Stay Off The Grass! Musings on Respectability Politics

Friday, a movie that was released in 1995, was and still is a favorite of many African-Americans. There are scores of us who can even quote select scenes as if we were cast in the movie because not only was it so entertaining that it was worth a 2nd, 3rd, and 45th viewing at the time, it still plays on select cable television stations to this day. It is chock full of memorable moments: Smokey recalling a bad drug trip, Craig fighting Debo, and Felicia begging for drug money and being hilariously (and now iconically rejected). But one of the scenes that I really like involved their uptight neighbor Stanley.

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Stanley was white collar, drove a fancy car, wore ascots and a smoking jacket, and was very Type-A about people stepping on his grass. I could relate to Stanley because my personality is similar and despite the fact that Friday was a comedy, I felt the depth of Stanley’s pain every time one of his neighbors transgressed his pristine lawn and understood that it was deeper than vegetation, but respect.

The increased visibility of racism on social media and a heightened social awareness has often led to conversations about “respectability politics.” Respectability politics is generally defined as an intra-group behavior that suggests that marginalized groups would fare better if they aligned their behavior more closely to that of the “dominant” culture, in this case, white people. You will often see, however, that the term’s meaning expands at times to include inter-group suggestions of how marginalized groups should adjust their behavior. In fact, late last year, there was one such case of a loud Black neighbor being asked to watch his volume at 2am and being put on notice that the police would be called if he could not comply with the request for less noise. Of course, the open letter era made sure this was a story that lived for at least 3 weeks. People criticized the white neighbors basically for wanting their Black neighbor to acquiesce to whiteness by not being so loud that their sleep was interrupted.

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Maybe it’s just me, but I’m perturbed by Black people who deem themselves knowledgeable about social justice equating good manners with something that white people do and Black people presumably don’t do unless they are “coons” or otherwise in service to the white agenda. First of all, I don’t think they understand the irony in such a suggestion. You can’t bemoan, “Gee, you’re really articulate” as being covertly racist, and then say that the expectation of peace and quiet at 2 AM on a weeknight in consideration of working neighbors is an attempt at erasing your Blackness. I don’t know where these people and their Blackness come from, but Blackness in my world =/= being inconsiderate and/or completely aloof about the fact that other people occupy the world with you.

This leads me to my second point which is that a lot of the behaviors that are labeled as “respectability” or “respectability politics” are traditionally just good manners or standard practice. I’ll use the sagging pants debate as an example. Though I accept that people have the freedom to wear what they want in most places (Google cities that have passed ordinances against sagging pants), it’s a standard part of most people’s upbringing that pants are worn at the waist, a belt or suspenders is used for pants that are too loose, and undergarments aren’t seen (hence, “under”). Good manners dictate that you don’t drive through ANY neighborhood with your music volume on 100, or chat through a movie, or talk loudly on your cellphone in a restaurant. None of these social rules were invented to culturally strip each other, but as an acknowledgment that in shared space in an average setting, everybody is important.

In reference to faring better by playing by the dominant culture’s social rules, that depends. I’ve already noted that I don’t agree with the implication that urbanity or civility is inherently a white trait that Black people betray their race by participating in. I’ll add that I don’t believe someone’s choice of dress or even general comportment, if non-threatening, is a reason for them to be harassed or their civil liberties to be denied. I also understand that there are situations that come down to your skin and nothing more.

The truth is, we are all judged based on how we navigate certain social rules, though. I can speak AAVE but I know that at some point, I have to code switch because when I need important business handled, AAVE likely isn’t going to help me. As a woman, I will be more leery of the guy who thinks we all want to see his boxer shorts. I wouldn’t buy a home in a neighborhood where people are playing their music loud enough to awaken the dead. I don’t care if that guy is a scientist at NASA. I don’t care if that neighborhood’s soundtrack is Beethoven’s 5th. But, the magic is, those guys are hardly ever scientists at NASA and that music is never one of the classical masters; at least not in my experience. Further, those guys aren’t all Black either and sometimes it’s country music.

When it comes to home-training, I’m an equal opportunity Stanley.

Am I saying that you can’t enjoy your life? No. I’m saying that in maneuvering life, we can’t be so deluded as to believe that 1) any expectation of reasonable comportment is an attack on Blackness (or whatever race you may be) and that 2) if we choose to ignore many of these social standards we won’t pay a price, even if it’s merely people not liking you. Be free. Enjoy life. But by all means, don’t let your abandon become everyone else’s dilemma.

“You are responsible for your life:” The Best Sentence Oprah Ever Uttered

 

About a week before Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th POTUS, the trend of Black people criticizing former President Obama for not “doing enough” for Black people while he was the sitting POTUS re-emerged. When probed, the things that President Obama should have done for the Black people range from reparations to solitarily ending violence in Chicago to increasing funding for inner city schools to turning crack houses into 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom middle-class bungalows.

I won’t mention the fact that these very people will acknowledge that the government has been screwing Black people over since we arrived here so it makes no sense to think that we’d all walk away with back pay plus interest just because the person in our highest office shared a phenotype. I won’t mention the fact that it’s not the president’s job to make sure that people know that it’s unacceptable to kill random people by the time they are old enough to independently navigate society. I won’t even mention the fact that local government has a lot more to do with city policing and that citizens would be much better off taking their concerns to their mayor and councilmembers.  Though I do not agree with every move President Obama did or did not make, you’ll never hear me say that any critique I have of him is due to the fact that he didn’t “do enough” for Black people.

This post isn’t about President Obama or any other political leader, though. This post is about responsibility. Contrary to 2017 logic, personal responsibility is not about denying the social maladies that we all loathe. It is not about blaming people for the problems they face. This is not the “bootstraps” theory. This post is about taking inventory and dealing with life in consideration of reality. I am talking about a serious examination of where we are, how we got there, and how we can excel in spite of the obstacles we may face individually and as a people. I am talking about not allowing issues, be they social or otherwise, keep us in a perpetual state of misery.

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Let me back up a minute. One of the definitions of responsibility is independence in decision-making. In other words, responsibility is a kind of freedom. I’ll go further and say that I believe responsibility is a form of intelligence that must be cultivated so that we are able to exercise it in a variety of situations throughout life. With that in mind, it doesn’t matter who helps you or what assistance any governmental entity offers you; if you don’t understand that your life is your responsibility, it won’t matter.

You will eventually spend all the money and be back in poverty.

You’ll neglect the bungalow and within 5 years, it will become the distressed property it once was.

You won’t take your schooling seriously and end up just as under-educated as you were before the shiny new schools’ doors were opened.

You could be given everything you ask for or everything you think you need and still find yourself in a situation that requires a magic wand if you don’t wisely take advantage of the freedom that is implicit in responsibility.

There are things that only you can do to enrich your life and set you on the trajectory that you desire, and doing those things takes the will to do so. Waiting on the government is a waste of time. By the time the government steps in, you could have saved yourself, your family and a few others. Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy because we don’t think or act responsibly, and then we abuse ourselves further by pretending that our mistake is someone else’s to handle.

I said on my personal Facebook page Wednesday that 2017 is the year of being put on notice. I could actually say that we were all put on notice the night of November 8th of last year. We are now sitting under an administration that could be described in a number of ways; harried, unprepared, ignoble, and erratic. If there were ever a time for us to thrust ourselves headlong into the practice of personal responsibility, now would be it. We may not have a crystal ball or political prescience, but I posit that we don’t need either of those things if we are willing to be the chieftain of our own journey.