What does 'respectability politics' mean? Will Smith's Oscars slap sparks debate over policing Black behavior

·6-min read
Will Smith's Oscars slap sparked considerable internet discourse. (Photo:REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Will Smith's Oscars slap sparked considerable internet discourse. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Will Smith's slap at the Oscars sparked an avalanche of internet discourse. One viewpoint in particular — that the actor's actions embarrassed, shamed and harmed the Black community — has drawn substantial criticism, even as it was elevated by a handful of prominent Black men, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The former pro basketball player, echoing some of the thoughts of Today host Craig Melvin, took to a Substack blog post on March 28, writing that Smith lashing out "perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community."

Then came columnist Jonathan Capehart in a Washington Post op-ed, writing that Will Smith's slap "was a blow to all Black people who have worked for our dignity and acceptance — and especially to the legacy of those Black performers who made Smith's presence at the Oscars possible in the first place."

These narratives, by many accounts, further the idea of "respectability politics" — something preemptively acknowledged by Capehart in his piece.

"Some African Americans will slam this as the worst of 'respectability politics,' the notion that there is acceptance and safety in speaking and acting in ways that make White people comfortable," he wrote. "The harsh truth is that 'respectability' is the exorbitant tax we African Americans are forced to pay daily as we try to live out our versions of the American Dream." Recognizing that, he added, "doesn’t make you any less Black. It makes you realistic."

What's the history of respectability politics, and what roles does it play in pop culture?

Harvard University professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first coined the term in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, in 1994.

The book outlines the premise of what is now commonly referred to as respectability politics, as the concept was originally used by Black women in the Baptist church to shift pre-existing narratives that classified Black people as "lazy, shiftless, stupid and immoral in popular culture." This was to be accomplished by assimilating and behaving like the dominant class — in other words, with the oppressed acting like the oppressor in hopes of escaping oppression.

"When I think of respectability politics, what I imagine is this idea that people, but Black people specifically, are only deserving of respect and should only be valued if they behave in a certain way and adhere to certain guidelines," anti-racism educator and diversity & inclusion consultant Janice Gassam Asare tells Yahoo Life.

The idea that an individual's actions can represent an entire group furthers the notion that people in marginalized communities can "behave" and "respect” their way out of oppression.

Another recent pop-culture moment that focused on this idea came in 2021. That's when comedian and actress Mo'Nique was accused of upholding respectability politics in an Instagram video in which she critiqued young Black women for dressing down in public, namely by wearing bonnets outside of their homes.

"Our young sisters in head bonnets, scarves, slippers, pajamas, blankets wrapped around them and this is how they showed up to the airport," she said. The Precious star argued that the trend didn’t align with her vision for young Black women.

"When did we lose our pride in representing ourselves? When did we slip away from 'let me make sure I'm presentable when I leave my home’?” she asked.

Another memorable such moment came back in 2004 at an NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, when the now-disgraced Bill Cosby gave his infamous "Pound Cake" speech. In it, he condemned the behaviors of Black people in America for not soaring to success following that landmark decision. Cosby was accused of using stereotype-based arguments and analogies as he questioned Black outrage regarding police shootings, suggesting the victims could have behaved their way out of a fatal encounter.

"People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged. 'The cops shouldn't have shot him,'” Cosby said. “What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”

Impacts of respectability politics

What's implied in Cosby's speech, according to Gassam Asare, is just one example of how dangerous respectability politics can be.

"We see this play out in so many ways where, when there are altercations between the public and the police [or] when there is harm caused by the police to a Black person, oftentimes part of the narrative that we hear is 'he should have complied,’” she says.

Gassam Asare adds that many Black people know all too well that no amount of education, decorum or wealth can protect you from the direct and insidious harm that comes at the hands of racism.

"People think if you do the right things and get an education, get a good job and move in the right neighborhood, life will be good and easy for me as a Black person," she says.

There were many counters to this frame of thinking following the Oscars, with many arguing that any white person who uses the action of an individual — in this case, Smith — to generalize an entire group already had internal biases that any amount of good behavior would not assuage.

"Anybody who thinks ‘Black people look bad’ after the #Oscars already thought Black people look bad. Respectability doesn't cure racism,” began a tweet by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.

Reminding her followers that her famous father was “assassinated while wearing a suit,” King criticized leaning into respectability politics, explaining that there are better ways to hold people accountable for their actions — without centering the approval of ”the white gaze.”

The white gaze can be referred to as the general assumption that the intended audience for anything is white, and that all behaviors are to be adjusted for the perception and comfort of white people.

In this case, Abdul-Jabbar’s critique of Smith drew further complaint after his post was shared by prominent white celebrities, including actresses Bette Midler and Jamie Lee Curtis. Both women drew backlash for appearing to support Abdul-Jabbar’s piece and the implication that Smith "perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community."

Those celebrities don't understand "the layers and the nuance of our experiences,” says Gassam Asare. “But hearing that from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was off-putting to me, because it's a classic example of 'you can't do certain things in front of white people.'"

The point is not to excuse Smith's behavior, she notes, but instead to decenter whiteness in regard to morality.

"Very few people are saying violence is OK," she says, "but I think it's problematic when someone as notable and with as big of a platform as Abdul-Jabbar plays into this respectability idea."

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