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.


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.


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.