Daily Bulletin


The Conversation

  • Written by Daily Bulletin
image'Respectability politics' at black colleges.Isis Dillard, CC BY

As classes began this year, male students at Dillard University, a historically black institution, were asked to don suits and ties. Students leading the effort believe that through this custom, students will better represent the school and themselves upon graduation.

It is important to place this in the context of “respectability politics” – attempts by marginalized groups to demonstrate their acceptance of mainstream values rather than to challenge the mainstream for failing to accept difference.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provide an interesting vantage point on respectability politics. As a researcher of HBCUs, I believe it is unfair to demand that the marginalized adhere to or show respect for mainstream values that perpetuate inequality. Yet the history of black colleges challenges me to consider the role of respectability politics in the overall fight for racial justice and equality.

History of ‘respectability’

Respectability politics is not new.

From the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Black Lives Matter, respectability politics is an ever-present theme within movements for black progress and liberation.

Though Rosa Parks’ defiant stance against racial segregation is credited with sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she wasn’t the first black woman to have refused her seat to a white passenger in that town.

Nine months prior, Claudette Colvin had done the same thing. However, movement leaders did not feel Colvin, an unmarried, pregnant teenager, represented the “cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity” indicative of respectability.

Even today, when Black Lives Matter protesters are criticized for disrupting political events, the main concern is often respectability. The view is people will be more inclined to listen to the group’s demands if they are presented in a manner that demonstrates respect – nice clothes and no profanity.

Emphasis on dress at HBCUs

Now let’s look at the terrain in which the majority of HBCUs began between 1866 and 1898.

Educating the formerly enslaved and their descendants was a truly radical idea following the Civil War.

imageWhy dress and appearance matter at black colleges.Man image via www.shutterstock.com

Despite this, respectability politics were woven throughout HBCU missions and daily practices. Black leaders argued that the pursuit of education was a way to rehabilitate the image of the black community. Through education, service and moral living, “the race” could uplift itself to the position of whites.

Reminiscent of recent events at Dillard, emphasis on dress and appearance was a common practice at HBCUs through the middle of the 20th century. Students were expected to look the part – clean, professional – respectable.

For example, the United Negro College Fund drew from respectability politics as it raised money for private black colleges in the 1940s and 1950s. The images and words used to raise money for these schools were carefully selected.

From the portraits of neatly dressed coeds styled to look “all-American” to their claims that black college graduates adhered to the American values of thrift, service and upholding one’s responsibility, the United Negro College Fund’s efforts were a blueprint for respectability politics.

Ironically, though, the very same positioning that showed black colleges as bastions of respectability also enabled these schools to serve as spaces that inculcated radicalism among their students.

White donors in particular responded favorably to these images of respectability. And the money raised enabled HBCUs to become laboratories for civil rights.

It is from such schools that well-known leaders of the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Diane Nash emerged. It is also from within HBCUs, public and private, that students developed innovative and distinctly radical approaches emphasizing direct confrontation to fighting for racial equality, such as the sit-in.

Radical political thought and respectability

We should not underestimate the ability for radical political perspectives to emerge even from within contexts that promote respectability.

After all, even as Malcolm X called for justice by any means necessary, he did so while steeped in a religious tradition that heavily policed the dress, manners and sexuality of its members.

Calls for respectability have always existed. Some of these calls have emanated from within the black community. But rest assured, these calls have never prevented radical political thought from prevailing or succeeding within the black community, reminding us once again that we should be less concerned with how the messenger dresses and more concerned with the message itself.

Melissa E Wooten does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Authors: Daily Bulletin

Read more http://theconversation.com/why-dress-and-appearance-matter-at-black-colleges-46794

Writers Wanted

Why some people find it easier to stick to new habits they formed during lockdown

arrow_forward

Why is it worth playing at an online casino?

arrow_forward

What is Self-Education? + 4 Ways to Improve Yourself

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

KIERAN GILBERT: Kieran Gilbert here with you and the Prime Minister joins me. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.  PRIME MINISTER: G'day Kieran.  GILBERT: An assumption a vaccine is ...

Daily Bulletin - avatar Daily Bulletin

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Business News

Cybersecurity data means nothing to business leaders without context

Top business leaders are starting to realise the widespread impact a cyberattack can have on a business. Unfortunately, according to a study by Forrester Consulting commissioned by Tenable, some...

Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable - avatar Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable

InteliCare triple winner at prestigious national technology awards

InteliCare triple winner at prestigious national technology awards Intelicare wins each nominated category and takes out overall category at national technology 2020 iAwards. Company wins overal...

Media Release - avatar Media Release

Arriba Group Founder, Marcella Romero, wins CEO Magazine’s Managing Director of the Year

Founder and Managing Director of the Arriba Group, Marcella Romero, has won Managing Director of the Year at last night’s The CEO Magazine’s Executive of the Year Awards. The CEO Magazine's Ex...

Lanham Media - avatar Lanham Media



News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion