In the aftermath of the “Ratchet PhD” post, I realize how many black PhDs are concerned with respectability politics. This term, which has been used by bloggers in recent years, was originally defined by historian Evelyn Higginbotham. According to her, 19th century black Christian women promoted “temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” as a project of racial uplift and full inclusion into American society.
However, in the 21st century, after we have at least theoretically gained equality, black folks are still concerned with being thought of as respectable, especially by other middle and upper class citizens. We prove we are good middle class citizens by policing others who have values which seem to be radically different from our own. It is easy, for example, to glance at websites such as http://www.hotghettomess.com, or ‘ratchet’ tumblr accounts to see pictures of half-naked people shopping at Wal-Mart, or a woman taking a picture of her butt while a child looks on in mild confusion. These pictures are meant to be humorous warning signals–and, it seems to suggest, you are not a ‘good’, (read: middle class) human being if you participate in these behaviors.
If my Facebook feed is any indication, educated, middle class people of color are most invested in policing these behaviors. It is as if we still believe that, if a person of color engages in behavior we consider abnormal, it reflects poorly on all people of color. Some people who post and re-post these pictures do it to show, “look, I am not like this. I am respectable, and this person is not.”
I was a part of the respectability politics police…until I came to graduate school. Studying black feminist, womanist theories, and African American women’s literature liberated me from the erroneous notion that there is only one way to live a respectable life. If I’m a saved woman or a stripper, I still have autonomy. I still have the right to be treated with the privileges of any other citizen. The quest for perfection forces some to live small lives which will not be worth a historian’s time.
Many academics of color feel as though they have to be perfect to remain in the academy. Their scholarship is on point, hair perfectly coiffed or cut, outfits just so. This is not a bad thing: it is important to create good scholarship, to be invested in one’s career. It is important to come to work on time, to be a good departmental citizen.
However, I am concerned with the pernicious idea that we must perform in a particular way all the time to be accepted by the academy. It is as if we believe that a 24/7 performance of perfection will allow us to ‘pass’ into elite spaces where others believe we do not belong.
Perfection is too high an admission price for the ivory tower.
Academics who are considered ‘non-traditional’ (i.e. first generation college graduates, people of color, etc.) can be happy that we have ‘made it’, but we should also interrogate the space. Rather than policing the behaviors of people whose personal lives are ‘ratchet’, we should see the academy as an elastic space which ought to be inclusive to all smart people who do good work.
My wise father once said that academics are the architects of thought. We have a responsibility and the power to question respectability politics, and to create an academy that reflects the diversity of the world in which we live.
For those reading who are unfamiliar with the term respectability politics, this gives a good explanation and background: http://alineinthesand.com/respectability-politics/