The price we pay for being ourselves is worth it.
As kids we were regularly admonished to “use your inside voice” (or some variant of that phrase) by some older matriarchal figure, usually a grey-haired teacher–a librarian in my case–whenever you got just a little bit too wound up in your conversations with friends. As Black children, you get the unique privilege of being taught about being too loud, AND being taught about sounding too “Black.” The (not so) inside joke is that you need to “use your white people voice.” I say not so inside, because there’ve recently been a flood of think-pieces about code-switching, and a whole bunch of facebook experts weighing in on the legitimacy of this as a construct. Even the movie, Sorry to Bother You, uses that exact phrasing and has this concept a central theme running throughout the story. [SN: if you haven’t seen Sorry to Bother You, go watch it, now!]
Despite our making light of code-switching, talking white, or acting white, it’s really not that funny. The advice you got growing up about having to situationally adapt your mannerisms, speech, appearance, and more, was truly a warning with potentially much greater consequences for not heeding than were the consequences for not quieting down fast enough. You can roll your eyes at being told to be quieter. The only thing you can do at being told to be less visibly and audibly like yourself, is heave a deep sigh of hundreds of years of ancestral pain.
This set of adjustments your warned to make are known as Respectability Politics (for those of y’all that didn’t already know).
Recently, I was having a conversation with one of my college roommates about how exhausting it is to always have to engage in code-switching, mute your natural modes of expression, fix your face. It’s exhausting not just because you have to live a dual existence, but because like any other speaker of a second language, you’re always able to best express yourself in your native tongue. Having to find more “respectable,” i.e. white, ways to express cultural idioms often changes the meaning of what you’re trying to say [she mentioned the phrase, “you got me fucked up” as having no adequate translation.] There’s also a whole dialect of facial expressions that Black women can speak like no one else.
My roommate and I have had entire conversations, silently, during classes, sitting across the room from each other. Not to mention the sounds. In addition to being told to be quiet, we were also warned not to cut our eyes at someone or to quit sucking our teeth. Combinations of sounds, facial expressions, and body gestures creates an entire library of phrases that can be communicated without words.
Not being able to engage in that way often leaves much to be desired in conversations. The dialogue is not as rich; it has no seasoning.
Beyond having to replace phrases, sounds, and gestures during everyday casual communication, we’re also taught to tap dance around our indignities. In academia that tap dance becomes an art form of eloquent, methodically-researched, generously cited, well-rehearsed speeches, for whatever racist occasion might arise and for any power ranking a white person could wield.
So to recap: in addition to having to constantly check your body gestures at the door, fix your face in a pleasant neutral, become the queen of synonyms and metaphors and adequate explanations for the cultural expressions you accidentally let slip in the wrong setting, you also have to have a litany of pre-concocted speeches to deliver to any and all type of white folks when they inevitably say something foul, that are neither too direct nor too vague, and considers all the possible feelings and reactions that could potentially arise in the midst of that conversation, not to mention the potential fall-out if it doesn’t go well.
All that work ON TOP of whatever our actual job is.
Are you tired yet? I am. And I didn’t even wade into the political quagmire of hairstyles and accessorizing, which could be a whole post unto itself.
Respectability politics need to die. They won’t save you and they won’t stop racism. They might actually kill you as you contort your existence to fit inside the confines of someone’s unwritten rules of decorum, in a futile attempt to assert your humanity to people who are willfully being obtuse about their own racism and how racism operates societally. With every degrading encounter and with every polite explanation of why something was degrading gone sideways, you beat yourself up over what you coulda/shoulda/woulda done better and spend time revising your game plan and preparing for the next time.
No matter what, even if the next encounter goes better, you still lose. Because you’ve devoted all that time and energy on preparing to respond to assaults on your humanity that could otherwise have been spent on things you want to do. Not to mention all the extra mental space you could recapture–better sleep and relaxation, more clarity to think deeply and creatively. We are able to accomplish so much while engaging in this draining process. Imagine what we could do if we divested from it.
Toni Morrison wrote:
The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
The same goes for performing “respectability.” Will there be consequences for being your full authentic self? For being unapologetically Black? Damn Right! But the consequences for not doing that are much more grave. Chronic racism is killing us; study after study shows it, and you can look it up yourself (ha!). Stress is killing us.
Since striving for respectability has saved no one, especially if they have any principles (see: Martin Luther King, Jr.), take one form of stress and interpersonal racism off the table. Stop trying to prove you’re human. Who you are as you are, as you look, as you speak, as you dress, as you communicate, is worthy. White male privilege is the freedom of never having to think about any of these things. Being Black and female means you get cut down at the amplified intersection of racism and misogyny–misogynoir.
So in this year, 2018, and the 30th of year of my life and onward, I’m breaking out of the prison of respectability. I’m gonna aim to live like a Carefree Black Girl™, like Eartha Kitt, who just didn’t give a fuck! Consequences and all, she lived a full and celebrated life. You can make yourself small, and quiet your voice, and drive yourself crazy trying to do everything right, and still have everything go to complete shit. I may as well live my authentically, unapologetically, Black life and see where it takes me.