In my work on lynching plays, I have spent a decent amount of time pondering whether or not theater (and art in general) can save us: from actual violence, from our failings, from ourselves. And the simple truth is that I have no idea what will save us, but I have learned unequivocally what won’t:
Respectability politics, as defined by Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation, is “the idea that one can overcome racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards” — that if marginalized peoples behaved correctly, they will be given access to all the privileges that remain perpetually out of reach for them. Angelina Weld Grimké wrote the play Rachel in service of that argument to present Black humanity and its destruction under lynching to White audiences.
According to the Washington D.C. Public Library:
Alain Locke, in Plays of Negro Life (1927), said of Rachel, ‘Apparently the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors.’ And the NAACP production program said of the play, ‘This is the first attempt to use the stage for race propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relating to the lamentable condition of ten millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.’
Forty years after Rachel was produced, Emmitt Till was lynched. An eloquent plea written by a Black child of privilege commissioned by the leading race-based organization of the time and sanctioned by the first African American Rhodes Scholar could not save the life of an innocent 14-year-old boy with a four-decade head start. It does not get any more respectable than that and it failed. Yet we continue to believe that good behavior will save us.
Contemporary manifestations of this conversation are everywhere, but one needs look no further than this weekend’s Video Music Awards (VMAs). While this pop culture spectacle is an annual petri dish of nonsense, the VMAs can serve as a diorama of our contemporary moment. Both Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus embody problematic representations, however, Cyrus took it upon herself to tone police Minaj in The New York Times. At the VMAs, Minaj responded and was called a “savage” in Salon — one of the less subtle pieces of coded racist language in the lexicon. While it can be argued that each woman’s problematic elements are more or less equitable, racism as an institution allows the “newspaper of record” to minimize Cyrus’ negativity while magnifying Minaj’s.
Minaj is the anti-Rachel: “rude,” “savage,” “hypersexualized” and unapologetic. She is often maligned for refusing to engage with a dominant narrative that wishes to dismiss her unless and until she is more respectable. But what is respectable? And who gets to decide? Why do any of us think we’re qualified to make that decision? While I don’t always agree with Minaj’s choices, I admire her argument: none of us get to dismiss the humanity or validity of anyone else just because we’re uncomfortable with how they behave.
This was further highlighted for me in the comments of Scott Walters’ pieces regarding “Cellphone-gazi” and performance decorum. The tone of many of the comments boiled down to
One of the arguments I believe Walters was making is that we have redefined what this means throughout the ages so there is no such thing as objective sophistication. I want to further argue that racism, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism and any other form of powered exclusion have informed whom we include when we define sophistication or respectability. Whenever any of us are policing the behavior of another, we have to be willing to recognize how we are informing a narrative of exclusion.
So, what does a counter response to respectability politics look like? As I said in the beginning, I’m not certain that there exists one right answer, but I do have some suggestions for challenging the narrative individually and institutionally:
- Recognize that all opinions are subjective regardless of the number of people who agree.
- Standards of etiquette count as opinion.
- In recognizing that all opinions are subjective, own yours as such.
- “I prefer to watch theater without cell phones” is different from “No one should experience theater with cell phones.” Your preferred experience may not be someone else’s and both can be okay.
- Be mindful of asking others to adapt in ways you are unwilling.
- Miley, when you want to engage honestly around your cultural appropriation I’ll be happy to discuss Nicki’s tone.
- Try to understand the message before you dismiss the messenger.
- Ignoring a valid argument because it isn’t packaged “correctly” is willful ignorance at its finest.
- Acknowledge that asking someone to behave better so that you don’t mistreat them, particularly if you may have already mistreated them, is an act of violence.
- No matter how benign the language may seem, the threat is clear: act like you belong or you will be harassed/dismissed/ignored/harmed.
Respectability politics trick us all into believing that we can objectively determine someone’s value based on parlor tricks and window dressing. I challenge us all to consider alternate ways to engage with each other and our art without perpetuating false hierarchies and structural inequalities.
In short, audience: what’s good?