Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Black feminist scholar credited with coining the term “the politics of respectability” (Photo courtesy of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research)
When we posted the Respectability Politics Round Table, Black beauty blogger and sex worker Peechington Marie immediately spoke up on Tumblr with a well-justified critique: Why, given that the term “respectability politics” itself originated within Black feminist scholarship, did the round table not include any Black sex workers as participants? We apologized for having this kind of Oh Shit Moment and asked Peechington Marie to write a short addendum to the round table elaborating on the history of the concept within the Black community and how respectability politics affect Black sex workers.
We call it “respectability politics,” but when the phrase was first coined in 1994, it was called “The Politics of Respectability” and was used by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham as a chapter title in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. But respectability politics, even before Ms. Higginbotham called them by name, affected every African American person in one way or another, and still affect us today. Try asking a Black friend of yours: “Do you know anyone who goes out in public with curlers in their hair?” and you’ll likely get an earful, maybe about why they absolutely don’t know anyone who would do that (except for their great aunt who always acted like she never had home training anyway).
Being respectable in the early Black community meant behaving in a way that would not embarrass yourself or other Black people. For example, The Baptist Women’s Convention used to visit poor Black folks, giving them pamphlets with titles like “How To Dress” and “Take A Bath First.” This was done to educate working class people on what were both the accepted and acceptable social norms established by wealthier Black communities. No one wanted their cousin LeRoy or his wife to show up to a church function improperly dressed or without their manners, and so the politics of respectability were born. [READ MORE]
image via @darth
Chanel: When thinking about Miley’s horrible performance at the VMAs, I let out a big sigh. Where do I begin? There was so much wrong with her performance. It wasn’t tasteful or well-choreographed. I wasn’t expecting her to slip back into her role as Hannah Montana and give the VMAs a sweet and boring show, but I sure wasn’t expecting that.
As strippers, we perform on stage for one to three songs per set. Sometimes routines are choreographed well to music and other times it’s short and sweet and then it’s over. When it comes to twerking, it’s about more than just having a big round booty. I’ve seen white women and black women and every color in between shake it well on stage. There’s no huge thought process behind it but it’s hard when you don’t know what you’re doing, just like any other dance move. When (most) strippers shake it, we know it’s for entertainment, so it should be good which can mean extra tips on stage and off stage in terms of lapdance sales. When Miley shakes it, it’s because she’s trying to shock us with her uncoordinated hip wiggles. She’s not like the strippers in her song lyrics. I’ve seen those women, and they are much better than she will ever be.
The show was much like her video, complete with human accessories. I wasn’t shocked that there were big booty black women dancing on stage with her. It wouldn’t be the first time people have accessorized with black women (or women of any race) for entertainment. Countless hip-hop and rap videos use black heavy-bottomed women as accessories. As a black mixed woman, I’m offended by Miley’s choice to do this. I’m not sure what she’s trying to prove or say by hiring black women to act as her friends in the “We Can’t Stop” video and on the VMAs. It’s more than the bad pancake booty twerking. It’s the selected parts of black culture she attempted to portray though her song and dance. There’s more to black and hip-hop/rap culture than what she is picking apart and glorifying. She only glorifies ideas from the way black and hip hop/rap culture is portrayed in the media—grills, twerking, big butts, getting high, being surrounded by hot women and acquiring money. Her performance and song lyrics show that she is completely unaware of what actually defines black and rap/hip hop culture. [READ MORE]
Unequal Desires is a long overdue work that (finally!) focuses on race as central in the lives of strippers. While some of the literature on stripping focuses on race as a footnote or tangent, for Brooks, race is the central concern. Everything from everyday micro-level issues (hiring decisions, shift availability, and stage sets) to the very large-scale (zoning laws, likelihood of arrest) are explored in this book, with the conclusion that stripping is deeply racialized. Brooks uses interviews with dancers and customers as well as her own observations to confirm what she began to suspect during her time at the Lusty Lady: The strip club is another site where the black female body’s inferior position is reinforced. Through everyday actions, customers, management, and strippers all participate in its systematic devaluation.
The strip club presents the black woman’s body in strangely contradictory terms. On the one hand she is thought of as readily available, sexually. Customers may prefer a “black” club or an individual black dancer because they assume they can get more sexual contact than with a non-black dancer. On the other hand, the black female body is systematically made invisibilize or rendered unattractive. Brooks analyzes the pictures on strip club websites as evidence of this invisibility.
Brooks does attend to the clubs that may be considered “black” clubs. She considers the various, complicated motivations that black dancers have for wanting, or perhaps being forced, to work at these clubs, and simultaneously considers the social capital a “high end” (implicitly, not black) club carries as well. For many of the black dancers, hiring practices prevent them from getting in the door at clubs where they are in the minority. If they make it through the hiring process, discriminatory practices prevent them from staying.
We’re engaging in sex work, as a form of economic survival, but also as a form of validation. We have got to address this. We have got to talk about what it’s like getting up in the morning, catching the train or bus to school or work and that ride is tense because you’re the subject of giggles and whispers. [...]
Or if you are passable, how you’re still not well received in your community. But then you have a sexual experience with Rahim from next door. He’s telling you you’re good enough and he’ll also pay. Suddenly you’re a commodity. You’re wanted.
Danielle King at Colorlines on being young, black, and trans in Washington DC.