At an artist friend’s party a few springs ago a woman with white hair asked me what kind of work I made. I told her about the Open Letters to the Men of Craigslist project. I told her how excited I was about it. I told her that it was important to me that experiences I’d had, even strange or stigmatizing ones, were not treated as so taboo that I couldn’t claim them. As we sipped white wine in a beautiful loft, she informed me of how her son had traveled to Mexico only to run into one of his neighbors in the hot tub. I said, “How nice.” She said that that was an example of how small the world was, that anything you said to anyone might get out to everyone. I smiled, acting respectable, and told her I’d just remembered I needed to check my email. I was still playing to respectability, practicing the art of the polite insult.
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” – Audre Lorde
Respectability is a tool of those in power.
To strive for respectability suggests there are those who are not respectable, who deserve the manifold injustices they get.
To strive for respectability is to strive to exclude oneself from the disrespect the group as a whole gets. It’s a tactical error that suggests the group as a whole is deserving of disrespect. What it sounds like: “Yes, I am one of them, but I am not like them, so yes, treat me like one of yourselves, as I am more like you than them, my traits that make me like them are incidental because I am willing to disavow them.
Liberation says all are worthy of respect, even someone with the most stigmatized qualities or behaviors.
I’ve written about this in different ways before:
- This essay, Living with bipolar disorder, she wonders about picking sides
- This post Black or Nude Pantyhose Or The Costs of Being a Reliable Narrator