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Who Gets Left Out: The People Who Coined The Term—Addendum to the Respectability Politics Round Table

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Black feminist scholar credited with coining the term "the politics of respectability" (Image courtesy of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research)
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.

The Racism of Decriminalization

“Place of Power.” (Painting by author from her finite gestures series)

Since I began writing this piece, both Scarlet Alliance and SWOP NSW have issued an apology to migrant sex workers for their part in the SEXHUM research. This is an unprecedented move in the right direction for peer organizations. I hope that there will be more attempts in the future to empower migrants and POC, including Aboriginal sex workers, toward self-advocacy. I also hope that in the future, such a statement and its denunciation of non-peer-led research will be initiated by organizations without the need for heavy internal and external pressure from migrant sex workers first. Indeed, I hope that no statements like this are necessary in the future because this complicity with typically unethical outsider-led research will cease to occur in the first place.

As sex worker activists we love pointing fingers at the anti-trafficking industry, whorephobic art and media, and researchers with save-the-whore complexes. Yet, the sex worker activist movement itself is similarly stigmatizing towards migrant POC sex workers. Our movement has promoted the New Zealand decriminalization model for decades without being critical of New Zealand’s criminalization of migrant workers. The global sex workers’ rights movement heralds decriminalization at all costs, while often overlooking the racism involved in its partial implementation. The argument is that decriminalization of sex work will end stigma and benefit all workers equally. However, POC migrant sex workers (PMSW) still experience stigma, raids, and racism within the purported decriminalized sex worker heavens of New South Wales, Australia and New Zealand.

Prostitution Laws: Protecting Canada’s Crackers Since 1867

(Art by Michif/Cree artist Erin Konsmo)
(Art by Michif/Cree artist Erin Konsmo)

The stated legislative objectives of the prostitution laws that the Canadian Supreme Court recently struck down in Bedford v. Canada were the prevention of public nuisances and the exploitation of prostitutes. However, upon closer examination of the history of these laws, their real objectives become transparent. Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were really there to protect society’s whiteness/maleness. As such, these laws were disproportionately applied to racialized and indigenized bodies. Thus, to understand what the Bedford decision means for Indigenous sex workers is to understand the essence of colonialism and the history of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.

On December 20, 2013, Canada’s Supreme Court found the following laws relating to prostitution unconstitutional:

  • the bawdy house offense, (which prohibits keeping and being an inmate of or found in a bawdy house);
  • the living on the avails offense (which prohibits living in whole or in part on the earnings of prostitutes); and
  • the communicating offense (which prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute). 1

Black Marxist scholar Frantz Fanon best defines colonialism in his seminal work Wretched of the Earth. Fanon writes that  “[t]he colonized world is a world divided in two” and that colonialism “is the entire conquest of land and people.” In other words, colonialism is the complete domination and exploitation of Indigenous lands, bodies and identities (and not the fun kind of domination). When colonialism is incorporated into this discussion, the racial undertones within the laws, their application, and objectives are revealed.

Leave Cardi Alone

Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.

Full disclosure: I don’t actually care about Cardi B. Nothing that she does or creates is essential to my life and her behavior consistently irritates me. Yes, I’ve bopped along to Bickenhead (a certifiable summertime bop) and her verse on G-Eazy’s No Limit speaks to my shriveled hooker heart, but beyond the music, I don’t care about Cardi B. I didn’t watch her on Love and Hip-Hop (because I don’t acknowledge Mona Scott, unless it’s L&HH: Miami), I didn’t listen to her mixtapes, and I wasn’t actually aware of her existence until Bodak Yellow’s release became a massive cultural event. Since then, I’ve made note of particularly compelling moments in her career as they appear on twitter: past colorist and racist comments, blatant transphobia, defence of her then boyfriend Offset’s homophobia, mockery of a mother with a dead child, constant feuding with Nicki Minaj, etc. Now, I’ve written before about the prevalence of bigotry in the hood and how being “ghetto” is not an excuse for ignorance, so it would be disingenuous of me to defend her past behavior. I won’t do it. So, when I say “leave Cardi B alone”, it’s not about that. It’s about how local jagoffs on the internet took the issue of a sex worker operating on the edges of what’s considered socially acceptable to survive and turned it into a crusade against her which likened her to R.Kelly and Bill Cosby.

On Sunday, March 24, 2019, an old video of the rapper surfaced on twitter, where all discourse goes to die. In the video, Cardi can be heard responding to accusations that she doesn’t deserve her fame or success because she didn’t “work for it.” It’s a filthy lie that sex workers don’t work as hard as or harder than anyone else, and yet that lie lives on because of misogyny, whorephobia, and general stupidity. We don’t get days off. “Down time” is spent in the gym, coding websites, designing ads, engaging in advocacy, and freestyling. We function as surrogate spouses, therapists, and friends. We have to work on our bad days, our bloated days, and our heavy flow days. All we do is work, so kill that lie.

In the video, Cardi starts by saying, “Ni**as must have forgotten the shit that I did to motherfucking survive.” Now, Cardi has a thick accent, clearly influenced by her New York and Latinx roots, so some of the words are difficult to identify with 100% certainty. But it sounds like—and this is the story the internet has decided to run with—she goes on to say that men would approach her at work, ask her to (most likely) break club rules and have sex with them, and go home with her where she would drug them and then rob them. “Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you want to fuck me? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go to this hotel,’ and I’d drug ni**as up, and I’d rob them. That’s what I used to do! Nothing was motherfucking handed to me, my ni**a. Nothing.”

I firmly believe that robbing men is just taking reparations for the unending misogynistic and patriarchal bullshit we’re subjected to on a regular basis. I also believe that sex workers should be compensated for their time at all times if you’re asking them to provide labor of any kind. So I don’t care about her lightening the pockets of these men. If we’re being pedantic and dumb, we can acknowledge that drugging and robbing men, either as separate acts or in concert, is illegal. It’s “objectively” wrong. But I still don’t care. To quote MsGizelleMarie, “There’s no rules to survival sex work.” Encouraging clients to drink a little bit more or do another line, taking an extra $20 for cab fare when a john is in the bathroom, calling the police when a client gets too aggressive—we all do what we have to do to stay safe, pay rent, feed our kids, buy our meds, and take care of our parents. Cardi B became a stripper after the loss of her civilian job forced her to live with an abusive ex and drop out of college. That is survival sex work.

When your literal life is on the line, the boundaries between the available options and the acceptable options start to blur. If you have never had to choose between food and paying a bill, this is not the place for you to clutch your pearls. This conversation is not the place for you to make yourself heard at the expense of poor, survival sex workers. If you can leave sex work today and find employment tomorrow without having to explain the gaps in your CV because of your education or connections, this is not the time for you to talk about your anecdotal experiences. You don’t have the range or the right to derail this discussion. If you can call the police when a client gets out of line without worrying about being railroaded by ICE, I don’t care about your opinion. I don’t want to know what you women who can openly talk about your sex work careers without losing jobs, respect, or your lives would do in Cardi’s place. Because you have never been in Cardi’s place.

More Than Silence: Tjhisha Ball, Angelia Mangum, and the Erasure of Black Sex Workers

Angelia and Tjhisha
The fundraising page for the funeral expenses of Angelia Magnum and Tjhisha Ball; two slain strippers from Jacksonsville.

Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum: Two names you should know but probably don’t. Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum were 19 and 18 years old, respectively, two young women who were brutally murdered on September 18th. Their bodies were found in Duval County, Florida, reportedly thrown off an overpass, by passerby in the wee hours of the morning. Little has been said about the murder of both of these young women, and what has been said either glosses over or luridly magnifies one very important factor in this case: Tjhisha and Angelia worked as exotic dancers.

Over at PostRacialComments on Tumblr, the blog not only redacted the information about Mangum and Ball working as dancers, but proceeded to break down for readers questioning its motives why they would not include, comment, or discuss the girls’ work or the criminalization of the girls by the few media outlets to highlight the story of their murder.

In “Black Girls Murdered (But Do YOU Care)” from Ebony Magazine, Senior Digital Editor Jamilah Lemieux says, “Someone(s) apparently murdered two women and left their bodies on the side of the road for the world to see. We shouldn’t need for them to have been “good girls”—or White girls, or, perhaps good White girls—for this to be cause for national concern. There is a killer, or killers, on the loose.”

 

In “Rest in Peace: Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” from GradientLair, owner, activist, and blogger Trudy writes, “As I’ve stated before, Black criminals are treated like monsters. Black victims are treated like criminals. This further complicates, in addition to the dehumanization and criminalization of Black bodies, because they are Black women. Black women regularly go missing and at times are killed; our stories are underreported or shaped as “criminal” even when we are victims.”

While both pieces were necessary and both began to address the case of Tjhisha and Angelia’s murders, they are certainly the anomaly in terms of the majority of the coverage. Even in the case of “Black Girls Murdered,” a mostly positive portrayal, I thought to myself, “Why are we not acknowledging their work? Why are we pretending their work doesn’t matter? Why is their work becoming the elephant in the room?” I walked away from most articles I read feeling both shameful and shamed, as if they were written to say, “News reports say they were exotic dancers, quick, let’s fight to erase that so the girls can appear deserving of our sorrow and rage.”

At Salon, writer Ian Blair penned “Grisly Murder Ignored: How We Failed Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” and went so far as to completely erase input given on this case by sex workers. Not only did Blair not reach out to any sex workers, he neglected to quote any of a wide pool of us who have been posting regularly about these girls for nearly a week straight. Blair’s piece barely nods to and briefly namechecks “the sex work activist community,” with no mention of the YouCaring fundraiser Melissandre (@MeliMachiavelli) and I set up to fund the victims’ funerals. The piece reads as if Blair simply copied and pasted information he read online and didn’t bother to interview a single person for his article. There is no acknowledgement that much of his information came directly from current and former sex workers on Twitter. Salon’s writer fails to point out that neither Ball or Mangum’s families have enough money to bury the girls and the YouCaring fundraiser exists solely to help them with this endeavor. Blair prattles on, without much reference to Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum themselves (the subjects of said “failure” on “our” collective part), instead devoting most of his column space to regurgitating words of well known and more respected Black people; quoting Ta-nehisi Coates at length; discussing Ferguson; Mike Brown; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown; Daniel Holtzclaw; Marlene Pinnock, and seemingly anything other than what the Salon write-up ostensibly set out to address: two beautiful young women who were brutally murdered and who also happened to work as strippers. This offering from Blair also casually ignores the reports that each of Daniel Holtzclaw’s alleged victims, save the last woman he is accused of having victimized, were also either sex workers, drug users, or both.


In fact, in the cases of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, as in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw and his alleged victims, the idea of sex work as an important factor in the crime continues to be obscured by other supposedly more important issues, watered down to nothing in order to be considered palatable to sensitive audiences. The few conversations I’ve seen on Twitter, Tumblr, and the occasional news articles and blogs focus only on the collective (non)reactions of people when a Black woman is the victim of violent crime. I do not want to take anything away from that analysis. I know it’s absolutely true: Black women are the least and the last in line for anger, rage, justice, pity, sympathy, and empathy.

@PhilOfDreams said it wonderfully on his Twitter feed:

“murder of a white woman: there must be an investigation.
murder of a black woman: there must be an explanation.”

Black women are upset, we are incredibly sad, we are begging to be cared for, and we have a right to feel this way. We are completely correct in our steadfast refusal to simply disappear into the ether when we are violated, when our lives are snuffed out. We are justified in our anguish and in our anger. We are righteous in this, and I am not here to take away from it. I am here standing with my sisters and speaking out too. We are the most spotless of lambs, sinless in our desire to simply be seen as just as important as anyone else. But, what I am also here to say is this: in the midst of the tangible and thickening silence from what could arguably be called one of the most vocal corners of twitter, Black Feminist Twitter, and even Feminist Twitter as a whole; in the midst of the silence from virtually everyone and everywhere: where is the outrage for two teenage girls who were brutally murdered? Is the outrage lacking because of their race? Definitely. Is it non-existent because of their reported interactions with law enforcement? Absolutely. But it is also lacking because they were reported as working as exotic dancers. This cannot be denied. It is unfair and unethical to say anything different.