Respectability politics posits that conformity to certain societal standards can protect a person, usually a member of a marginalised group, from the institutionalised oppression the demographic faces.
Simply put, respectability politics is the imposition of values on people in a bid to control their behaviour. For black people, respectability politics is the demonisation of our culture and historical practices. This requirement of accepting western values and standards of morality and professionalism to merit respect fuels racial injustices justified by respectability politics.
For women, respectability politics manifests as the expectations that we conform to society’s perception of what a woman is; docile, obedient, servile and so on, to earn respect. Women who do not fit into the mould designed for them are disrespected and oppressed in numerous ways. Honour killings, slut-shaming and several other evil practices tied to respectability politics continue to keep women in a box and limit their right to self-determination and expression.
It also manifests in instances of sexual assault or rape. Society demands a “perfect victim” and further traumatises victims by attributing the actions of the perpetrator to some fault/flaw in their persona or story.
There is also the requirement that women constantly coddle and placate men. A man is harassing you but still expects you to be nice to him, to smile; to entertain his advances against your own will. If as a woman, you reply harshly, people will ask why you escalated things and made him angry. If you respond nicely, they will say you led him on. Catch 22.
Some people try to fit into society’s standards to earn the respect that should be a natural right, thinking that it will save them from the oppressive, sexist and racist institutions. The unfortunate truth is that most people can not use conformity and exceptionalism to escape oppression. Sure, fitting the mould or being so accomplished that you don’t need to will probably protect you, said singular person, but that oppression will remain institutionalised and continue to oppress other people.
To abolish respectability politics, the demographics oppressed by standards and structures designed to thrive at their expense need to stop trying to conform to said standards. We are autonomous individuals, sufficient in ourselves and should have the fully encompassing right to self-determination and expression.