Respectability Politics: When Mixed Race People Police Each Other

Respectability Politics: When Mixed Race People Police Each Other

Mixed Race Feminist Blog

Nicola Codner
Leeds, Yorkshire, United Kingdom

Respectability politics relates to the efforts of people in marginalized groups to convince their own group members to conform to the thoughts, values and practices of those in the dominant group, instead of challenging those in dominant groups about their problematic behaviours. I’ve been thinking about respectability politics a lot lately because frequently I come across this as a social justice blogger, the administrator for a feminist community and a member of various other online feminist groups.

I am pretty upfront in my activism at times. I can be very direct and expressive. I see this as the Jamaican side of my identity. Some English people can struggle to deal with this part of my Jamaican identity because it differs so widely from notions around British respectability, where traits such as politeness and being reserved and accommodating are highly valued. Other groups of people besides those who subscribe to stereotypical English norms can also struggle to deal with some of my ideas and ways of communicating, especially people who think that those in oppressed groups always have to be super nice to members of dominant groups no matter how much oppression has come their way. I do not personally subscribe to the belief that people in marginalized groups always have to be nice and placate their oppressors, or conform to their oppressor’s value systems. This is clearly oppressive in itself. When it comes down to it, I guess I have more of a Malcolm X philosophy in my approach than an Martin Luther King one (not to discredit the work of MLK). What I mean by that is I prefer radical and confrontation methods in my activism much of the time. That’s just me….

…I’ve been trying to figure out why some mixed race people engage in respectability politics. I think this is really just an elaborate defence. Critiquing whiteness can be particularly uncomfortable for some mixed race people, especially those who have some white heritage. For those of us who have some white heritage (my mother is white so I am included here), critiquing whiteness means we have to look at some of our own privileges and also perhaps how some aspects of our upbringing and family life were or are problematic. It’s not an easy journey to go on, but it’s a necessary one in order to dismantle oppression. For some mixed race people examining whiteness can feel like a betrayal of their white family members and perhaps their own identities…

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