Respectability Politics and Intersectionability

Respectability Politics and Intersectionability
Respectability Politics and Intersectionability

Respectability Politics and Intersectionability


Politics of respectability or respectability politics refers to attempts by members of marginalised communities to police their own members and at the same time show that certain aspects of their life, especially the social ones are compatible and continuous with the other mainstream values. Respectability politics takes its root in shaping marginalised communities instead of challenging the mainstream groups for it numerous failures and accepting the difference between the parties (Harris, 2012). 

The black community stands out as one of the marginalised communities in the United States and more likely feels the effects of respectability politics. On the other hand inter-sectionality refers to individuals face multiple threats of discrimination based on several different grounds (Smith, 2014). Politics of respectability is practised as a way of attempting to undermine the moral and cultural practices of a given ethnic group President Obama clearly stands out as one of the parties criticised for continuously using respectability politics throughout the entire period as president of the United States (Harris, 2012).

This paper largely focuses on respectability of the society using the black community as an example Intersectionality and politics of respectability are two concepts that address the plight of minority communities and make them equal to other societal members if used in the right manner.

Politics of Respectability and Intersectionability

According to Harris (2014), respectability of politics has become one of the fundamental methods that is used to address the ills of the society. It was founded by members of the society to act as a guide. Harris (2014) illustrates and identifies the specific parties that formulated or coined the term respectability politics among the black community. The black elite came up with the term to guide the social actions of members of their society. However some parties go against the set of procedures and become aggrieved once they are chased out of the school setting.

A good example is in the case of the young girl who was sent away from school for allegedly going against the set rules (Harris, 2012). The young girl named Tiana Parker came to school with deadlocks something that was not allowed in the school setting (Harris, 2012). The black elite community set the rules to upgrade their community but such teachings were advocated by most members of the society. They never saw the benefits of such rules in their lives.

 Intersectionability seeks to understand why the black community is opposed to such rules that were meant to improve their lives.  It holds that the classical cases of oppression within a society never act alone. Rather they act together while being interlinked to one another. For example. In most cases, racism would occur with other ills in the society. Some of these other ills would be bigotry, xenophobia, classism and sexism (Harris, 2014). All of these aspects are interlinked in one way or another.

The public outcry witnesses in the case of Tiana Parker did not seek to understand the current problem at hand which is violation of the school rules (Harris, 2012).  The society felt that since white children are able to go to school having different types of hair styles and they are never expelled the same rules should be applied to children coming from the white community (Smith, 2014). This in essence shows the type of society that the above parties live in.

Intersectionability has been used to weaken the position of politics of respectability A good example is provided in the case of the Republican party in the United States which has always been opposed to any changes to alleviate the social and economic position of the black community. Most of the Supreme Court cases in the United States have gone against issues such as affirmative action in the process hindering the change that is much desired in the society (White, 2010).

The Republican Party has also gone forth to vote against the Obama’s accomplishment such as the Affordable Care Act that ensures that there is equality in the health standards among all individuals in the society (Harris, 2014). All individuals against politics of respectability are sometimes directly linked to being individuals who promote tendencies outlined in intersectionability. Sometimes President Obama has been against issues involving politics respectability (White, 2010).

On some occasions the president has been equally quiet on issues affecting the black community and as a result the people from this ethnic group have not felt as if their issue are being addressed by the current president (Smith, 2014). More focus has been provided in addressing issues that deal with the whole society. At the end of the day, solving societal issues without addressing issues such as racism and ethnicity does not assist the nation as a whole. Instead, it tears into the national fabric that makes the same nation (Harris, 2014).

Neglecting politics of respectability fails to address important problems that face the society. Such problems include the economic position of the working class of the black people. President Obama has also been on the trail stating that the black people are solely responsible for some of the misfortunes that have affected them and their societies. More importantly the president stated that the black people have stalled their own progress. This has become much more of a custom if not a ritual for the president of the United States (Harris, 2014).  

Obama stated that during the fifty years that the black community was in war, some of its members had the wrong objectives. Some of them still complain of police brutality and how they have been neglected by the society. The same problems that they fought for close to fifty years are still being described.  When such terms are used or utilised in the society they reduce the pleas of one community or ethnic group as being normal complaint (White, 2010).

However, the truth of the matter is quite different as different individuals from the Black community may be suffering from the said effects (Harris, 2014). The elite class in the black community has attempted to change their thinking but all has not worked. The best approach is to directly influence the black people so that they have people who can look and learn from in the society. Such example are the likes of Michael Johnson whose life serves to change the life of the people from the black community (Harris, 2014). People who have succeeded in life are better placed in assisting the society to attain its goals in the long run.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham remains one of the few authors who properly brought out issues facing women in the society through advocating for practices that fall under respectability politics. In the earlier centuries women were rarely treated as equals in the society (Watts, 1994). They were subjected to all form of discrimination in the society by those in charge of all roles. However Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham found a way in which women could be empowered (Smith, 2014).

More specifically, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham utilised the church to bring out issues that faced women between 1880 and 1920 (Watts, 1994). Women were largely engaged as the members of the church their participation ranged from organising for fundraisers to promoting education and development in the society.  The church in itself was doing well because of women in the society.

In other words, the women can be stated as the original founder members of the church (White, 2010). Thus most black women  never viewed the church as the only place where they could seek religious interventions but also one of the places where they could offer  a forum to challenge intersectionability issues such as race, gender and class which tore the society into different fronts (Watts, 1994).

Black women became the centre for attraction for the Baptist church, a role that had been originally designed to belong to the male members of the society. Their involvement in most of the activities of the church and the society were aimed at ensuring that they could help their race instead of waiting for their race to come and help those (Watts, 1994). This was one of the basic fundamental teachings that most people from the black community came to believe.

Soon enough they were divided into small groups that placed more emphasis on the development of the society rather than focusing on individuals (Watts, 1994). A good example of such a group was the famously known Female Talented Group which comprised of educated girls within the society who placed emphasis on the educating members of the society and more so those of the black ethnic community in society who were missing out on education (Smith, 2014).

The women also established convections schools where they articulated all manner of issues such as racism and classism in the society and taught children on how to avoid the current ills noted in the present society (Watts, 1994).  The Northern Baptist women were also able to work with the Southern Baptist women in the creation of a new alliance that had never been in existence. The new alliance sought to inspire the society to become better members. 

Higginbotham’s work majorly focuses on the many activities different women across the divide put forth in ensuring aspects relating to the society were well advocated for irrespective of their individual ethnic or racial background. This in essence helped most member o f the black community.


Respectability politics is a term coined to show how different members of the society can come together and improve the society regardless of all the stumbling blocks that may appear on their way. It focuses on how the society can become better by improving the status of the marginalised communities. However, not all individuals have the same  believes in such system and as a result there is creation of another aspect termed as intersectionability which exists immediately a society fails to recognise the importance of  respectability politics


Harris, F. (2012). The price of the ticket: Barack Obama and rise and decline of Black politics. OUP USA.

Harris, F. C. (2014). The rise of respectability politics. Dissent, 61(1), 33-37.

Smith, M. (2014). Affect and respectability politics. Theory & Event, 17(3).

Watts, J. (1994). Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. By Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.(Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1993. xiv, 306 pp. $34.95, ISBN 0-674-76977-5.). The Journal of American History, 81(1), 295-295.

White, E. F. (2010). Dark continent of our bodies: Black feminism & politics of respectability. Temple University Press.

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