RIHANNA, RACE, GENDER, AND “RESPECTABILITY POLITICS”

rihanna-cfda-eye-catching-dress

So, over the past week the internet was abuzz with discussion about Rihanna and the see-through dress (with no bra underneath) that she wore to the CFDA Awards (Council of Fashion Designers of America). I wasn’t really sure what to think about it, not that I gave it all that much thought initially. Frankly, ever since Rihanna took Chris Brown back, after he beat the holy s*** out of her, I pretty much gave up on caring about her personal life . She can do whatever the heck she wants, I just want to know if she has any new good songs that I might want to add to my workout playlist? And therein kind of lies the problem. How often do we hear about Rihanna because of her music? People aren’t writing blogs, or tweeting or resharing Facebook posts about Rihanna’s last album or single, the thing that keeps her in the news is her personal life. And part of me can’t really blame her for, at least to some degree, taking advantage of that. I mean, let’s face it, Rihanna does not have the greatest singing voice in the world. She’s rather lightweight, but has a good team picking the right songs for her vocal range. And she doesn’t write songs herself (which I don’t hold against her), she’s not a musician. But she can dance. And she looks good. She puts on a good show. I’d say that her physical appearance is probably 60-70% responsible for her success. So I guess I can’t really blame her. It would be one thing if someone like Alicia Keys or Taylor Swift felt the need to wear something like that just for attention, then I’d complain about how unnecessary these type of public gimmicks are. They may be physically attractive too, and that’s also part of their success, but they can back it up with clear musical talent and strong voices. Even if either one gained a bunch of weight, as long as they could still write good songs and sing them, it probably wouldn’t hurt their careers too much (look at Adele).

So I definitely don’t want to slut-shame Rihanna, as some folks online have. Women are judged harsher for this sort of thing, and that is an unfair double-standard. Believe it or not, I’ve even occasionally found myself feeling compelled to defend the dreaded Kim Kardashian, when I’ve seen people calling her a whore or a slut. I’m like, what makes her a whore? The sex tape with Ray J? They were dating three years, they had sex, that’s what couples do. And she dated a few other guys since then, had sex with them. That’s what single people do. Get over it. Sure, I have no problem calling her an ATTENTION whore, because that’s what she and her whole family are, but a whore in the sexual meaning of the word? Nah, that’s unfair. Same with Rihanna.

At the same time, I’m not going to celebrate her for this, as some folks are doing. Acting like she’s some bold “liberated” woman because she had the “courage” to bare her breasts at a public event. It does seem a bit inappropriate for a classy awards show to me, but apparently no one at the CFDA had a problem with it, so I don’t care. However, one of my friends who posted about it on Facebook wrote about some blogger specifically for saying Rihanna’s dress wasn’t “classy.” Apparently, that’s a bad thing to say. This writer, who was Black, was accused of playing “respectability politics”.

This is a phrase I’ve been hearing a lot recently from various Black people online. When I criticize negative behavior and dress, I’M the bad guy. Just yesterday as I was driving home, I saw it again. A Black guy walking down the street in a pair of sweat-shorts with the back all the way down past his ass, exposing it to the world, but I’m not supposed to criticize him for that. If I say anything bad about it, or draw any negative conclusions about him based on how he’s dressed, then I’M the one who has the problem. If I suggest that he shouldn’t be walking around in public with ass exposed, because it will probably effect how people perceive him, then I’M just playing “respectability politics.”

Frankly, it baffles me how this has become a thing. Earlier this year a group of young Black male students put together a video of themselves wearing suits and ties, in order to show a different image of young Black males, and the video went viral.

I saw the video and I thought, hey that’s pretty cool. What a nice-looking group of fine young men. No, I don’t think teenagers should HAVE to wear suits all the time just to not be harassed, but I still thought it was good that wanted to present themselves this way. We should be encouraging this type of mentality in our Black youth. But instead I saw many blogs and articles like
What’s With the Fixation on Putting Black Boys in Ties? which practically acted like these young men were making things WORSE by dressing up. I swear, it’s like I’m in the Bizarro World, where sagging pants are above reproach, but a suit and tie gets attacked. I just don’t get it.

I saw one woman on Facebook raging about this, decrying respectability politics, and “misguided negros,” saying things like “get it through your head, it’s your SKIN that they (White racists) hate, not your clothes.” And even bringing up the tired argument of how Martin Luther King Jr. wore a suit and tie, and they still killed him.

Yes, that’s true about MLK Jr. But he DID wear a suit and tie when in public, didn’t he? So did the other leaders and organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, including Malcolm X.

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Would these two men have made such a historical impact if they didn’t dress up? If they didn’t care how they presented themselves in public? If they just walked around wearing whatever the casual style of the times were? Picture them bell-bottom jeans, and tie-dye shirts. Would anyone listen to their speeches? Malcolm frequently urged his followers to clean themselves up, not just on the inside but on the outside. The NOI would take recruits straight out of prison, and clean them up. To present an image of morality and decency.

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Even the young children.

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Were they just playing “respectability politics” too?

And that goes double of King and his followers. Whether it was participating in an organized march or a sit-in at a segregated diner, the leaders made sure they looked and acted their best.

mlk-1965-selma-montgomery-march

Heck, you want to talk about respectability politics, look at the story of Claudette Colvin, the 15 year old unmarried pregnant Black girl who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a White woman in Alabama. The local Civil Rights leaders felt she didn’t have the right background to be their national symbol against segregation (this was back in the day when being a teen mom was considered disgraceful, not something that could get you your own reality TV show), which is why nine months later Rosa Parks, who was more presentable) was chosen to purposely get on the bus and get arrested, so they would have an excuse to organize a boycott of the buses.

And it’s not just them. W.E.B. Du Bois said that the negro race would be save by it’s “exceptional men.” Booker T. Washington urged Blacks to focus on education and learning a trade, starting businesses. Marcus Garvey organized parades with Blacks dressing in fake military outfits in order too look like the army he wanted to build.

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The point is that none of these leaders thought that “respectability” was a bad word. So can we stop acting like it is now?

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