You’ve seen them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook — memes that divide black women up by respectable vs ratchet, heaping praise on the former and disgust on the latter. They dictate how black women should act and mercilessly shame those who don’t fit the mold, concluding that black women are wholly to blame for the consequences of undignified behavior, including physical and sexual abuse. Black men are, of course, never implicated in these memes and it’s worth noting that many are created by black men.
Recently, actress Tia Mowry uploaded a meme to her Instagram account that raised some eyebrows. While it likely wasn’t mal‐intended, some felt it reinforced the respectable vs ratchet dichotomy that reigns in black social media.
Of course, Nicki Minaj’s fans went in on Mowry for what they felt was a dig. The backlash was so great that Mowry made a statement before deleting the photo from her account altogether.
Some feel the concept of ‘black respectability’ is actually a positive thing, and would praise the above memes. But in an essay on Hoodfeminism, Loryn C Wilson breaks down why respectability doesn’t really help things, culturally speaking.
“Respectability politics is divisive. Point blank.
Everyone remembers that classic scene in School Daze where the Jiggaboos faced off against the Wannabes. That scene demonstrates one of the biggest problems with respectability politics – it’s divisive nature. It further divides Black people into the Bourgeoise versus “them n*ggas over there,” setting a stage where middle and upper class Black people can look at their low‐income brethren–and somehow think they are better than them. If a way of thinking makes me treat one of my own with anything less than love and compassion, then I don’t want to subscribe to it. We need approaches that bring us closer together, that can lift us up as we climb. If it doesn’t unify us, we don’t need it.
Respectability politics dehumanizes Black people, especially women.
As it’s been noted before, if a white woman proudly and publicly embraces her sexuality, white people praise her as an example of sexual empowerment and body positivity. However, when a Black woman does the same, those people treat her as though she is less of a woman. People are quick to police our bodies and tell us that we are ugly, fat, unlovable bitches.
Saartjie Baartman is an early example of this. She was an African woman held in captivity like a circus animal, made to perform for white people on account of her voluptuous body. For a small fee, whites could watch her perform and even touch the “Hottentot Venus.” And this was simply because of the way her body is shaped – a characteristic that she had no control over. There are countless modern‐day examples of this – from Beyonce getting her ass smacked by a fan during a performance to Nicki Minaj having the same thing done to her by Regis Philbin on national TV.
Respectability politics suggests that only certain Black people are even worthy of respect to begin with.
Implicit in telling black men to “pull up their pants” or a black women to “keep their legs closed” is the idea that if they do not do these things, then they can’t or shouldn’t be respected. Oftentimes on Facebook, I see the meme of young black men with sagging pants alongside a picture of young black men dressed in suits from the 1960s with the caption “Back then men were real men.” But here’s the problem with that: During the Civil Rights Movement (and even before), Black people wore suits, pressed their hair, and were still beaten and killed – so why even compare? The way one wears their hair or clothes, the way they express themselves, the choices they make—none of these things should be used as a litmus test for respect given or denied.”
How do you feel about respectability memes?