who leads a robust automation team inclusive of people with varying intersectionalities, said that companies need to get with the times, or they're going to miss out on workers and revenue. Hope for the Future

"The newest generation entering the workforce has absolutely no tolerance for not being accepted fully, period," Williams says. "And if you are a company that wants to continue doing business in 2022, you're going to have to hire someone, more than likely new talent, entering the workforce. And I thank God, I believe that the newest generation has ushered in a new level of freedom, where people can express themselves more fully, and feel comfortable to not be retaliated against for their culture, or their swag." Williams is not alone in his optimism for the future. Baer said she also feels hopeful and thrives best in community with others. "The network of people around me are also asking questions and figuring out for themselves what it means to create and be in spaces that more fully honor their humanity," they say. "And I feel that I've learned the most from queer [and disabled] folks of color that I'm in a relationship with, quite honestly. So that's something that helps me continue to learn and figure out what thriving means for me.”

Slow, positive changes are still continuing to happen. A few decades ago, it was nearly impossible for Black women to come to work with natural hair, but now there’s the CROWN Act. New Zealand news anchor Oriini Kaipara, who has moko kauae, a traditional chin tattoo commonly worn by Māori women, made history as the first woman to anchor a mainstream television program with a Tā moko. Although things aren’t perfect and there are still strides to make in the larger society and inside respective communities, progress is still being made. Through unlearning internalized racism, calling out microaggressions, and showing up as our full selves, BIPOC are reclaiming their time and creating social equity. Artwork by Alex Dos Diaz Sources:

  1. Kim CJ. The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. Politics & Society. 1999;27(1):105-138.

  2. Pew Research Center. Views on Race in America 2019.

  3. McCluney CL, Robotham K, Lee S, Smith R, Durkee M. The costs of code-switching. Harvard Business Review.

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary - 2021 M11 Results.

  5. Slack. Leveling the playing field in the new hybrid workplace.


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