I recently read the first chapter of Dark Continent of Our Bodies by Black feminist historian E. Frances White. White explains how politics of respectability reinforced racist beliefs about working class and poor Black women, particularly the Jezebel stereotype.
What are Politics of Respectability?
According to White, 19th century organizations like the Black women’s club movement and Women’s Convention adopted a politics of respectability:
The politics of black respectability included the expectation that black women would represent the race by fighting for racial equality.1
Black women’s clubs attempted to engage White women as allies in a sexist struggle:
The black women’s clubs worked both to introduce bourgeois customs to poor black women and to persuade whites of black women’s ability to adopt these customs (Davis 1998).2
However the Black women’s club strategies facilitated the ideals of middle class Black women and restricted the agency to poor and working class women. For instance, “Black club and church women also used the white gaze as a tool to regulate black behavior.”3
They struggled to have black women reclassified as good women rather than expose the bankruptcy of the entire system.4
Politics of respectability also privilege Black heterosexual relationships and a patriarchal family structure. Nevertheless, politics of respectability by 19th century Black feminists challenged how society evaluated Black women’s bodies and sexuality.
Politics of Respectability Today
Politics of respectability aren’t limited to the nineteenth century. I think social media is a stage where black sexual politics play out and reproduce these tropes today.
When it comes to Black women today, saying their lives matter and speaking their names includes our Ayesha Currys, our Cardi Bs and the spectrum of Black women in between. The legacy of the Jezebel stereotype and Black feminist organizing necessitates it.