Is Your Respectability Bulletproof?: The (bio)Politics of Respectability and the Lives that Matter

The objects of our selective outrage are indicative of what we value.

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:


  1. You’ve made so many essential points here and it’s clarified something for me–especially as regards “innocence” and victim blaming. I try to mostly avoid all the comments but keep happening upon this but if verbiage re Trayvon that says something like ‘that’s an old picture he’s not as innocent as he looks’ which I find/found truly baffling. As though appearing and being were identical, but far more importantly I think what this indicates is a clash between two extremes of framing and narrative innocent/guilty. Respectability politics is something that I struggle to comprehend as fully as the way you’ve laid it out here. I came up poor, white, and rural and would essentially class respectability politics as not really a factor for white people. The kind of reactions that my immediate family elicited were really about class. So even though I recognize that much of the approbation we faced was about our behaviorsI’d still consider that as a class thing. For this reason I think it’s been complex for me to wrap my head around respectability politics apart from class. My girlfriend tells me about her mom and aunties coming up in philly and how her maternal grandmother dressed them like British schoolchildren. They wore little lace up boots and white gloves. Her grandfather had founded their church, and so while the family was struggling like their neighbors they acted she says “like black royalty”…. I’ve come to conceive of respectability politics as something akin to assimilation for folks who immigrate, a way of asserting belonging Ness… I hadn’t until now put together the link between dehumanizing stereotypes and respectability as a way of reframing. It explains a lot tho.

    1. I should have said, respectability isn’t as much of a factor for white people. On My phone- I think I’d be off to say it’s not a factor at all–but the essential element I think is the assertion of humanity and white folks are typically extended a presumption of humanity. But if we think of for instance-the callousness toward sex workers, that’s where we see the kind of thing you discuss here. Where someone isn’t respectable enough to be presumed worthy of empathy.

  2. Just to clarify, I wasn’t being disingenuous earlier, and didn’t mean to derail either- I was more thinking out loud and attempting to articulate experientially the links between victim blaming and respectability. I’ve been thinking about it all morning really and came up with several more examples where the abuse of a non-normative person is excused in the way you mention. My thinking was around whether we could class it as an element of white supremacy, or classism, or misogyny; but I think I was thinking a little too one-dimensionally each time. More we could class it as an element of kyriarchy that supports and enables each oppressive axis. Like the way Gwen’s killer claimed ‘homophobic panic’ as a defense and so excused his own violence by means of transmisogyny and queerphobia… Anyway, thanks again for such a thought provoking essay.

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