Wrestling with Respectability in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: A Dialogue

Recently, I listened to an interview with Evelyn Higginbotham. During this interview, Higginbotham used the Black Lives Matter Movement to revolutionize the meaning of politics of respectability. Higginbotham claimed that respectability politics is defined by African-Americans urging people to recognize African-Americans’ value. This caused me to see that the BLM is a movement centered around African-Americans demanding for America to acknowledge the respect that black lives inherently own.

During the Civil Rights Movement, respectability politics often referred to how civil rights activists dressed in Sunday best to portray an angelic image. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers wore suits and dresses to convey that blacks are humans worthy of respect. However, Higginbotham states that blacks are inherently worthy of respect, and do not have to wear fancy clothes to show their worth. The professor argues that this respectability politics is a “bridge discourse” as it allows African-Americans to cooperatively fight for their rights instead of waiting for Whites to grant them.

Through her words in Righteous Discontent, Higginbotham assigns African-American women a place in Civil Rights activism as she shows how these women fought against discrimination. Influenced by the church, Higginbotham argues that the work of low-income women of the National Baptist Convention was instrumental in achieving progress. As a result of the collective efforts and usage of respectability politics, the Church built schools, social welfare programs, and provided food and clothing for the poor. Higginbotham claims politics of respectability during this period worked to give women the “moral authority to say to the outside world, ‘You don’t respect me, but I’m worthy of respect. You don’t treat me like an equal person, but I know I am an equal person’”. United together by the knowledge that they are worthy of respect and equality, these women prove that Politics of Respectability serve as a “bridge discourse”. The women found allies within each other as a result of the respectability politics that led them to see that their greatness is not determined by the contexts of racial discrimination, white people, or any external factors. Contemporarily, these women’s acts draw parallels to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

The Black Lives Matter Movement epitomizes Higginbotham’s “bridge discourse” as it is a movement by people who understand their self-work, and work together to cause racial equality. Individually, each activist understands their self-worth and importance as people that cannot be disregarded because of their skin color. This notion is why these activists have come together and facilitated a “bridge discourse” because they understand the impact of cooperation. The activists of this movement have utilized respectability politics because they, not society, have defined their self-worth and acknowledge that they are worthy of admiration. Also, Higginbotham uses a quote that reads, “…with united hearts and souls, you make mighty efforts to raise your sons and daughters from the horrible state of servitude and degradation”. Through their united hearts and souls, the Black Live Matter’s activists utilize this “bridge discourse” to come together to enact change.


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