In the Face of Respectability.

Image from allthingsharlem.com

Image from allthingsharlem.com

Over at Huffington Post, Romany Malco seems to have taken a page from Bill Cosby’s forever in-progress book, How to Completely Miss Every Point Ever Made About Race in the US and Blame Racism on Black Youth Instead. According to Malco, things like the criminalization of black bodies aren’t responsible for antiblack violence. That would be too obvious, and besides, we need to deal with the bigger issues of Education, Values, and Lack of Introspection before we can address racism. But in the meantime, you know what we can talk about? How cursing, twerking, weave-wearing, and designer clothes are the reasons black people die. From Malco:

I believe we lost that trial for Trayvon long before he was killed. Trayvon was doomed the moment ignorance became synonymous with young black America. We lost that case by using media outlets (music, movies, social media, etc.) as vehicles to perpetuate the same negative images and social issues that destroyed the black community in the first place. When we went on record glorifying violent crime and when we voted for a president we never thought to hold accountable. When we signed on to do reality shows that fed into the media’s stereotypes of black men, we ingrained an image of Trayvon Martin so overwhelming that who he actually may have been didn’t matter anymore.

In other words, black people put Trayvon Martin in danger of a fatal act of vigilantism through their choices to live and be seen. Black people should never be in reality shows, or vote for presidents, or tweet. We should know that each of us speaks for us all, and that we cannot be diverse, complex, independent individuals. The killing of Trayvon Martin ultimately falls on the shoulders of “the black community,” and has naught to do with his gunman’s aspiration to be a part of law enforcement, or with multiple cities’ publicly discriminatory stop-and-frisk programs, or with the fact that black people have been getting murdered for existing since long before the advent of mass media.

Malco continues:

If we really wanted to ensure Trayvon Martin’s killing was not in vain, we’d stop perpetuating negative images that are now synonymous with black men in America. We’d stop rapping about selling drugs and killing niggas. The next time we saw a man beating a woman, we’d call for help or break it up, but one thing we would not do is stand by with our cellphones out — yelling WORLDSTAR! Instead of rewarding kids for memorization, we’d reward them for independent and critical thinking.

Because if we all started rapping about our favorite shows on Nickelodeon, people would see we are nice and a black teenager walking in the rain wouldn’t be perceived as a threat, right? If only we would never talk about drugs, or use technology, or send our children to public schools, black people wouldn’t be killed, guys?! Somebody send this guy some butter, because he is really on a roll.

Lastly:

We’d spend less time subconsciously repeating lyrics about death and murder and more time understanding why we are so willing to twerk to songs that bemean women and boast of having things we cannot afford. We’d set examples of self-love for our youth by honoring our own hair, skin and eye color. We’d stop spending money on designer gear that we should be spending on our physical and psychological health. We’d seek information outside the corporate owned-media that manipulates us. We’d stop letting television babysit our kids and we’d quit regurgitating pundits we haven’t come up with on our own.

Basically, black people, stop living if you are going to insist on making your own decisions! Stop the “racism outcry” if you are not going to lead the life of a noble and sacrificial race. You have the nerve to dance? You don’t own your house, and you dare to buy a car? You haven’t been to the gym, but you’ve got a new TV?! Don’t you know that your only hope for survival as a breathing black person in this country depends on you consistently proving your innocence?

Malco’s narrative may seem marginally not-complete-bullshit at first glance: he mentions the need for “critical thinking,” and rails quite emphatically against “corporate-owned media.” To be sure — though his analysis is all hot air, no balloon — he does at least gesture toward issues of sensationalism, violence against women, and the race to accumulate capital. This is all frustratingly undeveloped, however, and buried beneath the oppressively thick, godawful layers of choice-policing and respectability politics. Malco’s view implies that stereotypes perpetuated by black people are the reason for the violence against them. It eschews analyses of historical, structural, state-sanctioned and extralegal racist violence, in favor of a trope that leans on personal responsibility. … Because history started sixty years ago, and in that time, any harm done to black people has been due to their moral shortcomings.

As I attempt to, once and for all, push the poisonous thinking of the Negro Community Police out of my brain, I want to draw a page from Malco’s book and “address young black people specifically.” I want to ask that we think about what we should not have to sacrifice in order to be seen and treated as whole human beings. It seems to me that we should not have to sacrifice our power to move our bodies and our mouths in public, make music we enjoy, participate in politics, engage with popular media, adorn ourselves. We should not have to sacrifice our power to grieve, or to protest, or to show concern over multiple issues at once. We should be able to be weed-smoking, tattoo-having, god-doubting, pants-sagging, piercing-clad, grill-sporting, unmarried individuals if we want to — without having to worry that we will be presumed monolithic, followed, frisked, or shot because of it. We should be able to be, and to choose, and to affirm who we are, always and without shame. Because when it comes to fighting for your entire life, there is no compromise. Now let us twerk.

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Victoria is a writer and DJ based in Chicago, Illinois. You can find her on Twitter.

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7 comments to In the Face of Respectability.

  • rootlesscosmo

    It’s worth remembering that these “act-nice” strategies not only shift responsibility away from white racism and onto Black “failings,” they don’t even work. A key witness in the trial of Emmett Till’s killers died recently, so that murder is on my mind, and you know what? Emmett Till wore a crisply pressed white shirt and a necktie, and a hat, and an engaging smile. They murdered him anyway. Is Malco saying whites kill Black men on account of how they’re dressed? Because that’s what it sounds like, and that’s obviously absurd.
    Chaim Rumkowski was the Nazis’ appointed Jewish authority in the ghetto of Lodz, Poland. He helped them deport thousands to the dseath camps while urging the remaining residents to be obedient and productive. When it became clear he and his family were going to be deported, he asked that his services be recognized by being given a compartment in a passenger train, rather than being flung into a boxcar. The Nazis agreed. On the day of deportation, he and his family were stuffed into a boxcar and sent away to be murdered with everyone else. IF THEY WANT TO KILL YOU FOR WHO YOU ARE, POLITENESS AND “RESPECTABLE” DRESS WILL NOT MAKE THEM STAY THEIR HAND.

  • The R

    In listening to talk radio and reading various articles it seems that the black community, pretty much along age, are falling into two camps with the fallout from the Zimmerman case. I can see the validity to both sides of the issue. I have been attempting to reconcile myself to one side or the other on this.
    I get what you are saying about a segment of our community that various forms of media are pushing as the portrayal of who and what our young people are. This image, right or wrong, is causing some, if not most, white people to arrive at an ill-informed conclusion. If we agree to that premise then what? Do we then accept when incidents like Trayvon Martin happen because he lived how he wanted to live white America’s image of him be damned? If I am Trayvon’s father I am not going to be comforted by the fact that my son kept it 100 all day every day and did his block proud and went out like a champ.
    If a white person donned a KKK outfit and walked through a black neighborhood should there be no reaction by the community or cops because beneath the clothing choice that we see there could be a very well intentioned, law abiding, going where he wants to go white person beneath what appears to be a sight that could be the sign of a problem? I don’t see where we would have or should have let that slide either.
    While I do not think we need to, or should have to, Huxtablize ourselves in order to walk or be anywhere we want to be but if a certain image is deemed unacceptable, both inside and outside of the black community, then there has to be some shift in the narrative.

    • If a white person donned a KKK outfit and walked through a black neighborhood should there be no reaction by the community or cops because beneath the clothing choice that we see there could be a very well intentioned, law abiding, going where he wants to go white person beneath what appears to be a sight that could be the sign of a problem? I don’t see where we would have or should have let that slide either.

      Troll better, homie.

      • The R

        Not an attempt at trolling and certainly not a comment that was meant for justification for Zimmerman if that is how you took it. Simply a juxtaposition, pimpin.
        Certain attire on certain people carries a certain stigma to it as we all know. I was asking, perhaps not very well, if the situation was one where the players were different that a similar reaction would occur. People probably still side-eye a white teen dressed in all black with a long trench coat on. The difference, as I see it, is that when we dress in a manner that is perceived as threatening police get called, tempers flare and the potential for situations like Trayvon’s to happen is to damn high. So if the question is one of image vs. intent how do we get the two to stand alone for our young people who do dress in a certain manner? If this is a perception thing, do we put out images that show youth doing things that are considered positive but still dressed however they want to be dressed? Do we say bump it, dress how we want and let the chips fall where they may because like rootlesscosmo said IF THEY WANT TO KILL US FOR WHO WE ARE, POLITENESS AND “RESPECTABLE” DRESS WILL NOT MAKE THEM STAY THEIR HAND, do we present counter imagery wearing the same clothes with the hopes that thoughts approaching being impartial occur, do we look to get those who are not living a certain life but wanting to look the part to dress differently…what?
        There will be another Trayvon for much the same reason(s) so solutions need to had. I have an 11 year old son and I know, on any given day, that he could fall victim to someone that will simply see my son, despite where he is going, doing or whatever his potential may be, as someone who is up to no good and will approach or deal with him out of fear or disdain instead of taking him as he is for who is as an individual. He has questioned the case, we have discussed it, I have explained it from a variety of angles but I have not been able to present a solution. I would like to. I know there is not one to address it in the present but are we even going in the right direction toward one? The only thing I can give him is that he should proud of who he is and what he is along with cautionary tales of being black in America.

  • KevinTran87

    Nice post

  • Yes we should continue challenging society to uphold our rights to legally dress and behave as we feel without having our lives threatened because of it. Yes we face the monumental challenge of overcoming institutionalized racism that has shaped and continues to shape and influence the worlds perception and interactions with people of color. Yes, our community has been has been victimized by this country for generations, and our demographics have seen the negative brunt over the years. Yes each of these should be taken into account when joining the respectability conversation.

    I am also in agreeance with many of the things Malco said. I believe that for many of us, aspects of our culture have developed in opposition to the mainstream values this country claims to hold true. Because of some of the perceived behaviors formed from this opposition, we see the validation of the racist thinking and discriminatory behaviors in the minds of the mainstream. it seems to be an ongoing cycle that both sides must take responsibility for, and actions to stop. In other words, we do play a role in perpetuating stereotypes that we need to own up to and grow from. I see young people take on a fixed mindset that sets them on a path to pursuing things rather than growth. This mindset intern shapes everything about them, their perceptions, thought process, appearance, goals, choices, interactions, and reactions to success and failure. The truth in the matter is that we need structures that vastly increase the number of people in our local communities who consistently interact with our youth and model our cultural understanding and mindset of growth.

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