I’m on to some White people. I’m talking about the “pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps” white people. Or the ones who peddle the myth that education and hard work will open up the doors of America’s rich bounty for even people who look like me. The ones who tried to convince me that I have the same opportunity to succeed that they do.
All Black people have to do is work hard. Keep our nose clean. Stay out of trouble. Get an education. Speak the King’s English. Show some culture. Get some home training. Act like you’ve been somewhere. Sound familiar?
It’s called respectability politics. And it’s a bunch of bullshit. Ask this man. He bought into the whole respectability theory, taught it to his kids, and then felt crushed when his son was called a “nigger” while walking on the campus of the elite, private, boarding school he attended.
Ask me. I was raised in a two parent household of educated people, with professional jobs who made sure I did well in school, took ballet, went to art institutes and museums and played the clarinet. They paid my way through undergrad and most of law school. I lived in a nice home in a super predominantly white neighborhood growing up, and they closely monitored who I hung out with. I graduated from law school and went to work for a white-gloved law firm.
My first clue that respectability politics was a hoax was on my first day at that law firm after taking the bar exam. The partner who was the head of the litigation department (e.g. my boss) took me to lunch and said (and I quote):
“You got in here on affirmative action and I just want you to know that I don’t believe in any of that, so just know that you are going to have to work to keep this job.”
But I was deeply entrenched in the hope of respectability and so while shaken, I forged ahead. My second clue that respectability politics was a myth was when I was interviewing for a position at a company where I had to go through about 5 separate interviews. The HR rep just kept calling me back saying they wanted me to meet with “one more person”. FINALLY, when I got the offer, the Senior Vice President told me that I was an attractive candidate because I was black and a woman and had a graduate degree…because they only wanted graduate degrees for these senior positions. That was cool with me. I was willing to use my 2-fer (black female) and grad degree to get that job.
But then, within the first couple of weeks after I started, I came to realize that the only person at my level (and even one level up from me) with a graduate degree (and many of them had no degree, but had been there a hundred years)…was me…and ONE other person. Another Black woman. So, in reality, they only wanted graduate degrees for these senior level positions for Black folks. The old “Black people have to be twice as good to get half as far” thing.
Since those days, I’ve had lesson after lesson after lesson of the fallacy of respectability politics. I mean, how many courtrooms do I have to walk into dressed just as professionally as the white attorneys in the courtroom, and carrying the indicia of an attorney (legal pads, file folders with labels, etc.), like my white attorney colleagues, and still be assumed to be a defendant by the White clerk?
Now I know. There is no amount of respectability that will allow us to escape systemic racism. Or overt racism. Despite raising my sons to be respectable, my youngest was put out of a gym where he had a membership, by the police, who had been called because he was Black in an all-white gym. We can’t behave our way out of racism. We can’t earn enough degrees, dress well enough or talk enough impeccable English to escape the barriers of White privilege and entitlement. To prevent us from being a suspect and “handled” by the police or a courtroom clerk.
But…we can do all of the above, and be…an Exceptional Nigger.