Respectability Does Not Earn You Justice

A Misguided Appeal to Propriety


I think most people raised in nations founded in Enlightenment ideals (ex. the United States) are taught that rights are not something to mess with. They are not bestowed upon us by our governments, but rather they are innately owed to us as part of our humanity. In fact, we are told all the time that we should be constantly watching out for when the government tries to take away our rights. The rhetoric can be seen on any political blog or newspaper, no matter the ideology.


sue govt 1sue govt 2sue govt 3sue govt 4

[Image 1] | [Image 2] | [Image 3] | [Image 4]

We all agree that rights are precious and worth protecting.

But often, we are not in agreement about who has which rights. Some people might believe we all have equal access to our rights. They might argue that the _________ (insert: 19th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision, etc.) finally made everyone equal after a long struggle with inequality since the inception of the first British colony on North America. Unfortunately, that idea that we are all equal is not true. Not everyone has equal access to their rights.

That’s where rights activism comes into play. People in this nation are tired of being denied access to what they are entitled for being human. They want to fight the system which has denied them their rights, maybe even overthrow that system and institute a new one in which they actually get access to rights.

Yet, there are still people who are born in this world with full access for whatever reason (perhaps because they are part of the dominant culture), who want to tell disadvantaged people how to get their rights. As if those advantaged people have ever had to fight for them.

Here is one example of this happening:

8 August 2015 | Seattle, Washington. Bernie Sanders was delivering a speech at a rally when Black Lives Matter protesters took the stage from Sanders and used the platform to share their message. Many people were uncomfortable with protesters’ actions, upset that they interrupted Sanders’ speech. The critics of this move have said things like: “I can’t support a movement that manhandles its way on stage and interrupts people who just want to help them”, “Maybe if they weren’t so rude, people might want to listen to them”, “There is a right way to protest, and that is not it”, and “Their tactics are making the situation worse rather than better”.

Photos from the Rally: Black Lives Matter Activists take to the stage during a speech by Bernie Sanders

Essentially, they were engaged in behavior that made many people feel uneasy and upset. And people believed that their uneasiness was evidence that the Black Lives Matter activists’ actions were wrong. So they criticized the actions, saying that they were not be respectable, that what they were doing did not make them worthy of their accomplishing their goals. In many circles, what I am describing is called Respectability Politics.

respectability politics meme.jpg
Have you seen this image on your social media? This image plays right into respectability politics. The ones on the bottom right may still have better access to their rights than the man in the top left, no matter how well/poorly each dresses. [Image Source]
Respectability Politics is all about using the code-words “respectability” or “respectable” (and similar words) as a guise to shut down activists’ work before it even begins. It’s that idea that if you want your activism to be successful, you should make appealing to those in power (after all, aren’t they the ones who are going to graciously bestow the rights to disadvantaged groups?). It is the practice of holding hostage marginalized people’s access to rights until they conform to the demands of the people with systematic power, until they are deemed “respectable” enough to have access to rights.

You have probably seen examples of Respectability Politics on social media or in conversations with colleagues. Things like:

  • If they didn’t want to get stopped by police, why did they choose to look like criminals?
  • No wonder she doesn’t have a job, did you hear the way she talks? I can’t understand her slang!
  • I don’t mind gay people, just as long as they don’t act flamboyantly or are all in my face about it.
  • He is not poor because he is Black, he is poor because he won’t pull up his pants and go out and find a real job!
  • I wouldn’t date her, she has had sex with everyone!
If you use or have heard anyone else use any of these or related phrases, I will explain below why these phrases not only don't help anyone, but blame people for their socially-inflicted troubles.


First off, here is one problem with Respectability Politics: Activists aren’t asking anyone to give them rights. They’re demanding the rights they are entitled to. They don’t want to hear any criteria or stipulations from the advantaged people for gaining access to rights. They will not pander to the system that denies them rights and necessitates their activism in the first place.

It doesn’t matter if their activism work makes you smile and feel all warm inside or if it makes so mad you’re red in the face. They are demanding their rights (which again, all humans are entitled to). And if you are part of the system that is denying them rights, you are the problem, not them.

Secondly, activists should not have to make their work “respectable” to find success. They are not asking you for second helping of dinner, so to speak. They are asking for a seat at the table in the first place. They do not have time to be dealing with people who want to debate about how to make them more comfy with all this activism business. To continue with the dinner metaphor, they don’t have to time to sit down and educate people about how they are in fact not getting a second helping, but rather, they are getting a chair placed at the table for them. And because of the fact that they don’t even have a seat at the dinner table, they don’t get food at all. And it’s hard to find the time or energy to debate every single person about your eating habits when you are in fact starving. (That’s the end of the dinner metaphor.)

Mattachine Protest in Washington DC. 17 April 1965 | During the first protest for gay and lesbian rights, the demonstrators were required to dress, act, and speak respectably. But it didn’t help much. The LGBTQ rights movement didn’t really kick off until a riot in NYC four years later.

But here is the ultimately fundamental problem with Respectability Politics: it never really works. No one is given access to rights because they were nice or polite. As the image I started this post with quotes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s 2007 book of the same phrase, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”. The same principle applies to all disadvantaged people. Because when the powerful see the powerless being “respectable”, they think “Awesome, nothing is wrong. Look how complacent everyone is, they must love the current state of affairs. I don’t have to do anything“. But when the powerful see the powerless not being “respectable”, they think “Wow, those people are so mean, rude, and uncouth; I’m not doing anything for them until they get better.” And thus what is always the result of Respectability Politics? Nothing. Nothing gets done; the advantaged are kept at an advantage and the disadvantaged are kept an a disadvantage.

Additionally, disruption and loudness and other “non-respectable” behavior accomplishes many of the goals of activism: it gets people aware of the issues and makes them talk about it.

[Image 1] | [Image 2] | [Image 3] | [Image 4] | [Image 5]

What would have happened if the Black Lives Matters activists respectfully asked for stage time at the Bernie Sanders rally? They would have been told “no”, and then would their message have been spread? Or even if they were given time after Senator Sander’s speech was done, would they have been able to as effectively spread their message to a dwindling crowd? Would people have started having those hard conversations about race? Or conversations about why Black Lives Matter exists in the first place?

Returning to those critiques of those actions by the Black Lives Matter activists, we must deconstruct them and expose the hidden Respectability Politics behind them.

    Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was still assassinated even if he was wearing a suit and tie. [Image Source]
    “I can’t support a movement that manhandles its way on stage and interrupts people who just want to help them”:  You need to think critically about how successful the movement would be if it operated differently. Have other methods been tried? How successful were those methods at spreading their message? If you can’t think of many times polite movements were successful, maybe it’s because being “respectable” doesn’t get you very far. 
    freedom summer violence
    Young adults riding a Greyhound Bus to Alabama during the Freedom Summer (1964) campaign faced nearly lethal violence for attempting to register Southern Black citizens to vote. Was it their nice clothing or maybe the way they looked out the window that prompted the violence against them? Or was it that people were upset they were trying to uproot the racism that plagued the South’s electoral system, government, and culture? [Image Source]
  • “Maybe if they weren’t so rude, people might want to listen to them”: People weren’t listening to them when they were being “polite”. Why would the movement switch back when being “rude” accomplishes their goals? Additionally, we must seriously consider if some groups get more scrutiny for behaving “rudely” than others. Do some groups of people get away with same behavior that some other group would get chastised for?
  • “There is a right way to protest, and that is not it”: Is there a right way to protest? If so, would it not be the way that best completes the goal of the protest? Who decides the right way to protest? This alludes back to the subtitle of this post, a misguided appeal to propriety. People like to police other people’s behavior using some idea of what’s “proper” or “correct” as justification. But we should not tell other people how to live their lives because we are not those people; we don’t know their histories, their experiences, or their intentions.
  • “Their tactics are making the situation worse rather than better”: Their tactics are making people think and talk about issues around race and racism in the United States. And that is way better than no one talking about it while the powerless suffer in silence.

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Various "What They Say"/"What We Hear" examples revealing the respectability politics behind various generic comments about protesting. [Image Source]


Respectability Politics does not just apply to race. People who talk about LGBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer) people “just wanting to get married like everyone else” are appealing to Respectability Politics. Because LGBQ folks do not just want to get married, they want to get rid of the whole system that denied them marriage in the first place. And then get married without straight people telling them the “correct” way to be married (ex. one stay-at-home spouse and one breadwinner). LGBQ people are every bit as diverse and complex as heterosexual people, but they don’t want inclusion into a homophobic institution; they want a new institution that welcomes them, appreciates them, and acknowledges their existence.

Transgender folks face constant pressure to look as much as possible like male/female stereotypes of cisgender people. The way they act, speak, dress, style their hair, make gestures, etc. are all policed by everyone to ensure they still fit into the very gender binary that denies their existence. Even other transgender people, like Caitlyn Jenner, police transgender folk’s bodies. In a TIME Magazine interview, she said:

caitlyn jenner“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well. I want to dress well. I want to look good. When I go out, as Kim says, you’ve got to rock it because the paparazzi will be there.”


Should everyone else’s level of comfort dictate how you should present yourself, as Jenner alludes? Caitlyn Jenner points out that “it’s much easier for a trans [person] who authentically kind of looks and plays the role”, noting that trans people who pass for cisgender may escape some discrimination. But that doesn’t save them from discrimination on their legal documents and driver’s licenses which show the wrong sex/gender, embarrassment and harassment in the workplace where they have to dress for a gender they don’t identify with, and violence and harassment in bathrooms when trans people who just want to relieve themselves are verbally and/or physically abused. Their “authentically” playing the “role” will not save them from that.

Here is the respectability politics: Jenner is telling trans folks that they need to look “presentable” (aka cisgender) so that they don’t make other people uncomfortable, and thus, will be more willing to tolerate trans people. And to me, that is like telling trans people to pretend they aren’t trans people so that cisgender people will not feel compelled to discriminate against them. Which of course puts the onus on trans folks to stop their own oppression. And that doesn’t make sense.

Additionally, do trans people not deserve protection from employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and lethal violence on the streets unless they look enough like a cisgender person? If they do look like a “man in a dress” do they deserve to be killed in the street? Do young black boys deserve to be shot by the police because they were wearing hoodies and sagging their pants? Do women deserve to be raped because they were wearing revealing clothing?

No. Of course they deserve protection from discrimination and violence because they are human and entitled to those protections, they have rights to those protections, no matter how they choose to express themselves or live their lives. Your comfortability be damned.


Again, as humans we are guaranteed certain rights. But many people are still denied access to those rights. And when they fight and demand access, they are told that they are not being respectable, and thus are undeserving of that access. That is unacceptable.

We may be uncomfortable with some of the tactics of some movements and the work of some activists. But we must examine that uncomfortability. Is it because we are taught never to disrupt the system? Is it because we are taught that some people simply don’t deserve rights? Is it because we were socialized to behave a certain way and deviance from that makes us feel uneasy?

Because even if we are taught those things, we must now take the opportunity to re-teach ourselves in our adulthood. Instead of asking “how can rights activists accomplish their goals most effectively while minimizing disruption?” the question should just be “how can they accomplish their goals most effectively?”.

Instead of asking “how can they minimize their differences from me so that I feel more comfortable with them?” the question should be “how can I handle these uncomfortable feelings like an adult and learn to appreciate differences and diversity rather than try to suppress them?“.


I want to end with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I think it is important to recognize how long the struggle with respectability politics has been going on. King succinctly characterizes the same dialogues that we hear even today, especially concerning the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the drive toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another mans freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro the wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


Don’t let the system tell you how you should tear down the system. Because it’ll ensure you never succeed.

-Brian (Twitter: @iambriam)


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