Respectability Politics

Respectability Politics

A new day is dawning and new styles emerge.

In the past, conservative Black minds agreed that the proper way to raise your children was to color inside the lines. Keep your head down, follow the rules, don’t talk back and don’t stir up no trouble – unless it was good trouble, like the kind that John Lewis or the good reverend Dr. King advocated – and even then, good trouble was questionable in some households. But when it came to your outward presentation, especially for young Black males, there really wasn’t much leeway given. The insurgence of the Afro hairstyle was really propelled by Black women. Typically men in the 60’s already wore their hair in neat, even, low cut naturals – what we might call a ‘baby fro’ today. To step outside of that and let their hair grow larger was an act of rebellion that would barely be tolerated in the workplace, the schools or the home.

A black child’s proximity to mainstream respectability is a kind of social barometer for many black parents. Respectability politics, the tendency of a minority group to police its unique cultural practices, is not universally accepted as good practice in black communities. That said, respectability politics inform a lot of choices made by parents disinterested or just not able — for any number of economic or personal reasons — to challenge mainstream values. (, 2018)

Parents believe(d) then, – and the bias still persists now – that wearing a less than traditional hairstyle was the fastest and easiest way to attract negative attention and welcome anti-Black bias. For women it was/is a difficulty that they could navigate by donning wigs, weaves or wrapping their hair, but for young men, the existing options are much fewer and the repercussions, potentially deadly. For some, being nappy is an invitation to be seen as someone with low personal standards or worse yet, a lowly street thug.

While afros, locs braids, twists and all other manner of natural hair is experiencing a huge boon for Black men and boys, the truth is, the fears of these conservative Black parents is not unfounded. Young Black boys are still regarded with contempt for their dreadlocs, no matter how neat or stylized they are. They are still policed more heavily than their non-Black peers.  No amount of respectability politicking is going to change that fact though. If there is bias or racism, whether conscious or unconscious, it will come out no matter what hairstyle they wear.

The real truth is, that the change has to come from the people who hold this bias in their hearts and have the power to affect the course of our children’s lives. All we can do is live our truths, and encourage our boys to live their truths whether that truth be a bald fade, luscious locs, a full ‘fro, or anything else in between.