Black Miss-Representation Redux: When Respectability Politics Come Home to Roost

I try to have the attitude of “if it doesn’t apply, let it fly” and scroll past anything that doesn’t appeal to me on social media. Everyone’s got opinions, some more researched and well-crafted than others.

I’m not often in the mood to offer additional commentary, especially when I can tell the person making the statement or post doesn’t have the range to particularly engage in a meaningful dissection of the subject at hand.

But for this latest one, I wasn’t able to walk away so easily.

For a bit of context, LinkedIn has turned into quite the dumpster fire. What was originally created for job postings, networking opportunities and industry-specific information has turned into another vignette for people to share their personal lives. Why exactly am I seeing engagements and new car purchases rather than industry-specific information?

Please take that shit to Facebook.

Alas, seeing as LinkedIn has transformed into a platform with horrible takes and overly personal messaging, I came across this article:

This piece, penned rather vapidly by Dr. Paul Miller, juxtaposes the careers of Cicely Tyson and Megan thee Stallion and ruminates on the representation of Black women. But like much rhetoric I read pertaining to Black women when written by men, it lacks variation and context, which are fundamental aspects in examining the subset of a people.

While he backpedals quite often in an attempt to not directly say what we already know he’s alluding to, I found the piece to be an unhelpful contribution to a long line of narratives expressing how and what Black women should be and represent.

Now, seeing as this article wouldn’t incite a steaming pile of respectability politics and value signaling without it, one man on the LinkedIn post sharing the article asked an essential question:

Whose sexuality is it, anyway?

The answer? They want both. They want a woman with the public and perceived demeanor of Cicely but the sex appeal of Megan. I would run out of fingers before I could count the number of perfunctory verses I hear from male rap artists about their desire for a lady in the streets and a freak in the sheets.

Hell, if I had a dollar for every non-famous, non-rich man I heard wax poetic about this duality, I’d be debt-free.

If we were to conduct a trial for where this ideology holds roots, the church would be a perfect defendant. Purity culture has resigned women’s bodies to temples that can only be touched within the confines of marriage. Masturbation and overall sexual health are shrouded in shame as if you’re supposed to learn and understand the nuance of sex via osmosis.

But, how do we know and own our sexual needs and desires if we’re constantly told to ignore and suppress them? Oh, that’s easy, just let your husband (which many women may never have) teach you everything you need to know. Pleasing him is of the utmost importance. After all, you don’t want to be alone and single for the rest of your life, do you? Plus, we can’t possibly have his ego trampled by knowing you were intimate with others before you met him.

But, how did he learn it? Oh, you know, by being sexually active and having the agency (and encouragement) to do so. But don’t you worry your pretty head about that — sowing royal oats is only for men to do.

We have been tasked with the “good girl” caricature, beat across the head with repeated renditions of what men will not like or accept within us if we don’t follow it to the letter. Once you’ve been “selected,” it’s time to flip the freak hoe switch. And if you’re not able to do this successfully, well…good luck, girl!

Our sexuality has been reduced to a performance. A private dance you’re only to perform for your man and hopefully no one else he knows of. A song you’re expected to know front to back, all inflections and tone mastered, without ever hearing it.

Et tu, Brute?

Everyone loves to quote Malcolm X when they think they’re being radical. When loving and uplifting Black women is the trend of the day, there’s a speech that circulates quite a bit. You know the one.

His 1962 speech in Los Angeles, in which he poignantly describes the lengths to which Black women should be protected, has been used in a myriad of ways. But ironically, the very man who is idolized and emulated’s words seem to be so out of reach for many.

I’ve seen Black women argued down about whether they deserve luxury, whether they’re worthy of long-term commitment, whether they are compliant or submissive. I’ve watched arbitrary circumstances fully dictate how much respect a woman is given. Her hair, her beauty, her body, the way she dresses, the way she speaks — everything is up for debate when it comes to respect or protection.

However, nowhere in this speech does he say “protect women you find worthy” or “admonish women who don’t behave in the way you think they should” or “Black men should police the behavior of their women.”

He says to protect them. Kill for them. Whatever’s necessary, and by any means. Full stop.

And yet, Black men are the only demographic I have intimately witnessed be so committed to publicly and informally expressing what types of Black women are worthy. Praising Kevin Samuels. Priding themselves on problematic behavior. Writing whole articles comparing two beautiful Black women against each other, and being more willing to justify the importance of one and negate the significance of the other — all under the guise of not wanting young Black girls to grow up and objectify themselves.

Do you mean the same girls who are lauded as “fast” when in reality they are subject to predatory men?

You certainly don’t mean those girls with more well-endowed bodies who are ridiculed no matter what they wear.

And I know you’re not talking about the Black girls who are often reduced to their “assets” by the very men who claim to respect them.

Is it truly an investment in the gatekeeping of “positive imagery” for Black women, or is it posturing to regain control of the narrative Black men decide is best?

To be Black, especially in certain parts of this world, is an experience that is unparalleled to other minority groups. The nuances of culture, the epigenetic transfer of trauma from slavery, the spaces we create for one other within each other, the way we influence culture (and have ours appropriated)—you have to be of us to know it.

So, having an intimate understanding of our plight, why would Black men spend so much of their energy to aid others in tearing us down?

Why have they spent more time offering to the world what Black women should be, rather than asking themselves where this scrutiny comes from and whether it’s valid? And perhaps, more importantly, who gave it to them?

Of all the things you could do and be for Black women, why is discriminatory and divisive the choice?

Why, instead of unloading the chamber and dismantling the gun the world points at us, have you chosen to add another form of ammunition?

So, what type of representation do we need?

The truth is, we need both. We need the wisdom and grace of Cicely. And we need the boldness and independence of Megan. The problem is, Megan defies and rejects men’s hegemonic ideals of respectability. She raps explicitly about sex, dresses in a manner that pleases her and renders men as options rather than requirements.

She’s a blistering reminder of Black women’s agency and their commitment to honoring their freedoms, in all its forms.

Seeing as men do not navigate their lives, experience the same prejudices or sacrifice in the same ways as a woman, I find it to be incredulous and unbefitting for them to suggest what one should act like.

And, rather than make space to include women with different traits, ideals and contributions, many men have chosen to only assign value to those who behave within their scope of worthiness.

I say we should have more Black women who are encouraged and celebrated holistically, provided grace and protection, given accountability in a manner that still elicits respect, loved and uplifted, with no strings attached.

More acceptance of full and abundant characters, less celebration of male-gaze-centric performers.

More well-roundedness and sexual empowerment, less shaming and value politics.

More love of all the beautiful things Black women can be, less loud (and wrong!) takes on what they *should* be.

And ultimately, more Cicely Tysons, Megan thee Stallions, Toni Morrisons, Janet Mocks, Lizzos, Tarana Burkes, Roxane Gays, Rutina Wesleys, Tierra Whacks, down-to-Earth Black women, weird Black women, animated Black women, awkward Black women, loud Black women, confident Black women, shy Black women, nerdy Black women, reserved Black women, liberated Black women, natural Black women, weaved, permed or bald Black women, whatever the hell they want to be Black women…

…and fewer men who have anything negative to say (or write) about it.

In radical pursuit.

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