Let’s say goodbye to Respectability and welcome Assertiveness

In a politics of Assertiveness our aim is to remove ourselves from the drama of being made to feel aggressive or that we need to be a victim – submissive and meek – to be acceptable, or needing to address a white saviour who is ‘kind enough’ to help us. Nor do we need to rescue and feel that racism is our responsibility to fix.

This article was first published in two parts by Media Diversified.

In 2016 Beyonce gave an era defining Superbowl performance that thrilled and stunned in equal measure. Referencing the Black Panther movement and declaring her love of black traits and characteristics, it was a voice rarely heard in mainstream cultural spaces. It was unapologetic, and its power reverberated. This beautiful demonstration of black excellence propelled black Assertiveness into global conversation.

With Maxine Waters ‘reclaiming my time’, King Johnson asserting ‘I want you to not teach me lies’, Shuri demanding ‘don’t scare me like that, coloniser,’ Issa Rae ‘rooting for everyone black’ and Stormzy calling out ‘where’s the money for Grenfell,’ black Assertiveness is stepping into the mainstream of conversation and culture, rather than remaining protected from white audiences in black communities and cultural hubs.

And no wonder we have protected our assertiveness, whiteness often interprets it as a threat and attacks it. Enigmatic leaders of colour who have lived a politics of Assertiveness have been sabotaged, brought down or murdered. And we have experienced the same in our struggle to be leaders of our own lives. Physically, emotionally and politically, it has historically felt safer to only share this voice amongst ourselves.

Respectability has long been the currency of being heard within the mainstream, but in recent years and months a momentum has seen Assertiveness, the unapologetic expression of black perspectives, needs and wants, break through and challenge the passivity that Respectability demands. This has seen us speak to each other, and anyone who would like to listen, in the same way we do within communities, without. This doesn’t come without kick back. Black Assertiveness is vilified as aggressive and divisive. This angry response has kept us silent for a long time, if we speak up and stand at our full height we’re considered aggressive and further punished through discrimination, offering us a lose-lose status quo.

Respectability undermines assertiveness

Although first described as a concept by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in 2001, Respectability has long been a strategy for black people to mediate white aggression and in navigating space in oppressive environments, by ‘speaking so that we can be heard’ in conversations with white people about race. Often by absorbing a projected shame and disowning characteristics considered undesirable and at odds with the white mainstream’s assertions about what is ‘respectable.’ Here ‘respectable’ translates as ‘that which won’t shake white people’s sense of power or prevent white perspectives from dominating.’

In an economy of respectability, we are valued in line with how much we are like or agree with the white mainstream. Respectability is a system of internalised racism requiring self censoring, it sets parameters which marshal how we as black people express ourselves, particularly on issues of race. It requires us to temper, dampen, tiptoe, be submissive and grateful. Respectability undermines Assertiveness.

White framing and the denial of black perspectives

Respectability is always a white perspective. It is a framework guiding black people in how to be ‘worthy’ of being listened to by white people; a perspective which is then internalised by people of colour who use it to regulate their own behaviour.

Respectability politics demands that you explain black perspectives with a white voice. Speaking with a ‘white sensibility’ which requires the speaker to understand and speak from the frame of white perspectives. This further dilutes black perspectives and allows white people to not have to engage with black world views.

‘Speaking to be heard’ prioritises the needs of the listener over the speaker. This requires additional effort and energy from people of colour as the onus is placed on us to filter, censor and translate our expression. And it is tiring. Respectability puts the focus on the behaviour of the speaker rather than the behaviour of the listener. As an ideology Respectability isn’t concerned with how white people respond to us. There is no focus on whether white people are able to listen respectfully. It doesn’t question eyes being rolled, backs being turned, stories being denied – but rather whether, as black speakers, our words are too harsh, our volume too loud, or our tone too confrontational.

The pursuit of respectability and speaking to be heard is to give your power away. You step into a social contract which says ‘you will only be respected you if you do these things’, allowing whiteness to set the frame of how things are said and heard – continuing the legacy of the control and manipulation of black expression. Respectability politics is yet another metamorphosis of the colonising of minds.

Sadly, I still encounter demands for Respectability within work arenas, even more sadly by people of colour in leadership positions claiming to represent black people. These individuals have gained status by being a gatekeeper ally to the white perspective – making recommendations of who in the community to speak to, gaining kudos as a mediator, filtering out ‘trouble makers’ and presenting positive, uncritical views.

Respectability politics and the drama triangle

Respectability politics reinforces the idea of black inferiority, needing to speak up to a white authority, rather than being an equal, speaking with white people. Rendering black people a child to a white adult. An adult that can either rescue or persecute, but will not greet the black person as having equal agency. We are victimised. There is a refusal to engage with our assertiveness.

The drama triangle is a psychotherapeutic model conceived by Stephen Karpman, in the field of transactional analysis. It describes dynamics in relationships and roles we may play with different people at different times in our lives. The triangle is composed of Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor, depicted at each angle. In my formulation, the ideal is to be none of these, it is to be an Assertive Adult outside of the triangle. However each of the dramatic roles is invested in the triangulate dynamics and will try and pull assertive people back in. A rescuer needs a victim to feel good about themselves and will create one if necessary by undermining others, a persecutor needs a victim to feel powerful, a victim needs a rescuer to avoid a sense of their own agency, responsibility and power. They experience safety in this position because it is action and assertion which provokes attacks from the persecutor or the rescuer. Passivity appeases them both. Often people are drilled into being victims, then, as a familiar place, it begins to feel safe to be there, as threats and challenges only occur when you try and step out of the victim position. Both the Persecutor and Rescuer undermine the Victim to remove themselves from their own feelings of vulnerability. An assertive person is seen as a threat by people invested in roles within the drama triangle because they have the power to expose the game, rather than play it. This would challenge those occupying these roles to confront their motivations and actions, rather than avoid them. Whiteness creates blackness as victimised through control by patronisation or aggression. The white saviour is a rescuer. They need us to be a victim so that they can enjoy an identity of helping us. White supremacists are persecutors. They need us to be a victim that feels scared so that they can feel powerful. If we remove ourselves from the triangle by being assertive, they can struggle to define themselves as their identity feeds off our victimhood, which is why our assertiveness makes them angry.

Consider ‘white tears’ and how this dynamic dances around the triangle. When called out as being racist White Tears claim that we are persecuting them and that they are a victim, making us feel we need to rescue them by backing off. We are rarely permitted to rescue white people, unable to accept our Assertiveness, they default to a drama triangle position in which listening to us feels too much like being rescued, and comparatively disempowering. The request that we rescue them is only allowed with ‘white tears’ as it is an evasion strategy. ‘White tears’ is the passive aggressive position of a perpetrator masquerading as a victim.

In a politics of Assertiveness our aim is to remove ourselves from the drama of being made to feel aggressive or that we need to be a victim – submissive and meek – to be acceptable, or needing to address a white saviour who is ‘kind enough’ to help us. Nor do we need to rescue and feel that racism is our responsibility to fix.

Respectability as a coping mechanism

Respectability, as a strategy to deal with an oppressive relationship with whiteness, is a coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms indicate that there is something to be coped with, a difficulty, a trauma, a survival situation that we are responding to. We will all be at different stages of dealing with the traumas of racism and its destructive legacies within family function, wealth conditions and health.

Trauma and recovery

During our journey of recovery from trauma our ways of coping may evolve and should be reviewed as our circumstances and needs change. We will all travel at different depths, times and paces. Respectability may feel appropriate to where some people are in life. Some may not yet feel ready to let go of Respectability as something that has enabled them to feel safe thus far, where they know what the rules are and the access it can give.

However, Respectability as a coping mechanism holds us back from activating Assertiveness. And there is a collective conscious of black people ready, for whom Respectability is outmoded. Just as with all outmoded coping mechanisms, we should acknowledge the value it once had to us, and how it helped us find a way of existing. It was perhaps the best we could do with the resources (emotional, financial, political) we had at the time. But we now have different powers and opportunities and what once helped to make us feel safe is now holding us back.

We can emerge from this submissive, tentative position and walk tall in our Assertiveness.

Assertiveness is about self–respectability. Rather than acting and speaking in a way that others find respectable. It is unapologetic, not trying to appeal or appease. I said what I said. It is speaking to offer a black perspective without the need to apologise, offer caveats or feel ashamed. It is operating from a place of self respect, self confidence and knowing our self worth. It is a place of self actualisation, knowing we’ve arrived rather than asking to be let in.

Assertiveness is maintaining the matter of fact confidence that we can have within a black group when we’re speaking with white groups. Not downplaying just speaking our truth, assertively.

It’s about knowing we’re good enough without asking for approval. Knowing we’re entitled to be in a space and are not asking permission to be there. In which we allow ourselves to experience all of our emotions, and if we’re angry, knowing it’s because we have reason to be – we’ve been hurt or wronged, not because we’re irrational and aggressive.

Assertiveness is refusing to be made to feel we are to blame for the ‘disruption’ caused by naming racist dynamics and knowing we are not radical for doing so. Radical is only defined in relation to how different a view is to the white mainstream norm. If that norm is distorted and sadistic, being radical loses it’s meaning as a pejorative.

Assertiveness redefines the problem in racial politics, putting more onus on white people. Restating that the problem isn’t us. The problem is white people’s racism; it is not about us and what we do, our character or nature. It’s about what white people do, their character, their nature. And the focus should be on this, rather than on us contemplating what we did to deserve it – this is a distraction. It is a component of narcissism to make the victim blame themselves and become preoccupied with what they did which brought about the issue of concern. We can’t solve racism because we didn’t create it. What we can do is speak assertively about it, making it real, giving white people the opportunity to reflect on why they do it. We have to sit with the challenge that we cannot make the horse drink, and that narcissists rarely want to unpick their own defence mechanisms – the pain is too much. White people can feel destabilised when asked to look at why they are racist.

Black Lives Matters was formed to challenge the ultimate aggression of Respectability, that if you do not conform there is justification in your life being taken. BLM demands that black lives have value regardless of an individual’s narrative, challenging the notion that empathy and respect for life are only for those who show themselves to be ‘worthy’ through Respectable behaviour. That a black man sold cigarettes illegally is no justification for police to murder him.

Jordan Peele’s masterpiece, Get Out confidently tells the story of Whiteness as psychopathy, exposing the violence of jealousy, manipulation and control from a black perspective, a perspective white audiences may be oblivious exists. An articulation that speaks directly to so many of us, about dynamics that we’ve experienced for so long, but that respectability demanded we never mention.

Black Panther, a long awaited film that even the notion of lifted so many black people and has unleashed feelings of joyous celebration, elevation and pride. We’ve delighted in finally seeing ourselves and our strengths on screen, so beautifully done and marvelling that, this is what white people feel like all the time; assertive.

In his school journal nine year old King Johnson eloquently expressed an assertive black perspective in reference to his white teacher’s racialised history lesson,

“Today was not a good learning day. Blah blah blah I only wanted to hear you not talking. You said something wrong and I can’t listen when I hear lies. My mom said that the only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace. Because Columbus didn’t find our country the Indians did. I like to have Columbus day off but I want you to not teach me lies. That is all. My question for the day is how can white people teach black history?”

His teachers’ response: “King I am very disappointed in your Journal today.”

Kings response: “OK”

In a journal, which is a place for him to reflect on his thoughts and feelings, he’s being asked to filter his inner world to meet the expectations of Whiteness. Rather than his teacher reflecting on what the experience was like for King to have to listen to racist information from someone charged with his education, King is castigated for not prioritising the feelings of his white teacher above his own. This is the root of Respectability politics. The demonisation of Assertiveness at the expense of black people’s perspectives in favour of white people’s perspectives. Some online commentators were uncomfortable with the way a child is speaking to an adult, but with what voice should a child use to challenge racism and why is he put in a situation where he has to? If a teacher is bold enough to be racist in front of a child, that child should be allowed to be bold enough to challenge them. The critics were calling for King to engage in Respectability.

King’s response to his teachers ‘disappointment’ was golden, answering with a nonchalant, ‘OK.’

In response to his post going viral King said:

“Some things that I may not feel comfortable saying I can now say with more courage and to know that I will be supported…All the compliments gave me a lot more courage.”

We have a lot to learn from King, finding the strength to say what we perceive, without feeling the need to kowtow and take responsibility for other’s feelings – when they are in a position of power. And the power we create in supporting each other in being assertive. Thank goodness he had the confidence to speak as he found it rather than to ‘speak so that he can be heard’. And let’s pray this confidence doesn’t get eroded as life and encounters with White Tears, superiority, aggression and obliviousness can do to us.

Public expression of black Assertiveness has been greatly facilitated by the internet and it’s many platforms for publishing and voice. We are less dependent on a gatekeeping white editor to give space to our story, we have spaces for our stories shelved by commissioning editors who feel that ‘white audiences aren’t ready for that story’ in response to any script not focused on crime, drugs and deprivation. The expansion of black media, facilitating international conversations, mean that social and thought leaders emerge organically, rather than through being hand picked for elevation by white editors – and with it the pressure for black leaders to speak in such a way that white editors may pick them to tell a story about blackness. As a chorus these assertive voices are supporting, inspiring and influencing. Appropriation of our cultural contributions is still rife but it is harder for them to go unchallenged.

White discomfort

One reason that some white people struggle with talking with black people about race is that they experience a shift in the power whiteness creates by stifling and ignoring the reality of racism. As black people, we’re honest that racism affects us and we want to talk about the issues. To feel safer and freer we have conversations about racism amongst ourselves and through our discussion and reflection have progressed to high levels of social understanding and analysis, whereas white people have thus far tended to avoid such conversation or reflection (other than in the context of black people having problems) not seeing it as relevant to them and consequently being less aware of the range of perspectives and remaining at a lower level of social education about race. When white people do engage with black people about race they can find themselves having less knowledge and insight about the issues, which shifts the power dynamics that they’re used to. With black Assertiveness actualising with a strong voice within the mainstream, many white people are fearful and angry about there being black perspectives which contradict or upset their own.

We are not responsible for white discomfort in speaking about race. There is a tension in talking about race; what some white people don’t realise is the tension they feel when it is spoken about, is the tension we feel when it is not spoken about. Trying to minimise white discomfort through avoidance and silence just passes it back to us. This tension is the legacy of slavery, empire and colonialism, which all have a cultural continuum through a socially pervasive ideology of white superiority and control. There is no reason why black people should be the only ones to have to shoulder the burden of the aftermath of whiteness’s empires. White people often dismiss black anger at slavery and colonial legacies with ‘it was years ago, get over it’. They can say this because they avoid having to engage with the emotional legacy, detaching themselves from the reality of its continuation. White people have the privilege of being able to walk away from the tension if they want to, and ensure that it stays with us by stigmatising black people for raising the issues, having the effect of guilting us into silence.

Unconscious bias

In talking about race we need to take care that ‘unconscious bias’ doesn’t become a new manifestation of Respectability politics. Intended to be a neutral, unjudgemental term, it softens the reality that someone is racist, making the fact more palatable to the person who is racist. It also assumes the prejudices are unconscious, letting people who are consciously racist off the hook somewhat.

Challenges to being assertive

Assertiveness means that black people are in a position of leadership, not just followers and this too can make white people feel uncomfortable. We’re asserting ourselves as knowledge holders, opinion havers. White people have developed many strategies for undermining black Assertiveness and not having to engage, by ignoring, denying, excluding, appropriating, infantilising, stigmatising and using physical, psychological and verbal aggression and hostility. The biggest suppressive trick is to redefine our assertiveness as aggression. This violence makes it challenging to maintain Assertiveness. Respectability starts to look like an attractive retreat, a place of refuge, which keeps your head below the parapet. There are still so many arenas where our presence is seen as political, whether we like it or not. Which brings to a head the tension between the demands made to be respectable over the desire to be assertive. In reality we might manage our safety through a mixture of coping mechanisms, as our resources allow. Where resources allow, Assertiveness can help us live rather than cope and survive.

I’m not suggesting that a politics of Assertiveness is new, but it is no longer an under-current of consciousness, it is flowing in the main stream. We have reached a level of collective reparation, where a significant number of black people have got to a healing stage whereby we are ready to step into our assertiveness without fear, guilt or shame and we have the power and resources to keep a breathing space and hold off resistance. And as a collective consciousness this reverberates and builds and nourishes. It is the power of a group of self actualised individuals with shared perspectives. Assertiveness isn’t an instant solution to transcending the violence of racism, but it is the way. Let’s stop asking each other to undermine ourselves by being Respectable.