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Caught in the respectability trap

Speaking of letting people enjoy things, let’s talk about… respectability politics.

The dark side of embracing the personal as political is definitely the moment we start policing ourselves to appease the mainstream culture. You know, the dominant class! Respectability is the moment you decide a fellow black person is acting a little too black in public, or maybe queer folks shouldn’t embrace so much diversity of identification.

The road to respectability in media starts with a whisper of, “Why they have to do that…”

I have to deal with Respectable Folks so much in real life that the absolute last place I want to see it is on my TV, but it’s always been there. The quest for inclusion in media has brought this out in a lot of us as the viewing public, too. Sometimes in strange ways. I mean, I get it. It’s no secret that marginalized folks only receive focus when we hone in on our pain and struggles. Once, media was a platform for us to discuss these issues, bring them to light, dissect them. Until, as it turned out, that’s ALL that the viewing public wanted. Making features for us by us got increasingly difficult for a myriad of reasons. And now the things that are ostensibly “for us” receive plenty of scrutiny. And it’s deserved because honestly, who is some of this stuff for?

The real question is not WHO is this material for, but what. And the answer is: performance! As we perform cis & heteronormative functions, eventually our media acts in kind. And we get… comfortable with it, for a while.

As a black person, I’m tired of my ancestral pain being on display so often in ways not meant for me to digest. I would really just rather not. Someone needs to hear it that way, but it’s not me. It’s alright if some shows and movies feature people that look like me, but aren’t for me per se. But the real frustration begins when nothing is for me, yet somehow I’m hyperfocused on. And the things that are “for me” don’t quite hit the spot sometimes, or hit the spot a little too dead on.

My favorite example is from this Halloween past. My local art theater showed Tales From the Hood, one of my favorite anthology horror films of all time. And I was going to watch it in a theater, an experience I never got to have when the movie was new and out! …Except now, I’m in a theater slam packed with white folks, most of which who had probably never seen this hood movie classic.

For the first time, I found myself thinking about just how damn ham-fisted the messages of the movie were. Especially as we get to the last story, which was a very Black message about black-on-black violence and included images of lynchings and shootings. I looked around and started wondering what people thought. I couldn’t really enjoy myself all of a sudden. I felt a tinge of, “do we have to do this right now?”

And that was it. Before I knew it, I had slid into Respectability-land. Looking back, I’ve fallen into that place a lot over the past couple of years. Deep down inside, part of me still resents having to perform in the arena of whiteness and an even bigger part resents media for me no longer being “mine”. Respectability, sometimes, is a way to make something yours. In essence, reclaim it.

Shows like Black-ish and Netflix’s smash hit Luke Cage exhausted me at times because they hammered on a message for an audience that was just left of Me. Same with sleeper hit Sorry to Bother You – I was happy to see it, but later all I could think about was the people who would take away the exact wrong message. I even got cranky with reality television as it belched out more messy interpretations of interracial couples at us and there’s already precious few good examples. (Damn whoever approved Chad Loves Michelle.)

It’s not a new thing, of course. Black folks have been collectively cringing at the presentations of ourselves on screen for years. It’s even worse when these wack portrayals are drummed up by your own people. Is this really just what happens to get approved or is this what we think of ourselves? Is it years of internalized hatred or are we just our own worst enemy? As representation increases on our screens, the fatigue is settling in for everyone. It’ll make you restless and anxious to see something different, something else.

What sucks is that there are people who have made who careers out of playing respectable (looking at you, Antwon Fuqua) and at times that’s all we’ve had to uplift us. It’s garbage, but what do you do when that’s all that you have? Make new media at the risk of it never being seen?

After my moment in the theater, I thought about how easy it is to slide down. It’s easy when you’re tired of fighting. It’s easy when you already got the message and you’re still waiting on people to catch up. It’s easy to hope that more positive media no matter how unrealistic will increase your profile and have people finally accept you as a human being. It’s easy to feel like something or someone somewhere else is dragging you down.

The need to perform and have others perform with us holds us all back from true freedom of expression. But respectability is never going to save us. The truth is, nothing (except systematic oppression) is dragging us down. In life as on the silver screen. We break free of respectability when we remember that it’s possible to exist outside of the dominant class(es). And carrying the lessons from the ‘17 and ‘18 into the ‘19, that is how we build towards something better.


E. Young

E. Young is a small town country author of horror and sci-fi works. Strives to cultivate a general sense unease and wholesome pop culture references. Owns a multitude of cats and probably wants to talk to you about a movie or music from a band you've never heard of. Can also be found at Bright Nightmares or on the Twitter machine @xenoxands.