Fifty years ago, there was perhaps no more lethal insult in black America than to be called, by another black person, an Uncle Tom. By the 1990’s, sell-out arose to replace Uncle Tom as the rhetorical chastening rod of black cultural critics. Thirty years on, we have a new weapon with which to mark those whose views venture too close to the other side. We are solidly in the era of #respectability.
Every community has some means of policing its members. They must. Community requires cohesion, norms, shared meanings. In America at large, the founding myths and ideals tie hipsters in Portland to farmers in Iowa. They may oppose each other’s language, religion, or style of dress, but they may not, as Americans, oppose each other’s freedom, whatever that means. Reverence for “freedom,” like the belief in American exceptionalism, is a non-negotiable, constitutive aspect of Americanness. That America is the best and freest country in the world is an article of faith without which one cannot worship in the democratic church.
This law of shared values applies in smaller communities as well. Black Americans share a robust and widely accepted (if loosely defined) set of cultural beliefs that tie us together across age, gender, and class boundaries. And like any community, we have means of policing our borders. At times, that policing is necessary. People have a right to push back against outside attacks or against those in the community whose gender, class, or religious privileges embolden them to speak too loudly (and wrongly) on behalf of the group. But there is something new in our modern policing. Accusations of respectability politics are sufficiently widespread, and sufficiently damaging, that just the anticipation of the accusation has begun to stifle everyday conversations in black circles.
This is the present danger with our cultural policing. Where Uncle Tom represented a cultural critique, and sell-out arguably expressed economic resentments, accusations of respectability constitute a kind of intellectual policing that distorts our sense of the world inside our own communities. What is most offensive is that many of those deploying the accusation know this, and use it to their advantage.
Imagine that you’re reading through a thread in a friend’s social media feed and you come across the question of dress codes in public schools. Having worn a uniform to school for most of K-12, you chime in about how low-maintenance it was and how kids just looked more presentable. A few moments later, a response appears, posted by someone to whom you are loosely connected in the world of Facebook friends of friends of friends.
“I am really tired of respectability politics from black people. When will we let kids be kids and express themselves? Always worried about what other people think. Sigh.”
You feel it immediately. The conversation is no longer about uniforms. It’s about you. Your politics. Your backwardness. Your next move is not to defend the value of school uniforms. It’s to defend yourself.
This is because practicing respectability politics, like being an Uncle Tom or a sell-out, is a capital offense in black America. It is such an existential deficiency in a person’s political character that it cannot be survived unless it is refuted. Both those who accuse others and those who are accused know this. And so, in the age of public disagreements mediated by likes, the accusation of respectability has become an easy weapon in arguments about black people and black culture. At its most damaging, it is an intentionally crippling and self-serving accusation that does infinitely more to stifle debate than it can ever hope to do to facilitate it. It is the equivalent, in the black vernacular, of "Have you stopped beating your wife?" And many of its most frequent users know this.
Engaging an argument by simply accusing one’s opponent of respectability politics is quite often a blunt rhetorical manipulation by someone who would rather rely on the weight of a cultural meme than articulate an actual critique of another's position. Think of how often you encounter the accusation devoid of any further commentary. “You can’t be right because… respectability politics.”
Of course, it would be silly to imagine that foes have not always casually and even carelessly insulted one another in the interest of winning an argument. They have. But there is something new about the reach of our casual conversations, and about the audience that a simple exchange between friends can garner in a matter of minutes. We are not privately accused when we disagree online. We are all witnesses to and participants in the public policing of everyday exchanges between ordinary people with unremarkable opinions. And we may all be suffering for it.
The internet creates echo chambers. This is not news. Our tendency to curate online worlds that reflect, rather than enrich, our existing ways of thinking is well-documented. But there is another layer of censorship at play in the marriage of social media and cultural policing. We are not only limiting our access to those who don’t look or vote like us. Even within our comfortably curated circles of friends, dissent is discouraged. On subjects ranging from popular music to fashion, to speech, to religion, we have all witnessed the deployment of respectability and other accusations of cultural brokenness against ordinary people whose opinions deviated from the hive. How many times have you privately responded to a public post, either out of fear or simply a lack of patience for the backlash? How many times have friends agreed privately with something you posted publicly, because the public consensus was not in their favor? These are dangerous instincts that intellectually homogenize and impoverish the spaces from which so many of us absorb the news and opinions that constitute our sense of the world. We aren’t just getting our news from the articles our friends post. We’re getting a sense of what the news means to our friends and neighbors from the comments and threads on those articles.
What has been most disheartening with the rise of this new self-censorship is not the frequency or effectiveness with which it is deployed, but rather the absence of any ordinary effort to refute it. There is essentially no comeback for #respectability. Technology gives today’s self-appointed cultural police an audience and impact that amplifies their power in a time where we have not yet developed any standard vocabulary for challenging or dismissing them. Bald accusations of respectability politics almost always engender some immediate, individual form of self-defense. The substantive cultural conversations that give rise to the accusation are often lost to a back-and-forth about who is and isn’t guilty of the sin of #respectability. And so this new and dangerous form of black political trolling abounds. We all see it. We don’t yet have the language to say anything about it.
But it is vital that we come up with ways to responsibly police our own spaces and to challenge each other while leaving room for dissent. In doing so, we ought to call out those whose carelessness (or callousness) robs us all of opportunities for honest disagreement.