Respectability Politics: Act Like The System So That The System Will Listen?
“In the 21st century, respectability is fast shaping up to be the New Closet.” — Mark Simpson, The Guardian
“So what exactly are respectability politics? In short, they are an undefined yet understood set of ideas about how Black people should live positively and how we should define Black American culture. Ironically, they’re usually a huge hindrance to both.” — Maurice E Dolberry, A Line In The Sand
”The twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism.” — Fredrick C. Harris, Dissent
“The goal of respectability politics may be noble, but the execution is flawed, damaging, and ineffective. By indulging in respectability politics, we acquiesce to the racially biased idea that the actions of individual black people are representative of the whole. We add to the pre-existing burdens of racism and sexism. And we fail to solve our problem, because we move the responsibility for eradicating race and gender biases from the powerful institutions and systems that perpetrate them to those oppressed by them. It is easier to try to control the oppressed than challenge the oppressor, but it is rarely a humane or useful approach.” — Tamara Winfrey Harris, Bitch Magazine
If you participate in contemporary Paganism, chances are, you might have also participated in respectability politics: I know that I have. I’ve endorsed the traditional party line on how to engage with the press (sharp suit, conservatively groomed, approved talking points), applauded efforts that made us more relatable to the Christian majority, and even volunteered for outreach “opportunities” I didn’t want to do for fear of who might fill the void left by my refusal. The underlying message being that if we do this work outsiders will, if not embrace us, then at least tolerate us, if we seem to be like them.
I am here to say that I was wrong in my self-perceived sensible moderateness.
A Brief History of Respectability Politics:
Before we begin, I want to clearly state that I cannot, and will not, sit in judgment of the very real, and continuing, struggles within the movements I’m about to describe, and the subsequent movements they spawned. Tactics are something to be debated and decided WITHIN a movement, not by those outside it, whether they count themselves as allies or not. I present these historical examples only as historical context and preamble to discuss this phenomenon within a religious movement I am unquestionably a part of, because I think the parallels to be found are instructive.
The politics of respectability, a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, is a tactic of performing compatibility, one of self-policing by oppressed and marginalized communities to gain advancement and acceptance within whatever the dominant culture or system may be. The roots of this tactic can be found as early as the age of empires in the ancient world, and throughout the colonial periods. In our modern era, respectability politics has often been referenced in the media when discussing ways some Black Americans have responded to white supremacy in the United States.
During slavery, and in post-slavery America, Black people have talked about feeling intense societal, cultural, and internal pressures to act “white” in order to avoid being murdered, or to simply find work. However, Black resistance to those who preached “respectability” has always co-existed with this politics of compatibility. The complexity of this cultural dynamic within the Black community has been discussed by Black people throughout history.
“There is no rational response to a system of oppression that refutes its own logic. And if there were, respectability politics would be the least rational.” –Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation
As The Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed, it is America that is irresponsible and immoral, not the Black people living under white supremacy:
“There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.”
As other marginalized communities watched and took notes from the Civil Rights Movement’s struggles and successes in the 1950s & 60s, they too wrestled with the politics of self-policing for the purposes of presenting a “positive” image to an unconvinced or hostile (predominately white, straight, Protestant Christian) “mainstream.”
In the feminist movement, early debates over the “lavender menace” (ie lesbian feminists) within second-wave feminism gave way to sometimes intense debates about the place of transgender women within their ranks, and whether or not to ally with and support women engaged in sex work.
Gay Liberation in the 1970s was accused early on of sidelining drag queens, transgender people, and genderqueer individuals despite their important role in revitalizing the movement during and after the Stonewall Riots. Later, during the AIDS crisis, sociologist Deborah B. Gould documented how “pride” was reframed from a celebration of difference to a new ethos that delegitimized actions that could be seen as harming respectability.
“In a moment when a public health epidemic intensified gay shame and fear of social rejection, gay pride now encouraged a politics of respectability … It authorized and validated reputable activism, such as provision of services, care-taking, candlelight vigils, and tactics oriented towards the electoral realm, while delegitimizing and thereby discouraging less conventional political actions that might jeopardize gay respectability.”
As journalist Aurin Squire notes, respectability politics is “like living your life as a job interview. Forever.” It masks the violence and prejudices of the dominant culture by implying that adopting a certain behavior or manner will erase (or mitigate) entrenched inequalities. When it does not, it is then circularly blamed on the oppressed, for not being compatible enough.
Respectability and Paganism:
While modern Paganism has roots that stretch back to the 19th century (and arguably earlier depending on which tradition, practice, or faith we’re discussing), the spark that lit the modern world’s consciousness came in 1950s Britain, with the reveal of a surviving Witch-Cult by civil serviceman and amateur folklorist Gerald Gardner. Within a decade, Witchcraft, occult practices in general, and other emerging Pagan religions, were finding fertile ground in the counter-cultures of 1960s and 70s Western democracies. In this early period, what would come to be called the “Pagan community” emphasized their differences from the dominant culture, reveling in the social, moral, and theological freedoms provided by their emerging practices.
As the 1970s rolled on, in part because there was a conservative cultural and political backlash to that era’s experimental openness — and also thanks to a moral panic in the 1980s and 90s that saw hundreds of innocent people charged or jailed for illusory “occult” crimes — this slowly changed. It may also be due to the early adopters of these new Paganisms in the 1960s and 70s entering the professional workforce, leaving behind the more permissive climate of the college campus. The cumulative result was that the Witches, Druids, Heathens, and Pagans consciously and subconsciously decided that integration was the way forward.
I entered modern religious Witchcraft in 1990, and into a larger Pagan community in flux (though I scarcely understood that at the time). While many early lights of a more uncompromising, open, and free time were still around, the new ethos could best be illustrated by the stock-photo businesswoman on the cover of Scott Cunningham’s 1987 book “The Truth About Witchcraft Today.” It said to outsiders: Witchcraft is safe, wholesome, moral, and not terribly unlike the forms of religion you know and feel comfortable with.
This book came out in the heat of the “Satanic” moral panics, and I suppose one can forgive our community for being afraid. Lives were being ruined, police were being trained by “occult experts” that our symbols might point to dastardly deeds, and a new, muscular, Evangelical Christianity was riding high, ready to push back on the “sins” of a previous era. An unspoken set of rules for how to behave, an ethos of respectability, was being formed in response.
- Dress modestly when you think you might encounter the press.
- Remind people that we are not Satanists, and that we don’t harm children.
- Subcultural markers like tattoos, “extreme” hairstyles, dramatic makeup, or facial piercings, are to be frowned on.
- Sex in our faiths and our communities is to be downplayed at all times, good or bad.
- Remind people that we are doctors, soldiers, lawyers, and members of other respected professions.
- Distance yourself publicly from more flamboyant members of the community. When confronted on their existence in the press, stress that they are the exception, not the rule, to how we look, act, and behave.
- Engage with local interfaith councils to change perceptions about our faiths.
- Refer to magic as “another form of prayer,” and stress a general theism, or a nature-loving pantheism, over a more “difficult” polytheism.
- “We love nature.”
- Quietly resist intersectionality within our own struggle. Maintain a false “apolitical” don’t-rock-the-boat facade in public.
Those were messages that I saw, heard, or felt were implied throughout my years coming of age within modern Paganism. These were never carved out commandments, but they don’t have to be. Once this tactic is adopted, it is the dominant culture that calls the shots on “proper” behavior. The problem with these kind of conservative ideologies is that one can never truly be conservative enough, so long as our core nature, and the dominant system’s norms, remain unchanged.
The truth, of course, is that most people simply do not care about us, our struggles, or what we think. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but there it is. I slowly realized that all of our work to be sensible, safe-seeming, and sharp-looking has barely dented our (alternately silly and scary) image with the general public. Have we made some small in-roads in some small areas? Of course, and those are to be welcomed, but you don’t overturn centuries of oppression, propaganda, weaponized folklore, and moral panic, with a nice tie and a winning tag-line.
My turn away from respectability politics began slowly. First, I started questioning some of the accepted media taking points that had become almost like folklore in our community. Then, I started becoming more and more uncomfortable with the little white lies about what “we all believe,” which reduced our huge diversity into a group of people who really like trees … a lot. The final nail in the respectability coffin was when I realized that for all our talk about making inroads for the future, and presenting a respectable face for the purposes of gaining a place at power’s table, we had virtually no idea how to actually engage with younger people interested in our religions.
I realized that, to a certain extent, we were doing much of this to impress ourselves.
Once you free yourself from the strictures of respectability politics, you start to see how it is used as a cudgel, beating down anyone who doesn’t fit a very white Western Protestant Christian set of values of what is “normal” and “respectable.” Suddenly, you see the adopted metric of who should and shouldn’t represent us, and it doesn’t include those who participated in sex work, or those who dress too flamboyantly, or get too political. Respectability politics demands the erasure of the radical, the different, the strange, the dangerous.
Most shamefully, Pagan respectability politics ends up having us act on behalf of the dominant culture’s prejudices.
It allows us to leave our racial prejudices unexamined: Because they remain unexamined in the dominant culture. So we mimic the damaging and unthinking racial micro-aggressions when we should instead by questioning everything handed to us from their narratives and actions.
It allows us to judge indigenous and cultural traditions outside of our comfort zone, while still feeling entitled to appropriate their practices: Because the dominant culture only views indigenous peoples, and foreign cultures, from a binary of insulting contexts (noble enabler of our own journey, or part of a lawless culture to be subdued).
It allows us to marginalize transgender people: Because the deep, unequal, gender essentialism of the dominant Christian culture has seeped into everything we do, even into our radical movements.
It allows us to even ignore the future of our own communities while we wrap ever deeper into a cocoon of denial and defensiveness: Because the dominant culture has invested itself in “generation gaps” and ever-shrinking marketing niches.
As part of the Pagan community I share responsibility for this, which is why I now ask that we dismantle this unexamined phenomenon within our body politic, beginning with ourselves.
I would like to thank Crystal Blanton, Elena Rose, T. Thorn Coyle, Jonathan Korman, Anomalous Thracian, and the editors of Gods & Radicals for giving me early feedback and editorial help in the construction of this article. If this editorial succeeds, it is because of their combined wisdom and guidance.