Beth Collier shares psychotherapeutic perspectives on the harm of Respectability and why it’s time to welcome a new era of 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 if 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.
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.
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.
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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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