Written by: Veronica Y. Womack
Black Americans have long been told that there is a “right” way to act in order to secure racial equality and individual promotion in the United States. Often, these recommendations are made by other black Americans attempting to mute certain cultural aesthetics in order to make white Americans feel comfortable in their presence. I recently attended a lecture where a middle-aged black American man explained that he yearned for the days when black men “had grace.” He posted a picture of black men circa 1940 in Tuskegee, Alabama, standing in a cotton field wearing pressed white shirts and suspenders.
As journalist Aurin Squire explains, black respectability presumes that “systematic oppression can be overcome if we’re clean, mild, moderate, and economically successful.” Yet in a time when black men are nine times more likely to be shot and killed by the police and people still protest those who point out police brutality, policing the appearance of black Americans is, at best, beside the point.
But the issue isn’t just that respectability is irrelevant. New evidence suggests that the beliefs that inform respectability politics are bad for black Americans’ health.