I see this image used without irony all over the internet.
I don’t think it’s funny.
It just reminds me of the consternation I receive when I wear my voluminous/kinky/coily/curly afrocloud ‘out’ or when I wore my upper ear piercings. I got the same tsk tsks when I chose not to hide my body under layers of ‘protective’ fabric, finally recognizing that my body would be sexualized by the collective Gaze regardless of how I dressed or carried myself. “She thinks she’s grown.” “Fast tail.” Thing is, I can’t escape this epistemic violence in communities I call “home” even as a middle-class heterosexual Black woman. What of queer, working-class people of color? What violences do they face?
Now, take that violence and make it literal.Take it to the streets. What happens when brown bodies are rendered dead-dead? Not just socially-dead. Dead-dead. Some 70% of anti-LGBT murder victims are people of color– 44% of whom were transwomen. Would ‘respectability’ have made them bulletproof and impervious to hatred? Do we even know the names of those whose lives were taken?
Chanel Larkin. José Sucuzhañay. Jorge Steven López Mercado. Angie Zapata. Lateisha Green. Gwen Araujo. Paige Clay. Tiffany Gooden. Brandy Martell. Coko Williams. Deoni Jones. Shelley Hilliard. Lashai Maclean. Ukea Davis. Stephanie Thomas.
Alas, it is easier to remember the names of the innocent. Their names roll off of our tongues more easily. They are more respectable, thus more defensible. The triage that is the (bio)Politics of Respectability would have us prioritize the lives of the ‘innocent’ over others. These names are made into hashtags, banners, protests, sweatshirts and T-shirt memorials.
Jonyla Watkins. Kimani Gray. Hadiya Pendleton. Trayvon Martin. Aiyana Stanley Jones. Emmett Till.
They are youth, potentiality, and most importantly, innocence. These are the lives that are valued and mourned in public.
Their stories are prioritized over those of POC with autism who were shot dead by police, like Ernest Vassell and Stephen Eugene Washington. See, it’s not easy to defend brown bodies as it is. Factor in citizenship status, class, gender identity, sexual orientation and dis/ability? You’re asking society to see them as multi-faceted humans when it’s far easier to put 2-dimensional images of the dead-dead on placards and T-Shirts.
Why the (bio)Politics of Respectability?
I was honestly disturbed that so much of the mobilization around Trayvon Martin’s murder hinged upon perceptions of his innocence. His near-manhood- Black manhood at that- threatened to foreclose the possibilities of innocence that would have made his life matter more. We must realize that we are the socially dead when our slain children’s innocence must be asserted and defended in order for their deaths to matter.
At 17, Trayvon Martin was at the cusp of Black manhood, or in the eyes of some, he was already there. The tactics employed included the de-emphasis of his near-adulthood, and the further distancing of Trayvon Martin from his possible youthful mistakes; the latter which was so relentlessly criminalized and used as reason to devalue his life discursively and literally. See, Trayvon Martin was, in stark terms, socially-dead before he was ever rendered dead-dead. The (bio)Politics of Respectability and its calculus of life would have us resurrect his socially dead self, even as we cannot resurrect his corporeal form. This is why so many of us defended his youthfulness, his sweetness, his kindness- everything that was antithetical to the Black manhood that is reviled, criminalized and surveilled by our society.
This task is so much harder for us when LGBT people of color are victims of homophobic and gender-based crimes. Many of those killed have been rendered vulnerable through our own complicity. We did not create loving spaces that they could inhabit as fully themselves. We did not see them when we passed them on the streets. Truants. Runaways. Deviants. Why don’t they do something worthwhile? It’s so easy to ignore the lives and deaths of those we’ve deemed “not-us.” Without the “not-us,” defined in terms of lack and negation, there would be no “us.” The dynamic relation of the lives and deaths of the “not-us” to the lives and deaths of “us” justifies our averted gaze and our forgetting. We can wring our hands in selective outrage tinged by guilt in the face of privilege brought to light through the oppression of the not-us. We can say, “Oh, that’s so horrible. I’d never do that.”
But what changes? We can engage in the (bio)Politics of Respectability in order to maintain a felt distance between our brown bodies and the violence that is so easily wrought upon them. We can wear Respectability like a vest, but we ought not to forget that it is not bullet-proof.
Organizations to know and support: