define: respectability

respectability [n] – the state or quality of being respectable; social standing, character and reputation deserving of respect and decent treatment.

So as I mentioned in Desire, I’ve been watching my sister’s panel show The Grapevine lately. Today they released the final part of their four-episode conversation on Bill Cosby, with this episode concerning the issue of Cosby’s infamous respectability politics. I have wanted to write a piece on this issue for a while now, but have been either too busy or too motivated by other projects to truly dedicate a couple of hours to put my thoughts down on the page. Now, after having my catalyst, I can lay my thoughts bare for the world to see.

The Pound Cake speech is but one facet of Bill Cosby’s long-lasting legacy. Renowned for his comedic genius, his prolific image and his philanthropy, Bill Cosby is without a doubt an important figure in African-American culture, regardless of his political leanings or recent sexual assault allegations. After having taught an episode of the Cosby Show to a class of sixteen-year-old high school students last summer to demonstrate how African-Americans have attempted to use media to demonstrate counter-narratives of the ways which White Americans imagine our existence, I for one must acknowledge how important Bill Cosby has been towards introducing Black faces into the white spaces of American media.

That aside, I am not obligated at all, as a Black person, as a fledgling scholar of Black studies or as someone who avidly consumes and analyzes Black media, to like or even agree with Bill Cosby’s politics or messages, and the Pound Cake speech is the reason why.

Anyone who speaks about Bill Cosby’s politics will likely mention the phrase respectability politics, and this is not a false assumption, for Cosby is famous for really popularizing the concept within the framework of a “I did it; why can’t you?” mentality. Having enjoyed a prolific career as America’s lovable, token black in the 1960s, Cosby served as a more accessible alternative to actors like Sidney Poitier and comedians like Richard Pryor who were too rough around the edges for mainstream white audiences. Cosby was quite deliberate in his imagecraft and rarely deviated from a set path of easily digestible materials which made both white and black audiences laugh, often at the same time, in the same locales. These were feats which comedians like Pryor and Red Foxx in their generation and Bernie Mac and Eddie Murphy struggled to accomplish, to cross over into that white audience, because all four of those men were not interested in pandering to that white audience, in performing for that white gaze.

It is only reasonable, given Cosby’s history in Hollywood, to see that he would end up being a champion of the politics of respectability. There are still many people who agree with his ideas, although my goal for this piece is to convince those people that the very notion of respectability is dangerous. The reason for this is clear: who decides the metrics with which we determine what is and is not respectable? This is less a question, surprisingly, about race than it is about class. Bill Cosby, by the time he delivered his disgustingly classist Pound Cake speech, was a multimillionaire, enjoying a lavish estate whose walls he likely festooned with honorary doctorates from some of America’s most prestigious – and liberal – universities and colleges – mine included. His politics cannot be separated from who he was, and by looking at the 2004 Pound Cake speech, we can trace the narrative of his conscious development far into the 80s with the Cosby Show, perhaps even further. The very notion of a show like the Cosby Show seeks to address two audiences; to whites, it yearns to revise a narrative of the dilapidation of the Black family unit which dominated long before the Moyniham Report. The show’s premise is to demonstrate the existence of a Black bourgeoisie whose presence in America had been marginal, and therefore to show, in as base and clear a way possible, that it was possible for Black people to progress post-Civil Rights Movement.

To blacks, the picture is somewhat different. If we read the Pound Cake speech’s politics into the Cosby Show, we see that Cosby wants to create an environment of Black excellence and empowerment rooted in strong community values, a reverence for the family unit and an in-house understanding of the Black identity. Naturally, this drew us all in – even younger generations, who caught the tail end of the phenomenon or enjoyed the reruns which played religiously on Nick@Nite – for it was so revolutionary for a show to seek to do this. No television show had tried and succeeded to reach a Black audience and to portray Black life as anything other than an open conflict against oppression and state-sanctioned violence. In the wake of the Crack Epidemic and the War on Drugs, the show’s counter-narrative laid the foundations for so many shows which followed, and remains, and shall remain, a lynchpin in our cultural iconography.

Marlon Riggs and Ta-Nehesi Coates, speaking at different times and from different perspectives offer interesting commentaries on the ways we are to interact with the messages of the Cosby Show, especially given Cosby’s political views. The show’s agenda strives towards undoing the accepted notion of Black racial strife and struggle by presenting an alternative which mirrors so many other shows like it which were catered towards white audiences. The notion of the tightly-knit family unit, of the educated parents and their college-bound children, living in a ritzy neighborhood in New York, seeks to establish a certain narrative about Black progress through the lens of respectability. Where I grew up in New Jersey, a show like this with an all-white cast would not be worth watching, mostly because it would be understood as a typical and rather boring show with little to offer. There would be no central problem, whereas the central issue with the Cosby Show is that it is so unlike what mainstream Americans understood to be the Black experience. The mechanism behind this, however, is not so altruistic. Cosby is not interested in freeing the Black mind from the shackles which a racist and imperialist social structure ingrains from a young age, but deluding it. It seeks to teach a narrative of self-help and “accountability” which is detached from reality, a politic which favors certain models of what is deemed respectable and dignified behavior.

There are two parts to respectability which we must acknowledge. The first is meritocracy, the notion that everything is possible if we work hard enough. Meritocracy is a myth – it sounds delightful on a page, but it is not possible to enact such a thing in our world, knowing that there are always factors which privilege some and disadvantage others. Respectability politics operate with the understanding that you can succeed if you try hard enough, if you pick yourself up by the bootstraps and get a job, if you just go to college and get an education. Proponents of respectability politics believe that we are all given a certain set of options from birth and that those who have not taken an option yet simply refuse to do so. They become blind because of the exceptionalism of their experience, and project their ignorance of the world around them, in the form of darkness, onto those most in need of their support. You must help yourself.

The second part is assimilation. Assimilation is really the end goal of respectability politics, because the very notion of respectability is slippery and undefined. The metrics which we use to measure respectability are often those which are given to us by our oppressors. They are often the things we are denied through our oppression, and being denied those opportunities and privileges makes us yearn for them. We are taught through colonialism, through misogyny, through transphobia, through capitalism, that because we are bereft of something, we are incomplete. To obtain that completion, to obtain that dignity, we strive towards the possessions of those who oppress us. We buy expensive cars and big houses because these were the objects we could not afford in our youths, and therefore become the objects we acquire in order to feel as if we have become more whole. Respectability inspires a desire for self-curation and personal accountability which ultimately favors white, upper-class models because those are the models which shimmer and entice us the most. We wish to emulate white bourgeois culture in our lives, for the white people have done it (meritocracy) and we should do it, too (assimilation). Respectability politics ignore the troubling history of American race relations, offering that if we simply try harder, we can succeed at phasing into their society. When does respectability stop? When we’ve miraculously cured the social ills of absentee fathers and teen pregnancy and gang violence? Will it enter the scene of our art, preferring forms which are more easily digestible – and therefore less real – or our media, attempting to diminish the ways in which Black actors and Black directors portray their realities? Will it end when Black neighborhoods and Black-oriented television and Black -produced art are completely indistinguishable from their white counterparts? There will always be someone calling for us to go further, to remove more and more of our culture, until we metaphorically slip out of our condition and into their own.

Assimilation is imminent destruction. It is the idea that by going to college and getting a degree like a good black person I can somehow escape the fate of my condition as a Black person. It seeks to promise that a college degree or the deed to my own plot of land or a folder of stock certificates will somehow shift my form and make me into someone or something else. There is no remedy at the end of the respectability process – you can pull yourself up, go to college, get a degree, get a job and become someone but that won’t mean that your outward qualities, those which both define you and make you indistinguishable, will cease to dictate the ways the world will interact with you. As Ousmane Sembène writes in Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu : « Je préfere rester nègre car les trois millions ne pourront pas me blanchir, » I prefer to stay Black because three million [francs] won’t make me white.

 It is very easy for a man like Bill Cosby to condescend to an entire people who he claims to represent and tell them that they aren’t trying hard enough, that their ethnic culture is inherently degenerate, and that their social dilapidation is not the cause of their being oppressed both racially and economically, but because they are too stupid to help themselves.

When I talked to my sister tonight about my reaction to the episode, she remarked that there wasn’t a resolution which either of the two sides – de facto sides, really – offered. One side agreed with Cosby, saying we must be accountable for ourselves, while the other side argued that the ingrained nature of systemic oppression in the United States had created a rift between Cosby and the poor Black masses who are being condescended not only by confused white people who believe racism to have died after the Civil Rights Movement, but also from new-rich blacks like Cosby who have lost their grip of reality. This is a common dilemma I’m seeing in black intellectual circles online – what do we do, knowing how fucked up our condition is as a people?

For one, we need to move away from respectability, because the very idea of a respectable person is a colonial vestige constructed by images of white prosperity. We must turn away from crafting a united image of what Blackness is or should be and accept the fact that the Black experience, like the Asian or Latino experience, is far from monolithic. The idea of being respectable goes against the very core of our solidarity politics, seeking to develop a criterion for determining who deserves to be treated like a human being. The reverse of this is compassion, a tolerance and acceptance of people for who they are and how they choose to express their identities. We must put compassion at the center of our politics, a love and an understanding for the plights of our sisters and brothers, for it is only through love and compassion that we can have solidarity, not only within our race, but across the races as well. There is no compassion in the Pound Cake speech: only a bitterness towards the “lower economic people” not keeping up their share of the bargain which the upper-classes have made. Only love for our fellow human beings can transcend the hatred which is part and parcel to our collective oppression, that which seeks to divide, conquer and hypnotize us all.

Leave a Reply