Beth Collier shares psychotherapeutic perspectives on the harm of Respectability and why it’s time to welcome a new era of Assertiveness
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.
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Beth Collier is a Psychotherapist and Anthropologist with a research background in human rights and emotional health. She writes about nature, traditional knowledge systems, emotional health and race. She provides training in Nature-based Psychotherapy through the Nature Therapy School. Beth’s website is bethcollier.co.uk
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